A memorial stands a few miles from Drake, Colorado, marking the deadliest natural disaster in Colorado history. It is a reminder of the 144 lives lost and the 5 people who were never found.
On July 31, 1976, more than 3,000 people were camping or living in the Big Thompson River Canyon. That day, a year’s worth of rain fell in a matter of hours from clouds stalled above Estes Park.
Caught unaware after the dam broke, people were swept down the canyon by the wall of water, along with buildings, cars, trees, rocks, and debris. In addition to the 144 killed, more than 250 adults and children reported injuries. Five people, ages 2 to 61, were never found. Two officers were killed trying to help people escape the deluge. Towns along the canyon highway were destroyed, as was the highway itself, making rescue by horse or vehicle nearly impossible.
Afterward, bodies were found buried in debris and muck for miles past the canyon’s edge in Loveland. Recovery operations took several days. Body bags were housed in the old Loveland hospital and refrigerated trucks in its parking lot.
North Range Behavioral Health—then Weld Mental Health Center—was called upon to help. It was not the first time our staff helped with disaster response, nor will it be the last. But employees of that time remember it as one of the most horrific experiences of their lives.
D. Rea Scudder, a manager at the time, provided this description of the planning and work done by North Range staff. “On Monday, August 1, 1976, a meeting was held with all Center employees to explain the situation, how we would utilize the disaster team, and staff people at the Center to take emergency calls. Teams were organized to go to the old Loveland hospital where they had set up a morgue for the numerous bodies recovered from the flooded area. Our job was to work with the families searching for their missing relatives. They were asked to bring in pictures of their loved one to give to the Weld Mental Health Center staff. The staff would take the pictures into the area where the bodies were and attempt to make an identification. At the beginning and end of each day, the staff would meet to debrief around their own feelings of sadness, frustration, and the nightmares they were having. This catharsis helped us get through this very stressful time.”
Another employee, Randy Stith, remembers that he and his wife and fellow staff member Harriet Hall were camping near the flood but had enough warning to get to high ground. They got back to Greeley 48 hours later to learn they were on the missing list, but then they got to work. Shaking his head in wonder, he recalls that more staff volunteered than were needed. Staff helped not only those who had lost loved ones, but also first responders and those doing the awful and thankless job of cleanup.
“Nothing had ever happened like the Big Thompson flood. We really didn’t have experience with that kind of response—none of us did, including law enforcement. We all learned together. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do and many of our staff were terribly affected by the experience.”
One of the best ways humans can adapt to trauma and grief is to lean on others who share that experience. The Center held groups for grieving and affected children and family members for several weeks after the flood, and staff depended on each other to help them process the horror.
Those who respond during the early days of a disaster are required to put their own emotions aside. It is sadly part of the job description of helpers -- the helpers that Fred Rogers’ mother said we all must “look for” when bad things happen.
“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
– Fred Rogers’ mother’s advice to her son
Floods are known to be one of the most traumatic natural disasters one can experience. There is often little warning as to their danger, and they leave ugly, costly reminders of the pain and loss long after. When we pass that marker on the canyon highway, let us remember the ones we lost that tragic day, as well as all of those helpers who shared the best part of themselves.
“The normal flow of the Big Thompson River at Drake is 125 cubic feet per second (CFS). On July 31, 1976, the water flow leaped to an astounding 30,100 CFS. In the canyon just below Drake, the Big Thompson usually averaged only 3 feet deep. On that day, it reached 20 feet.” Greeley Man Recalls Horrible Night, Mike Peters, Greeley Tribune, July 27, 2006
Greeley Man Recalls Horrible Night, Mike Peters, Greeley Tribune, July 27, 2006.
NBC Nightly News
1976: Deadly Big Thompson Flood devastates Colorado
Learn more about North Range’s legacy of helping when it counts in our commemorative anniversary magazine, 50 Years of Feeling Golden: A Story of Community Resilience and Hope 1971-2021
History of Weld Mental Health Center,1997, George Hypes, MSW.
Randy Stith, Weld Mental Health Center (1971-1978), CEO, Aurora Mental Health Center, Retired.
Greeley Tribune Greeley Man Recalls Horrible Night, July 27, 2006.