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A flood out of Williams Canyon claims three homes in Manitou Springs

'We just got washed up'



Sometimes, you hope against hope that you're wrong.

Such was the case with last week's cover story, "Prey for rain," in which the Independent profiled home and business owners directly in the path of flooding from the Waldo Canyon burn scar. All the science said these folks were in trouble, and that's why we sought them out.

But I was still disappointed when George Davis rang me on Monday afternoon, following a heavy downpour.

"We just got washed up," he said, his breath heavy.

The small castle owned by George and his partner, Kristen Johnson, sits in the mouth of Williams Canyon. After the rainstorm, black water came rushing off the burn-scarred mountain, funneling into Williams, carrying mud, rocks and debris. George and Kris' vehicles moved downstream a bit, and crashed into their fence. The dirt road outside their house became a streambed. Mud began oozing under the gate and into their yard, coming up to their doorstep.

Huddled upstairs with their terrified Shih Tzus, George and Kris watched the water pass, hoping it wouldn't rise farther.

Just below them, Farley McDonough was watching the dark water of Fountain Creek rise, shooting mud and debris onto the patio just outside her Adam's Mountain Cafe. Staff were on their hands and knees, trying to keep the debris flow from entering the building.

Even farther downstream, in the West Colorado Avenue area known as No Man's Land, Cindy Hooton, co-owner of the Timber Lodge, watched Fountain Creek next to her rental cabins. Within minutes, the water had risen about 18 inches.

Follow the water

All three of those properties survived. Cindy came out unscathed. Farley had to dedicate time to cleaning mud and debris from her patio, with workers digging out and power-washing the whole area. Kris and George saw mild damage to their fence and a lot of mud in their yard.

"I thought it was going to take the cars," George said.

Thankfully, it didn't. However, on Tuesday morning, heavy equipment was stationed outside the couple's home, digging out rocks and mud from the clogged Williams Canyon channel, and stacking it next to the fence. Williams Canyon runs in a natural streambed until it meets an underground pipe near the castle. That pipe carries the water behind a line of homes, and back into an open channel that runs through a neighborhood before meeting Fountain Creek.

During the flood, the underground pipe overtopped, and water flowed into Kris and George's neighbors' homes. It appears that no one was hurt, but three homes were a complete loss, according to Manitou Police Chief Joe Ribeiro. Ten homes and 11 cars were damaged. Four businesses, including Adam's, suffered mild damage.

The home nearest to the castle had an SUV plowed into its garage. The one next door had mud and rocks smashed into its side. The water kept going, meeting and overflowing the open channel farther down the hill. Officials say the channel may have been big enough to hold the flow from there, if it hadn't have collided with a wooden bridge. The bridge trapped debris, forming a dam and causing water to overflow into more homes.

Colorado Springs Police Officer M.J. Thomson's home and rental properties are located along the channel. He watched the waters surround his property in water and deep black mud. "Obviously," he said, waving an arm at the destruction, "I'm not going back to work for a few days."

More to come?

Chief Ribeiro, U.S. Forest Service hydrologist Dana Butler and Mayor Marc Snyder say the biggest problem, obviously, was debris. This has always been an issue in Williams Canyon, but since the fire it's gotten much worse. The town will look at ways to better control the debris in the future.

"When it was just water everything was working as intended," Snyder says, "but as soon as it got hit with the mud and debris it was just so sticky."

The other major problem — which could have been deadly — was that the town received little to no warning from weather alerts that the storm would cause flooding. Manitou has an advanced safety plan for flash floods, but it's triggered by those alerts.

"It was just one of those situations where the storm quite literally just formed over the burn scar," Snyder says.

After flooding became obvious, the town's emergency plan functioned mostly smoothly, with emergency personnel reaching key areas. The town siren, however, malfunctioned. And gawkers were seen dangerously close to the creek.

Manitou is trying to harvest "lessons learned" from this experience as quickly as possible. As Snyder noted Tuesday morning: "We're facing more storms later on today."

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