Colorado floods triggered by convergence of geography and climate, experts say
Video: In Jamestown, Colo., roads have become impassable and hiking is now the only way in. A third of the town is gone, swallowed by the creek that divides it. NBC’s Miguel Almaguer reports.
The torrent of water that gushed over and down the Rocky Mountains late last week resulted from a fateful confluence of geography and weather. While the deluge is unprecedented in the historic record, it may offer a window onto the new normal as the planet continues to warm.
The exact role of global climate change in the deluge is uncertain, but it certainly played a part, according to climate, weather and policy experts.
As of Tuesday, more than 17 inches of rain had fallen since Sept. 12 in Boulder, Colo. The soaking, described as "biblical" by the National Weather Service, left at least eight people dead with hundreds more still missing and rendered untold millions of dollars in property damage.
Cause of the storm
"The moisture-laden air was thus moved upwards and forced" to turn to rain, "most prolifically" in the area between Interstate 25 and the Continental Divide, Martin Hoerling, a research meteorologist who studies climate variability at the administration's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, explained to NBC News in an email.
Earlier in the summer, the region is prone to North American monsoon-type rains that come when heat in the Southwest draws up moisture from the tropics and causes thunderstorm activity in Arizona, Utah and Colorado, noted Bob Henson, a meteorologist and writer with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.
But last week's rains came during what is typically Boulder's driest month and were unyielding in intensity — unlike the scattered thunderstorms of monsoon season. "What was unusual was that it lasted so long and produced heavy rain over such a large area," he told NBC News.
As the week wore on, "the moisture kept coming, and the rains kept falling, anchored geographically by the terrain," Hoerling added.
"Boulders running down rivers"
"It was like living right next to a jet engine ... you could hear the boulders running down rivers at night, which was very eerie, creepy and disturbing," Bradley Udall, an expert on the impacts of climate change on water resources at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder, told NBC News. "I couldn't go to sleep."
Udall has lived in Boulder off and on since the 1970s and not once seen anything close to the deluge of last week.
The 1976 flash flood in Big Thompson canyon between Estes Park and Loveland — a seemingly similar event which killed more than 100 people — was caused by a highly localized hovering thunderstorm that dumped more than 10 inches in four hours, he noted. The 1976 storm was over almost as quickly as it had begun, while the torrents of the past week kept up for days.
"If you would have told me a week ago that we could get 15 inches of rain here in a week, I would have laughed at you," Udall said. "There is just no analog for this type of storm for this time of year."
Days of heavy rainfall flooded Colorado mountain towns, obliterating roads and leaving many people stranded.
Climate change's fingerprint
According to Hoerling, climate change was likely responsible for "about 3 to 5 percent" of the water vapor in the fetch of tropical moisture, given that a warmer atmosphere can hold more water and published studies indicate "a few percent increase in water vapor to date."
The rest, he said, is due to atmospheric circulation patterns that appear inconsistent with models used to simulate the global climate, including those being examined for theupcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Those models project a slight decline in summertime rainfall, he said.
Video: The devastating floods have left residents living in shelters, and officials worrying about water-borne illnesses. With winter approaching, it will be a long road ahead to fix all of the bridges and roads across the state. NBC’s Kate Snow reports.
The caveat is a 2012 report from the panel that indicates heavy downpours may increase in intensity or frequency "'in the 21st century over many areas of the globe,'" Hoerling said. "It is unclear how, if at all, that assessment pertains to the Front Range, however."
According to Udall, to link the Colorado flooding to climate change is an invitation to criticism from some people in the climate science community, but "if anybody wants to tell me that climate change is not at least partially at work here, I'm going to tell them that they are (in denial)."
Determining whether the contribution is a few percent or 99 percent, he added, is beside the point and perhaps impossible with current modeling ability. That's the uncertain nature of climate science, he explained. But "some things are uncertain and scary enough that you actually do have to act."
Udall has spent much of the past decade lecturing on the threat of drought that climate change poses to the southwestern U.S. while downplaying the risk of floods, he noted. But climate models do indicate occasional high flow years on the Colorado River, which make sense given the increase in water vapor and high mountains to squeeze out the water, he said.
