Estes Park, CO Dam Collapse and Flood, July 1982

Estes Park, Colorado, Flood July 15, 1982. Looking downstream at the east end of Estes Park during the peak flow of the flood which was caused by failures of Lawn Lake Dam and Cascade Lake Dam. Photo by Z. Bleuins, Bureau of Reclamation, July 15, 1982.


ESTES PARK, Colo. (AP) – Four campers were feared dead today after an 80-year-old dam that was overdue for inspection collapsed, sending a wall of water surging through town Thursday.
Shopkeepers scraped away mud and the National Guard was called out to prevent looting after an earthen dam collapsed.
A search for the missing campers was to resume today, but Rocky Mountain National Park spokesman GLEN KAYE said authorities believed all four were dead.
He said three of the missing – BRIDGET DORIS of Arlington, Texas, TERRY W. COATES of Peoria, Ill., and another person who was not identified – were camping at the Aspenglen campground. The fourth, STEVEN SEE of Hilbert, Wis., was at a back-country campsite, Kaye said.
The 80-year-old dam, 11 miles west of the city in the national park, ruptured just after dawn Thursday. Muddy brown floodwaters up to 30 feet high surged out of Lawn Lake down the Roaring River into the Fall River.
The flood sent five to seven feet of water down Estes Park’s main street, Elkhorn Avenue, knocking down street signs, breaking windows, and shifting vehicles, while leaving behind up to three feet of mud.
Snowplows and bulldozers were called in to clean up and workers hauled away debris. City officials estimated damage to businesses could reach $15 million.
Lt. Gov. NANCY DICK ordered 55 National Guardsmen into town to help police. Mrs. Dick, acting in the absence of Gov. RICHARD LAMM, who was in Washington, said she was told there was “some evidence of looting,” but local officials said they had no confirmed reports of such trouble.
Estes Park, 60 miles northwest of Denver, has a winter population of 6,000 which swells to about 40,000 in summer. It is at the main entrance of the park at the head of the Big Thompson River, which overflowed in 1976 and killed 139 people in a flash flood caused by heavy rain.
In Denver, HAL SIMPSON of the State Engineer’s Office said the cause of the collapse had not yet been determined, but engineers had been sent to the dam site.
He said Lawn Lake was a “moderate hazard dam,” meriting inspection every other year. A leak in the 500-foot-long dam was found in 1977, and an inspector recommended in 1978 that subsequent checks be made when the lake was full or almost full to detect seepage, he said.
“We’re limited by staffing and we got behind,” Simpson said. “We planned to inspect the dam this year but it went out before we could.” The agency has seven inspectors for 2,200 dams, he said.
The reservoir, built in 1902, was “full to overflowing” before the collapse, said park spokeswoman MARY KARAKER. It has a capacity of 800-acre feet of water, enough to cover 800 acres one foot deep.
Although the flood washed out power lines, several gasoline pumps and propane tanks in a seven-block area.

The Evening Independent, St. Petersburg, Fla. – 1982-07-16