Experts share how Colorado media covered deadly flood

A panel of Colorado media experts share how their outlets covered the flood.
Tim Rasmussen, Randy Bangert and Doug Bell shared how their organizations covered the flood. (Moderator Ed Otte)

By Vicky Gits

Three journalists described in words and pictures the frantic and overwhelming days after an epic storm sent killer floodwaters from Jamestown in the mountains through Estes Park and Lyons at the mouth of the Big Thompson on Sept. 12, wiping out entire towns and killing eight.

The discussion came Oct. 24 at the Denver Press Club in an SPJ Colorado Pro event moderated by Programming Chairman Ed Otte.

The magnitude of the event stunned editors, who were caught off guard. But once they mobilized their newsrooms, law enforcement officials and incident commanders were largely uncooperative, forcing staffers to make their way around the broken highways surreptitiously on foot or by helicopter.

Disasters are not unknown in Greeley, but the flood of 2013 was “the biggest story ever and I’ve been in Greeley since the ‘70s,” said Randy Bangert, editor of the Greeley Tribune.  From the ground at first the damage wasn’t obvious, but “the aerial shots gave us a clue that this was really big,” he said.

Bangert spoke Thursday night, Oct. 24 at a panel discussion organized by the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, also known as SPJ Colorado Pro.

Other participants included Tim Rasmussen, assistant managing editor of photography and multimedia at the Denver Post who presented a compelling series of photographs, and Doug Bell, editor of the Canyon Courier in Evergreen.

“We didn’t know where the news was on any given day, so photographers would have to hunt and gather,” Rasmussen said. After four days a Post staff photographer was finally able to hike into Jamestown, where he landed graphic shots of the disaster and rescue operations.

Law enforcement officials were somewhat more cooperative in the Greeley area, where the editor and the sheriff had a good relationship, said Bangert, noting that area rivers were typically about a foot high in September, not 19 feet in the aftermath of the storm.

Evergreen’s Bell wound up fulfilling a lifelong desire to be an old-fashioned “rewrite man,” when Bear Creek overflowed its banks.

Because a deluge closed the main road through the center of town, a reporter couldn’t make it to the office. So Bell wound up writing the stories as a stranded reporter called in the details. “Deb (Hurley Brobst) was everywhere and I was rewriting the stories,” he said.