"What the scientists tell us is that these big flood events are probably more likely to occur in areas that are wetter, but that doesn't mean that we won't get them in these drier areas as well," he said. "It fits perfectly with the more extreme events on both sides of the drought-flood continuum."
By Keith Coffman
DENVER | Mon Sep 16, 2013 6:56pm EDT
(Reuters) - Seven people were confirmed dead and at least 1,500 homes destroyed in Colorado after a week of rare, torrential rains along the eastern slopes of the Rockies, and helicopter search-and-rescue flights resumed on Monday in flood-stricken areas.
Much of the evacuation effort was focused on remote foothill and canyon communities of Larimer and Boulder counties in north-central Colorado, where 1,000 residents remained stranded due to washed-out roads, bridges and communication lines, the county sheriff's office said.
Drizzle and patchy morning fog that had hampered airborne emergency operations lifted by afternoon, allowing National Guard helicopters to return to the skies to help ground teams find trapped flood victims and carry them to safety.
Ranchers were advised to move livestock away from rain-swollen streams as floodwaters spread further east onto the prairie, and authorities warned residents to be on the lookout for rattlesnakes that might be moving to higher ground.
Larimer and Boulder counties bore the brunt of flash floods first unleashed last week by heavy rains that started last Monday and drenched Colorado's biggest urban centers along a 130-mile stretch in the Front Range of the Rockies.
At the peak of the disaster, the heaviest deluge to hit the region in four decades, floodwaters streamed down rain-saturated mountainsides northwest of Denver and spilled through canyons funneling the runoff into populated areas below.
The flooding progressed downstream and spread onto the prairie on Friday. During the weekend, waters topped the banks of the South Platte River and inundated farmland as high water rolled eastward in the direction of Nebraska.
SAND-BAGGING RAILROAD TRACKS
State officials issued flood warnings to Nebraska residents along the South Platte. State emergency management spokeswoman Jodie Fawl said they began putting sandbags inside culverts beside a Union Pacific Railroad line in the town of Big Springs to prevent a wash-out of the tracks there.
The Colorado Office of Emergency Management issued a statement on the disaster, putting the official death toll at seven, up from five over the weekend, but a breakdown of the fatalities was not immediately available.
Separately, two women, aged 60 and 80, remained missing and presumed dead after their homes were washed away by flash flooding in the Big Thompson Canyon area, Larimer County sheriff's spokeswoman Jennifer Hillmann said. But she said local authorities were still not counting those two women as confirmed dead because their bodies had not been recovered.
Nearly 400 other people remain unaccounted for in Larimer County, with many believed to be still stranded in remote areas cut off by floodwaters and left without telephone, cell phone or Internet service, she said.
An estimated 1,500 homes have been destroyed and 4,500 more damaged in Larimer County alone, Hillmann said. In addition, 200 businesses have been lost and 500 damaged, she said, citing preliminary assessments by the county.
As the weather began to clear Sunday night and Monday, rescue workers fanned out across a flood zone encompassing an area nearly the size of Delaware.
"They'll take advantage of the weather today and help out everyone they can," said Micki Trost, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Management. "We hope that those weather forecasts stay in our favor."
The air rescue operations were the largest in the United States since flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, National Guard officials said.
Bryon Louis of the National Weather Service office in Boulder said some areas had been soaked by as much as 16 inches of rain in just three days, the average for an entire year in the semi-arid region.
President Barack Obama declared the area a major disaster over the weekend, freeing up federal funds and resources to aid state and local governments.
U.S. Army and National Guard troops have rescued 1,750 people cut off by washed-out roads in the mountain canyons of Boulder and Larimer counties, Army spokesman Major Earl Brown said in a statement.
State officials would be unable to assess the overall damage until rescue efforts were complete and the floodwaters had receded, Trost said.
The prolonged showers were caused by an atmospheric low-pressure system that stalled over Nevada and western Utah, drawing extremely moist air out of Mexico and streaming it north into the southern Rockies, meteorologists said.
The last multi-day rainfall event to spawn widespread flooding in Colorado's Front Range occurred in 1969. But a single-night deluge from a 1976 thunderstorm triggered a flash flood that killed more than 140 people in Big Thompson Canyon.
An 80-year-old woman in Colorado is missing presumed dead after her home was washed away in the deadly floods that have devastated parts of the state.
