Floods in Boulder: A Study of Resilience

This research examines a potentially catastrophic flooding event in Boulder, Colorado in September 2013. Though the scale of flooding was unprecedented, “only” 10 lives were lost, most infrastructure was maintained, and the recovery has been considered successful. In this study, the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition (ISET) examines Boulder’s demonstrated flood resilience, and how the physical and human systems, as well as legal and cultural norms played into Boulder's flood response.

The physical systems discussed in this report include storm-water drainage, wastewater, potable water, transportation, ecosystems, communications and power.  ISET found that:

  • Community paths and open space along rivers allowed rivers to overflow their banks with minimal damage.
  • Six of the seven roads into the mountains failed because they were all next to rivers; systems are not redundant if they have the same point of failure.







During the 2013 flooding event, legal constraints on assisting undocumented immigrants limited the ability of local government to provide cash assistance for residents who lacked proper documents. Moreover, many undocumented immigrants fear seeking assistance, even for those benefits that are technically available to them. In response, the Long Term Flood Recovery Group created parallel social service structures to meet their needs. However, rules regarding evidence of pre-disaster income continue to inhibit those in the informal economy seeking assistance.

This study also describes the importance of strong social networks and personal relationships for facilitating rapid assistance among neighbors during emergencies, even when such networks lack resources. The authors recommend that social service agencies take an explicit role in advocating for vulnerable groups and promote community-building activities.

BoCo Strong is a community resilience building initiative that was created in the wake of the 2013 flood, and the BoCo Strong network published a county-wide assessment for resilience in 2016. See that report here.

The human systems researched include autonomous and spontaneous activity, non-profit organizations, municipal and county government, state and federal government, emergency responders/emergency information, and the for-profit sector. Findings suggest that:

  • Learning from previous disasters directly improved the flood response.
  • Self-organized groups mobilized thousands of people, expanded resources, and brought new technologies into the response. This could have been even more effective if existing aid organizations had connected with them early.

The legal and cultural norms addressed are considering land use, land tenure, expectations of government, potential for lawsuits, and undocumented immigrants.  The most significant conclusions here are that:

  • The culture of individuality gave staff the freedom to take independent action and innovate. This allowed systems to be operated effectively under a wider range of conditions than they were initially designed for.
  • In some sectors the potential for lawsuits has put a damper on learning processes and reduced resilience in the recovery.

The report offers further detailed "Key Findings" in the areas of:

1. Victimhood, Voluntarism, and Agency
2. Planning and Investment Pays
3. A Strong Social Service Sector Increases Responsiveness
4. Learning is Critical to Building Resilience
5. Relationships and Connectivity
6. Organizations and Safety Nets have Limits
7. Limits of Our Imagination

Publication Date: April 2014

Authors or Affiliated Users:

  • Karen MacClune
  • Chris Allan
  • Kanmani Venkateswaran
  • Lea Sabbag

Related Organizations:


Resource Category:

Resource Types:

  • Case study

States Affected:


Go To Resource