Remembering the flood of 1985 in Cheyenne

An aerial view of Holliday Park in Cheyenne after the Aug. 1, 1985, flood. WTE/File

CHEYENNE - Saturday marks the 30-year anniversary of one of the most devastating natural disasters ever to hit Cheyenne.

It only took three hours to run its course, but those three hours left an impact that the Capital City still feels today.

And while not everyone was here for the flood of 1985, those who were still remember it vividly.

"It was obvious watching out our living room windows that things were about to turn south," recalled Bob Bradshaw.

He is Cheyenne's special projects director but he was working as a city policeman on Aug. 1, 1985.

"In my case, I didn't wait to get called out," he added. "I got suited up and went out and started driving, listening and responded as needed."

Like many other summer days in Cheyenne, that particular afternoon was marked by threatening storm clouds in the western sky. But while most days those clouds drop a little rain and move on, this time was different.

The jet stream locked the super-cell storm in place, and it proceeded to dump more than six inches of rain on Cheyenne from 6-9 p.m. Along with the rain came heavy hail, which ripped leaves off trees, smashed basement windows and piled up in the city's drains, clogging them in many places.

"The hail caused a great deal of the backup, and that's where people's basement windows were getting blown out," Bradshaw said. "The combination of the amount of water and the hail that accompanied that water was devastating."

It was also deadly.

Bradshaw still remembers his friend, Laramie County Sheriff's Deputy Robert Van Alyne. He lost his life trying to rescue a child from a car that had been swept up in one of the many storm surges that evening.

Others headed to their basements once the tornado sirens began sounding only to be met by a sudden surge of floodwater as their basement windows gave way.

In all, 12 people were killed in the flood with another 70 injured. Damage estimates totaled more than $65 million, and city sanitation spent weeks helping to clean up the debris.

At the time, Dennis Pino was working the back of a city garbage truck. Now the director of Cheyenne's sanitation department, Pino said he can remember collecting countless pieces of waterlogged furniture, couches, carpet and more in the flood's aftermath.

"Down at Pershing (Boulevard) and Converse (Avenue), I remember seeing all the hail, six or seven feet tall about a day after," Pino said. "All those houses got flooded. We didn't even charge. We just said, 'Pull it out to the curb, and we'll pick it up.'"

Living just south of Dell Range Boulevard on Flaming Gorge Avenue, Pino said he hadn't at first realized how bad the flooding was until after the rains died down and he went outside.

That was when he heard screams for help from neighbors who had tried to flee to higher ground to escape the floodwaters.

"We ended up helping stranded people who were hanging in trees," Pino recalled. "The neighbors all got together; one of them got his boat out and would bring them out to us.

"We took them to my house and had them sit in the front yard, and my wife was bringing blankets out to dry them off."

But while the flood of '85 caused plenty of devastation to the city, it also has provided valuable lessons for the future.

Assistant city engineer Nathan Beauheim says the flood remains a constant reminder of the worst-case scenario for his department. The city has responded by taking on many projects since 1985 to help protect the city against any future floods.

"Just about all of the current drainage master plans were written in the late '80s, and the drainage regulations were significantly updated at that time as well," Beauheim said.

Today, the city is well-aware of where the most flood-prone areas are, and efforts are ongoing to address those areas with retention ponds, workaround channels and other mitigation projects.

"Four or five years ago we did quite a bit of work on Dry Creek," Beauheim said. "We built a new channel that comes around by the end of the (Cheyenne Regional Airport) runway and behind Menards then gets back into the creek downstream of Ridge Road.

"That project was designed to relieve the burden on what we call the Sheridan Reach of Dry Creek, where there was quite a bit of damage in '85."

He added that any time the city does a major street reconstruction, such as the last two years of work on Snyder Avenue, storm sewer improvements are always among the projects' considerations.

That is especially so given that the downtown was one of the worst affected by the 1985 flood.

"That's one piece of helping out downtown, and there are several other pieces tied into the West Edge (downtown revitalization) project that's going on," Beauheim said.

"We've come a ways, but we still have a ways to go."

If you go

What: 30-year remembrance ceremony for the 1985 flood in Cheyenne

When: 9 a.m. Saturday

Where: Southwest corner of the Ridge Road and Dell Range Boulevard intersection, next to the blue heron memorial statue

Why: The public is invited to attend a remembrance ceremony for those who lost their lives in the Aug. 1, 1985, flood that devastated Cheyenne. Families of the victims, National Weather Service officials and former Mayor Don Erickson have been invited to speak.

For more information about the flood of '85: The city of Cheyenne has created a website that includes a map of the areas impacted by the flood as well as photos taken the day of the disaster. The website is at http://tinyurl.com/flood85.

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