The woman, whose named hasn’t been released, is the latest victim feared dead from the week-long rains, said sheriff's spokesman John Schulz.
‘The woman was injured and couldn't get out of her house, and when neighbors went back to help her, the house was gone,’ Schulz said.
Federal disaster area: Colorado authorities have warned that the death toll is expected to rise from historic flooding in the state, the presumed total now stands at six
Volunteers pass sandbags as residents reinforce the dam on University Hill in Boulder, Colo., on Sunday
More than 1,200 people are missing in the flood zone, which has grown to cover an area covering nearly 4,500 square miles (11,655 square kilometers), nearly the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut
He said another 60-year-old woman whose home was also swept way in the same area of the Big Thompson Canyon had likely perished as well.
Four people have been confirmed dead from the flooding, but authorities warned on Sunday that they expect the death toll to rise as more than 1,200 people remain unaccounted for.
'I expect that we're going to continue to receive reports of confirmed missing and confirmed fatalities throughout the next several days,' said Schulz. The four confirmed deaths so far include Wesley Quinlan and Wiyanna Nelson, both 19, who were swept away after leaving their car Thursday in Boulder County.
A woman pets her dog, while one of her birds rests on her shoulder at the LifeBridge Church in Longmont, Colo., which is providing food and shelter for families and pets
People are directed off the tarmac at Boulder Municipal Airport after being flown down from Jamestown on a National Guard helicopter after being stranded from heavy rains in Boulder, Colorado
Another person was found in a collapsed home in Jamestown, while rescuers found another body on a roadway in Colorado Springs.
President Barack Obama declared the area a federal disaster over the weekend.
U.S. National Guard and U.S. Army troops have rescued 1,750 people cut off by washed-out roads in the mountain canyons of Boulder and Larimer counties, Army spokesman Major Earl Brown said in a statement.
Driving rain and low cloud ceilings on Sunday grounded the air resources until the weather clears, officials said.
Meanwhile, residents in the farming communities of northeastern Colorado are braced for a surge from the north-flowing South Platte River.
Morgan County Sheriff James Crone said all eight bridges spanning waterways in the county were impassable from the rising river. ‘Our county is cut in half,’ he told The Denver Post.
An aerial photo of a flood-affected area of northern Colorado along the Big Thompson River which has been declared a federal disaster area
A woman and little girl rush into LifeBridge Church to escape the new rain in Longmont, Colo., on Sunday
Water flows through an evacuated neighborhood after days of flooding in Hygeine, Colo., rain returned on Sunday creating a risk of more flooding and mudslides
A tractor is bogged down in mud and water from flooding on the South Platte River on a farm near Greeley, Colo., on Sunday as heavy rains continued
Crone said there would be significant crop damage from standing water in the corn, hay, millet and sugar beet fields that dot the agricultural county.
‘There is no way for the water to drain, so come November when it freezes, it's going to be one huge ice cube,’ he said.
Forty miles northeast in Logan County, authorities have ordered evacuations as the river crest was forecast to exceed historic levels.
Emergency Manager Bob Owens warned residents to prepare for sustained flooding over the next several days. ‘This is going to be severe,’ he said in a statement.
Early damage tallies by the Office of Emergency Management show 17,494 homes damaged and 1,502 destroyed and 11,700 people have been evacuated.
Safe: Bonnie Dannelly hugs her daughter Makayla after she got off the bus at Fireside Elementary in Louisville, on Saturday. Makayla Dannelly was one of over 80 Fireside 5th graders who were trapped above Jamestown at Camp Cal-Wood
Military Operation: A handout aerial image released by the US Army on 15 September 2013 shows 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, soldiers evacuating fifth-grade students from Firewood Elementary
Almost 100 school school children and teachers left stranded for two days by the massive flooding that hit around Boulder, Colorado were airlifted to safety on Saturday as the number of presumed dead rose to six - with over 700 more missing.
The students from Fireside Elementary School in Louisville, Colorado - around 10 miles to the southeast of Boulder - were trapped when flood-waters burst over roads at an outdoor education center in Jamestown.
The 85 fifth graders and 14 adults were lifted from the mountainside by helicopter and taken to Boulder Municipal Airport where they were loaded onto buses and reunited with their emotional parents at Fireside Elementary on Saturday evening.
