'Perfect Storm' Claims 4 Lives in Wyoming Tragedy
The rain dwindled around the Constantinides’ van around midnight Monday (July 18) as the family packed up its soggy campsite in Wyoming and prepared to drive downstream.
The most menacing clouds had passed an hour earlier.
The campground they fled never flooded.
And tragically, the biggest danger lay downstream.
When the van plunged off a roadway that had washed out early Tuesday morning, the Colorado Springs, Colo., family fell victim to a powerful weather phenomenon that evolved from a “perfect storm” over a small range of mountains in south-central Wyoming, according to the National Weather Service. Laurel Constantinides, 38, and her three daughters, Hannah, 8, Zoe, 5 and Lucia, 2, drowned as the van was swamped in Brush Creek. Alex Constantinides, 39, survived.
Such flooding is a danger for much of the Front Range, as flash floods have the potential to hit arid areas such as Colorado Springs and, at times, miles from the worst storm cells, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported.
But when the right factors slip into place, flash floods are deceptively powerful and destructive.
“We are in a very dry place,” said Bret Waters, division manager for the Colorado Springs Office of Emergency Management. “That’s why we tend to underestimate that.
“If you look at the historical floods, something that can happen again will happen again. It’s ironic but always something to be aware of and prepared for.”
Anatomy of a flood
Flash floods, such as the one that killed the four Constantinides, are most often born of these factors: heavy rains falling on saturated ground in areas with rugged topography, meteorologists said.
Downpours — such as the .75-1.25 inches that fell in Wyoming that night — are what forecasters look for first when watching for flash floods.
But when rain falls on saturated ground, it has nowhere to go but downhill — and fast, meteorologists said.
The water flowing down Brush Creek, for example, had swelled every night due to an inch of snow in those mountains melting daily since mid-May, said Chad Hahn, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Cheyenne, Wy.
Given the right topography — as is found in Wyoming’s Snowy Mountain Range or along Pikes Peak — water can rush several miles downhill at a furious pace and with deadly force.
“A perfect storm”
The Wyoming storm became deadly because of a near perfect combination of events.
Three groups of campers and a campground host left Wyoming’s Lincoln Park Campground that night. But forest rangers gave no order to evacuate the nearby South Brush Creek Campground, where the Constantinides were staying, said Aaron Voos, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman. The campground host and two groups of campers stayed put that night, while another two groups moved to higher ground.
Only the Constantinides and one other group of campers left.
When they did, the Constantinides family encountered a creek that had rarely surged with such force.
The rain started falling around 7 p.m. Monday, hitting hardest between 10:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. before dwindling away around 1 a.m. Tuesday, meteorologists said.
The rain moved northeast, passing over Wyoming 130 and the campsite before moving up Brush Creek and the Snowy Mountain Range, said Gerry Claycomb, a meteorologist in Cheyenne.
The further uphill the storm pushed, the more snow it melted — causing the water to rush downhill at near record levels.
At noon on Monday, the creek flowed at 361 cubic feet per second, Voos said.
Twelve hours later — just as emergency workers began advising residents of a possible flash flood — the creek measured 1,080 cfs.
The highest it had ever been was 1,230 cfs, Voos said.
The force tore through the drainage basin, picking up bushes and entire trees along the way and clogging the 76-foot-long culvert running beneath Wyoming 130.
With the water unable to escape, it pooled around the opening of the 18-foot-wide and 8-foot-high semi-circular culvert, eroding the five feet of gravel mixture beneath the road and causing it to collapse.
Unseen, the problem brewed for hours, said Bruce Burrows, Wyoming Department of Transportation spokesman. In fact, volunteer firefighters helping to alert people about the flooding had driven over the highway culvert about an hour before the roadway collapsed.
But once the first piece of asphalt crumbled away, it likely took only minutes for the rest of the road to follow.
“The thing was that the pipe got plugged up and we got the heavy rain and the snowmelt,” Claycomb said. “They all combined into a perfect storm up there.”