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Floods in Boulder: A Study of Resilience

Authors: Karen MacClune; Chris Allan; Kanmani Venkateswaran; and Lea Sabbag

Boulder, Colorado, is prone to fires, floods and droughts. All are likely to intensify with climate change. This study looks at flooding in Boulder in September 2013. Though the scale of flooding was unprecedented, only 10 lives were lost, most infrastructure was maintained, and the recovery has been strong. This case study explores this resilience — what made it possible, and where there is opportunity for learning — by breaking it down into three categories:

Built Infrastructure: 

  • 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.

Human Systems:

  • 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.

Legal and Cultural Norms:

  • 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. 

Perhaps most important for climate change adaptation and resilience is promoting imagination. We need to get good at imagining the unimaginable, and thinking about how existing systems, people, and policies can be easily, cheaply adapted to meet those challenges.

Citation: MacClune, K., Allan, C., Venkateswaran, K., & Sabbag, L. (2014). Floods in Boulder: A Study of Resilience. Boulder, CO: ISET-International. Retrieved from:

Funded By: The American Red Cross and The Rockefeller Foundation