'All the kids are down from the mountains and either delivered here or en route,' said Briggs Gamblin, a spokesman for the Boulder Valley School District.
Despite being trapped by the rising flood-waters, the children ate tacos with all the fixings for dinner on Friday evening and were kept occupied by a dance party.
Pulled to Safety: The 4th Combat Aviation Brigade was able to assist state and local emergency response efforts under the Immediate Response Authority
Rescued: Families cheer as a bus carrying several Fireside Elementary 5th graders who were trapped at Camp-Calwood arrive to school in Louisville, Colorado on September 14, 2013
'Last night around 5 o'clock we got a request from the National Guard for assistance,' said Major Earl Brown, deputy public affairs officer for the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson.
In total, seven helicopters, including four Blackhawks, were used to airlift the children and adults out of the area.
'We're just a part of a whole team effort to help those folks out there in Boulder County,' said Brown to NBC News.
As rain continued to fall on Sunday in Colorado, efforts to search for the missing were hampered as the National Guard grounded all helicopters in the state.
'It's unlikely at this point that we'll be able to reach those who are stranded in the hard-to-reach areas,' said Kim Kobel, a spokesperson for Boulder's Office of Emergency Management to CNN.
Governor John Hickenlooper, told CNN on Sunday morning that he hoped many of the missing were simply out of reach of communications and have 'already gotten out or are staying with friends.'
'But,' he added, 'we're still bracing. I mean, there are many, many homes that have been destroyed.'
An aerial view of mobile homes submerged in flood waters along the South Platte River near Greenley, Colorado September 14, 2013
A section of highway is washed out by flooding along the South Platte River in Weld County, Colorado near Greeley, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013
Lucky: Jon Tarkington with his daughter Evy, 1, look over a diversion dam built in the intersection of 7th Street and University Ave on University Hill in Boulder, Colorado on Saturday
Result: A farm house is surrounded by water from flooding on the South Platte River near Greeley, Colo., on Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013
Crossroads: As heavy rains return after somewhat abating for two days, a field fills with water from overflowing creeks nearby, outside Longmont, Colorado on Sunday Sept. 15, 2013
Frantic: Dean Beacom works to save his home from a flash flood near 19th Street and Upland Avenue, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013 as Steve Gabel (left) and Patrick Muir move a soaked couch out from Muir's apartment
Justin Slyter with Par Electrical Contractors looks over fallen power poles in a office complex on Arapahoe Avenue next to Eben G Fine Park in Boulder on Saturday Sept, 14, 2013
Damage: A car lies on its side in a mud slide on Saturday, Sept. 14, on Olde Stage Road in Boulder, Colo. Rescuers rushed by land and by air Saturday to evacuate Coloradoans stranded by epic mountain flooding
Swept away: A large chunk of road near Greenley, Colorado, has been demolished by the flood
Torn: Evan Russack with his son Trevor, 6, look over Pennsylvania Ave on University Hill which was cut in two by flooding on Saturday Sept, 14, 2013
Collapsed: Lefthand Canyon Road near the intersection of Olde Stage Road in Boulder, Colo., on Saturday, Sept. 14, in Boulder. Rescuers rushed by land and by air Saturday to evacuate Coloradoans stranded by epic mountain flooding
Relief: Brian Montgomery helps his mother Barbara Yanari to clean up the mud in her flooded basement on Saturday, Sept. 14, on Olde Stage Road in Boulder, Colorado
Escape: Anita and Art Powner evacuate with their dogs Zypher and Lexus on Saturday, Sept. 14, on Olde Stage Road in Boulder. Rescuers rushed by land and by air Saturday to evacuate Coloradoans stranded
Sheriff Justin Smith visited areas 'somewhat cut off from the rest of the world,' he said.
Many residents are still stranded in their homes as rescue workers try to reach them.
Rescue teams are warning people in some Colorado towns isolated by devastating flooding against remaining there, telling them that they could face weeks without basic supplies, including running water and electricity.
Helicopters and truck convoys of the National Guard carried the admonition Saturday into paralyzed canyon communities where thousands of stranded residents were eager to escape the Rocky Mountain foothills. But not everybody was willing to go. Dozens of people in hard hit Jamestown wanted to stay to watch over their homes.
Authorities made clear that residents who chose not to leave might not get another chance for a while. Rescuers won't go back for people who insist on staying, Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said.
