This Month in Climate History: June 3, 1921 Colorado Flooding
What started out as just another day in June over 90 years ago, rapidly turned into one that would never be forgotten in the town of Pueblo, Colorado. A cloudburst enveloped the town the afternoon of June 3, 1921. During a typical cloudburst, over half an inch of rain may fall in a matter of minutes, and that is exactly what happened in Pueblo, creating devastating consequences for the heart of the town where the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek meet. At about the same time the rains were drenching the downtown area, there was another downpour about 30 miles north over Fountain Creek. According to a Climatological Data Report from the Denver Weather Bureau Station maintained in the NCDC archive, while there was no official Weather Bureau rainfall reporting station in Pueblo at the time, well-authenticated records indicated that a total of 6 inches or more fell between June 3 and June 5. Although private citizens measured many of the reported rainfall amounts in tubs and buckets, the remarkable erosion in the area also confirmed the exceptional amount of precipitation reported.
As the torrential rains fell, the Arkansas River and Fountain Creek quickly began to swell, reaching over 15 feet in some areas before they began to recede. Within two hours from the start of the storm, the entire wholesale district and a greater part of the business district of Pueblo were flooded with water 10 feet deep. The entire Arkansas Valley, from 30 miles west of Pueblo to the Colorado–Kansas state line, was severely impacted. Hundreds of people died, with some death toll estimates as high as 1,500. The flood destroyed almost all of the downtown Pueblo area and decimated the city.
Once the floodwaters receded, the immense damage became all the more visible. The flood, which covered over 300 square miles, carried away over 600 homes and caused upwards of $25 million in damage at the time. By today’s standards, that number would likely be $300 million or more. Railroad passenger coaches and freight cars were swept away in every direction or smashed into kindling. A fire even broke out in a lumberyard and burning lumber was carried throughout the city’s streets by the flood. The floodwaters also carried away entire buildings and businesses. Many of the dead were likely carried far down river and never recovered.
After the floodwaters receded, the Elks Club initially served as a relief center where 3,000 refugees were looked after each day until additional help arrived. Fellow citizens also built a camp nearby to shelter the refugees. A few days later, aid arrived from the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Knights Columbus, and military units. Pueblo was under federal control temporarily to restore law and order. And, despite the damage, the community banded together and rebuilt itself. Only three years later, in 1924, the city was up and running again.
Additional information on the 1921 Pueblo, Colorado, flood can also be found in The Arkansas River Flood of June 3–5, 1921 Report by the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Geological Survey.