'We're not trying to force anyone from their home. We're not trying to be forceful, but we're trying to be very factual and definitive about the consequences of their decision, and we hope that they will come down,' Pelle said.
Aerial: Photographs shows the damage and flooding to infrastructure destroyed by heavy rains, with some areas receiving as much as 18 inches in a 24-hour period, in Boulder, Colorado
Four people have been confirmed dead since the harrowing floods began Wednesday
Special education teacher Brian Shultz, 38, was torn about leaving his Jamestown home.
'I was thinking about staying. I could have lasted at least a year. I have a lot of training in wilderness survival,' he said, adding that he probably had enough beer to last the whole time.
As he sat outside a makeshift shelter at a high school, Shultz floated the idea of walking back into the funky mountain town.
'If we hike back, I would stay there and just live. I'd rather be at our own house than staying at some other people's houses,' he said.
His wife, Meagan Harrington, gave him a wry smile. About 10 of their neighbors declined to evacuate, she said.
'They said they wouldn't force you, but it was strongly encouraged,' she said.
Shultz teared up behind his sunglasses as he compared his situation to that of his neighbors.
Eroded: A handout aerial image released by the US Army on 15 September 2013 shows damage and flooding to infrastructure destroyed by heavy rains, with some areas receiving as much as 18 inches in a 24-hour period
'At least all of our stuff's there and will be there when we get back. The people right by the river, their houses were washed away. Other people thought their houses were going to be OK, and then they started to go. It's just really devastating.'
Across the foothills, rescuers made progress against the floodwaters. But they were still unable to go up many narrow canyon roads that were either underwater or washed out.
President Obama signed a disaster declaration and ordered federal aid for Colorado on Saturday. The White House said in a statement that it was making federal funding available to affected individuals in Boulder County. The government said that other counties could be added later.
The military put more troops on the ground and helicopters in the air to aid in the search-and-rescue effort.
By Saturday night, 1,750 people and 300 pets had been evacuated from Boulder and Larimer County, National Guard Lt. James Goff said.
Destroyed: Cars lie wrecked by raging flood-waters near to Boulder, Colorado after days of heavy rain in the state
Demolished: The walls of this home have been washed away on South Platte River
Wrecked: Only the roof of a Jamestown house remains after flash floods ripped through the town
Cut off: A farm house is completely surrounded by rising water
Evacuation: Residents have been told if they don't leave they risk being cut off for two weeks
An aerial view of vehicles submerged in flood waters along the South Platte River near Greenley, Colorado
Underwater: The small farming town of Milliken, CO, has been surrounded by waters that first turned it into an island, but are now inundating homes
Runaway homes: Trailer homes are floating off their foundations as rushing waters sweep them away
Not just homes: Farms and farm equipment are also being destroyed by the treacherous waters
Unprecedented: The 12 inches of rain recorded since Sept 1 has set an all-time record for the month, and even more is on the way
Sludge: Brian Montgomery wades through thick mud in the basement of his mother's home
Deserted: Residents are being taken to evacuation centers amid reports of more storms
Access: Heavy equipment is used to try to clear debris from a road covered in 20ft banks of mud
Damage: An estimated $150 million of repair work will be needed to fix roads and bridges that have been washed away
Cut off: A farm house has been turned into an island as flood water rises near Greenley, Colorado
By land: The Army National Guard has brought in heavy equipment meant to assist in the rescue of trapped residents
Or by sea: Officials are also using motorboats to help save trapped people
Shocked: Residents are shell-shocked, many have lost everything, as a result of the historic floods
Waterlogged: Cattle brave the fierce waters on higher ground as everything around them is swept away
Swamped: A railway track in Longmont is lost under floodwater
Ruined: Trailer homes have been washed away in the water
The surge: Flash-flooding continues in the Boulder-area of Colorado after three days of record-breaking rainfall
Overflowing: The heavy rains have impacted a large stretch of Colorado from Fort Collins near the northern border with Wyoming, all the way to Boulder, Denver and Colorado Springs more than 100 miles south
Geysers of sewage: A Sewer in Manitou Springs is overwhelmed by rainfall yesterday, gurgling the overflow of water
Record-breaking: Over 12 inches of rain has fallen since September 1, which shatters the previous record set in the 1940s of 5.5 inches
View from above: Satellite imaging shows the storm system that swept over the eastern Colorado area on September 11, starting flash-floods that have killed three so far
Flee: The floods have displaced thousands of human residents, but also the wildlife in Colorado. Above, a deer jumps over a sidewalk in a flood-damaged area of Boulder
'Wall of water': Around midnight, officials said they were monitoring a wall of water headed toward the area of Emerson Gulch
Churning: Boulder Creek is overflowing and threatening the city of Boulder, which it runs right through
Swept away: The 30-foot wall of water was caused when a drainage gulch burst and swept up debris and vehicles in it's path
Won't stop: Rain continued to fall in Colorado today, only adding to the already dangerous flash-flooding
Stream: Water spills over a hillside home at the base of Boulder Canyon today
Emergency situation: The National Guard has been dispatched to help rescue people stranded in their homes
Exploring: Umbrella-toting residents take pictures of the damage the flooding had on a street in Boulder on Friday
Home invasion: A couple returns to find their home Friday to find it water-damaged from the previous days floods
Survivor: So far, officials have announced three deaths related to the flooding. Above, a man is rescued by emergency workers after he spent the night trapped on high ground above his home
Battling the storm: A man in Boulder attempts to make a mud barrier to protect his house from the flooding
Boots are no use: Homeowner Hannah Hinseth returns to her home to survey the damage caused by the severe flooding
Street sweepers: Residents shovel debris to form a protective dike in a neighborhood of Boulder
Cut-off: Towns like Magnolia, above, have been completely shut off after the raging waters washed out roads
Waiting for rescue: All road access to the town of Lyons, Colorado was cut-off and National Guard troops have been dispatched to bring residents emergency supplies. Above a wiped out road near the base of Boulder Canyon
Baby's first flood: A young family take a walk on Friday to survey the damage in their Boulder neighborhood
A river runs through it: Lefthand Creek runs down a neighborhood street in Longmont, Colorado Friday
Clean-up: Today, a farmer is seen clearing debris from railroad tracks in Longmont, Colorado
Back at last: Evelyn Mortiz carries her luggage barefoot back home after spending the night with friends during the mandatory evacuation in her area
Cleaning house: Lucas Calderon-Griek uses a broom to sweep out the water from his home in Upland
Aid: Colorado National Guardsmen help relocate a family trapped at their heavily-flooded home
Record-breaking: The former record for rainfall during the month of September was 5.5 inches. That's been shattered already with the National Weather Service saying that 12.3 inches have fallen
Weather gone wild! Incredible National Geographic pictures show the awesome power of mother nature across America
Breath-taking photographs of wild weather conditions plaguing areas across the United States in 2011 have showcased the untamed hand of Mother Nature.
The apocalyptic collection of images, published in the September 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine, captures ‘rains that are almost biblical, heat waves that don't end and tornadoes that strike in savage swarms,' summing up what was a truly incredible year of extreme weather systems.
Well-placed photographer Daniel Bryant was in the Valley of the Sun in July 2011 to capture the massive dust storm that descended upon the Arizona capital of Phoenix.
The biggest dust storm in living memory rolls into Phoenix on July 5, 2011, reducing visibility to zero. Desert thunderstorms kicked up the mile-high wall of dust and sand. Photograph by Daniel Bryant
The tempest of historic proportions rolled through the city as residents scrambled for cover and thousands were left without power in the scorching desert heat.
Severe droughts in the Lone Star State were described as 'gut-kicking even by Texas standards’ and photographer Robb Kendrick depicted the devastation of the rainless region in his spectacular collection of images.
Dubbed the ‘New Dust Bowl,’ the epic dry spell was judged to be even more severe than the extreme drought of the 1950s, with Texas farmers losing an estimated $8 billion due to the lack of rain in 2011.
Gusting winds fling dirt from barren cotton fields onto Farm to Market Road 303, near a small community called Pep. Parts of West Texas saw next to no rainfall in 2011. Photograph by Robb Kendrick
Fortified by a levee, a house near Vicksburg survives a Yazoo River flood in May 2011. Snowmelt and intense rains, eight times as much rainfall as usual in parts of the Mississippi River watershed, triggered floods that caused three to four billion dollars in damages. Photograph by Scott Olson
But the wild weather conditions were not limited to dust storms and droughts.
In May 2011, melting snow and rainfall eight times the normal level caused the Mississippi River to break its banks, devastating the area and resulting in an estimated $4 billion of damage to local homes and businesses.
Photographer Scott Olson was there, capturing awe-inspiring images of the deluge from above.
For a separate National Geographic photo spread, titled 'Chasing Lightning', photographer Carsten Peter followed storm tracker Tim Samaras as he tempted fate to get as close as possible to powerful lightening bolts around the U.S.
As he waits for a wave of thunderstorms to form along Colorado's Front Range, Samaras readies the 1,600-pound camera he calls the Kahuna. Photograph by Carsten Peter
Back on the highway with the Kahuna in tow, Samaras hunts for the elusive shot. This summer he's on the chase again, with new, nimbler equipment. Photograph by Carsten Peter
Guided by the laptop weather map reflected in his window, Tim Samaras rushes to catch up to a dying thunderstorm. He hopes to be the first to photograph the split-second event that triggers a lightning strike. Photograph by Carsten Peter
Following days of record-setting rainfall and historic flooding across Colorado's Front Range, skies have cleared, and the recovery has begun. The number of people still unaccounted for has dropped to about 200, as helicopter teams are fanning out across the foothills in the largest aerial rescue operation since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Colorado authorities coping with the aftermath are now preparing possible evacuations of prairie towns in danger of being swamped as the flood crest moves downstream. Tens of thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed, a problem exacerbated by the fact that only about 1 percent of Colorado homeowners have flood insurance. The photos below show some of the events of the past few days, following up on Monday's Historic Flooding Across Colorado.
Visible results of flash floods that swamped natural gas and oil well pads and in some cases dislodged storage tanks in Weld County, Colorado, on September 17, 2013. Hundreds of natural gas and oil wells along with pipelines were shut down by the flooding, as state and federal inspectors gauge the damage and look for contamination from inundated oil fields. (AP Photo/Ecoflight, Jane Pargiter) #
A Black Hawk helicopter is flies over a canyon during a search of the area around Boulder, Colorado, on September 17, 2013.(AP Photo/Denver Post,Joe Amon) #
A crude oil storage tank lies on its side in flood water along the South Platte River, in Weld County, Colorado, on September 17, 2013.(AP Photo/John Wark) #
The sun sets over a flooded field near Crook, Colorado, on September 17, 2013. The emergency airlifts of flood victims waned Tuesday, leaving rescue crews to systematically search the nooks and crannies of the northern Colorado foothills and transportation officials to gauge what it will take to rebuild the wasted landscape. (AP Photo/Chris Schneider) #
An area damaged by flooding in northern Colorado on September 14, 2013. Colorado and Wyoming National Guard units were activated to provide assistance to people affected by massive flooding along Colorado's Front Range.(U.S. Air National Guard/Capt. Darin Overstreet) #
Chief Warrant Officer Troy Parmley, a pilot with the Delta Company, 3rd Battalion, Colorado Army National Guard, looks at floodwaters from recent rainfall while flying a UH-72 Lakota helicopter during relief and recovery operations near Fort Collins, Colorado, on September 18, 2013. Colorado Guard members have evacuated about 700 people by ground, with military aerial evacuations currently totaling 2,394.(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Jon Soucy) #
A view of a residential area destroyed by heavy rains, with some areas receiving as much as 18 inches in a 24-hour period in Boulder, Colorado, on September 14, 2013. (U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Wallace Bonner) #
A residential area flooded by heavy rains in Boulder, Colorado, on September 14, 2013. (U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Wallace Bonner) #
Robert Pandolfi of Longmont, Colorado uses a shovel to direct water in the basement of his boss' home as residents clean up in the wake of a week of heavy flooding on September 16, 2013 in Longmont, Colorado. (Marc Piscotty/Getty Images) #
Tyra Thorstad of Seattle, Washington helps family clean up in an especially hard hit neighborhood in Longmont, Colorado as residents clean up on September 16, 2013 in Longmont, Colorado. (Marc Piscotty/Getty Images) #
Alexei Schneeweisscole, 12 of Longmont, Colorado saves a frog he found inside a home as residents clean up after a week of heavy flooding, on September 16, 2013. (Marc Piscotty/Getty Images) #
Residents cleanup from historic floods in Longmont, Colorado, on September 16, 2013. Monday's clearing skies and receding waters revealed only more heartbreak: toppled houses, upended vehicles and a stinking layer of muck covering everything.(AP Photo/Chris Schneider) #
Homeowner Chris Ringdahl, right, is comforted by family friend Hillari Hansen, in front of her possessions as they clean up from the floodwaters in Longmont, Colorado, on September 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Chris Schneider) #
A building is surrounded by floodwaters in Loveland, Colorado, on September 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Chris Schneider) #
A U.S. Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter assigned to the Colorado Army National Guard lands to evacuate a resident stranded on a highway damaged by flooding in northern Colorado, on September 14, 2013. (U.S. Air National Guard/Capt. Darin Overstreet) #
Flood damage to Old Highway 34 in Loveland, Colorado, on September 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Chris Schneider) #
A home surrounded by floodwater from Left Hand Creek in Boulder, Colorado, on September 16, 2013. (Reuters/Mark Leffingwell) #
A resident's property destroyed by heavy rains, with some areas receiving as much as 18 inches in a 24-hour period in Boulder, Colorado, on September 14, 2013. (U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Wallace Bonner) #
A road damaged by flooding in northern Colorado, on September 14, 2013. (U.S. Air National Guard/Capt. Darin Overstreet) #
A rescue helicopter flies over Lyons, Colorado which was hard hit by flood waters, on September 17, 2013. Colorado authorities coping with the aftermath of last week's deadly downpours stepped up the search for victims left stranded in the foothills of the Rockies and evacuations of prairie towns in danger of being swamped as the flood crest moved downstream. (Reuters/Mark Leffingwell) #
A flooded cornfield near Crook, Colorado, on September 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Chris Schneider) #
Staff Sergeant Jose Pantoja, with the 2-4 GSAB 4th Infantry Division based in Ft. Carson, waves to people in Left Hand Canyon after they indicated their condition and that they didn't need help from a Black Hawk helicopter near Jamestown, Colorado, on September 17, 2013.(Reuters/Mark Leffingwell) #
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Jose Pantoja, a flight medic with Charlie Company, 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, carries Mike Daniels, an evacuee, up a hoist onto a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter during a flood rescue and recovery operations in Boulder, Colorado, on September 16, 2013. (U.S. Army/Sgt. Jonathan C. Thibault) #
U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Keith Bart, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crew chief with Charlie Company, 2nd General Support Aviation Battalion, carries an animal to safety during flood rescue and recovery operations in Boulder, Colorado, on September 16, 2013.(U.S. Army/Sgt. Jonathan C. Thibault) #
Flood victims are helped off of a military helicopter at the Boulder Municipal Airport, on September 16, 2013, after being rescued.(AP Photo/Ed Andrieski) #
Rows of vehicles lie flooded in Weld County, Colorado, on September 17, 2013. (Reuters/Rick Wilking) #
An aerial view shows a farm that lies flooded in Weld County, Colorado, on September 17, 2013. (Reuters/Rick Wilking) #
Rowen Roberson carries clothes from his flooded garage in Longmont, Colorado, on September 16, 2013. (Reuters/Rick Wilking) #
Katie Byrne, left, her neighbor Elizabeth Dipert, center, and church volunteer Linda Pekarek, right, sift through thrown out rotting flood refuse, looking for valuables, at Byrne's home in Longmont, Colorado, on September 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley) #
A couple walks across railroad tracks covered by flood debris in Longmont, Colorado, on September 16, 2013. (Reuters/Rick Wilking) #
Buildings are surrounded by flood water during a helicopter search of the area around Boulder, Colorado, on September 17, 2013.(AP Photo/Denver Post,Joe Amon) #
A debris-covered hunting boot sits in front of a home in Longmont, Colorado, drying as residents clean up in in one of the hardest hit neighborhoods in the wake of a week of heavy flooding, on September 16, 2013. (Marc Piscotty/Getty Images) #
Chad Obrien comforts his four year old son Elijah, as he works to remove waterlogged and contaminated floors and walls from his flooded basement, which was wrecked in recent flooding, in Longmont, Colorado, on September 18, 2013. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)