Monthly Archives: September 2013

the deluge

[Blogger’s Note: This is part of an on-going series I’ve titled “perfect little miracles,” a series of posts about moments that have inspired, reassured, or comforted me.]

As many of my readers have likely noticed from my posts, I currently live in Colorado.  Boulder County, Colorado, to be precise.  And, as you might have seen on your national (and international, from what I hear) news, we were hit this past week with a massive flash flood, of the magnitude that occurs only roughly every 100 years.

When you live on the prairie (or “flatlands” as we call it here) at the foot of one of the world’s largest mountain ranges, the threat of a flash flood is always present, but not usually in a tangible way.  It is, rather, like when I was growing up in DC before the end of the Cold War and we’d have “nuclear drills” meant to prepare us for being vaporized should the Russians actually decide to annihilate the world by initiating a nuclear attack.  The threat of that attack — like that of a flash flood pouring down from the canyons — seemed remote and almost illogical.

But last week the remote became the real.  The rain started on Tuesday, September 10th, falling hard and steady on the foothills and the valleys at their base, without a break, as a weather front settled in against the mountains.  Short bursts of rain are not uncommon here (although September tends to be one of the driest months of the year), but this storm hadn’t gotten that memo, and instead of moving quickly off to the American heartland, she kept turning back onto herself and drenching the foothills.  Days of continuous, pouring rain swelled gutters and curbs, portending what was to come. Small creeks and streams, running low after many years of mostly drought, quickly filled and spilled their banks as the clay soil, hard as concrete due to those same droughts, refused to absorb the runoff.  As stream led into stream and creek into creek, they all dumped into the small rivers that meander down our mountains most of the year and gracefully open up in the valleys beneath.  Those small rivers — the South Platte, Boulder Creek, the St. Vrain, the Little Thompson, and the Big Thompson — soon became rushing walls of water that crashed into anything in their way.

On Thursday morning, James and I had a meeting with our lawyer in downtown Boulder, roughly 3 blocks from where Boulder Creek splashes into the valley after winding down the canyon.  On that morning, flood sirens, tested weekly in the summer and mostly ignored by residents, began sounding, and the young women from the lawyers office rushed down to the creekside just before the wall of water hit the town and the officials began the first of many evacuations.  When I left the attorney’s office and made my way further out the flatlands toward our home, I saw that the St. Vrain river had already spilled its banks and was threatening the highway, and when I pulled into my neighborhood, I saw that the small creek running through it had begun flooding neighborhood streets.  The force of that creek was certainly shocking — merely a week before, our 8-pound mini-dachshund had crossed it unassisted.  Even so, at this point, the floods were hardly more than a curiosity, as no property had yet been destroyed or lives endangered.

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Street in our neighborhood, flooded and with a stranded mini-van.

Bridge over a small creek, over-run by the flood waters.

Bridge over a small creek, over-run by the flood waters.

But that didn’t last, of course.

By Thursday night, September 11th, homes were flooding across the county, and the destructive power of water was on full display.  Whole towns were wiped out as the rivers that ran through them carried off homes, cars, and anything else in their path.  People in the canyons were hit especially hard in those early hours, as the floods raged without warning and residents scrambled up mountainsides, seeking ground high enough to avoid the onslaught.  Stories have emerged since of parents, clawing desperately through thick mud to free their children buried by the raging waters that reduced their homes to detritus carried off down the river and slammed into structures further downstream.

For days the rain continued, and we watched the waters steadily rise.  For those still with power, social media allowed people to connect and determine who had escaped the waters and who had not.  The Denver news stations streamed coverage constantly, but no aerial shots were available until late Sunday, when the clouds lifted enough to allow helicopters to take to the air.   Blackhawk helicopters provided by the National Guard immediately took flight and conducted two days of search and rescue, plucking people and their pets from rooftops and cliff faces.

The water in our area crested on Saturday, before it pushed past us and sped toward Eastern Colorado and, eventually, Nebraska.  But even once the rain stopped, the devastation didn’t.  Mudslides brought down roads — whole towns were cut off from help — and receding waters deposited thick and filthy mud in basements and streets across the county.  Neighbors a block away from us were using snow shovels to move mountains of mud from their basements and garages.

Our neighborhood park, hours before the waters crested.

Our neighborhood park, hours before the waters crested.

Stairs leading to the creekside pedestrian path, a few hours before the waters' peak.

Stairs leading to the creekside pedestrian path, a few hours before the waters’ peak.

Our local bike path, after being destroyed by the flood.

Our local bike path, after being destroyed by the flood.

All told, it is believed that 4 souls were lost to the flood waters, including a teenage couple who were the first fatalities after being caught in their car in a deluge on a neighborhood street Thursday night.  Nearly 400 homes in our county were damaged, with another almost 350 completely destroyed.  But those are only the official numbers; they do not include the people with damaged basements or destroyed landscaping who have not made an official claim for financial assistance.  Nearly all of my friends in the City of Boulder had basements that were either moderately wet or a complete loss.

As is usually the case, it could have been much worse.  The City of Boulder has a strict building code that forbids any new construction whatsoever in those areas deemed floodplains.  Instead, those areas tend to be dedicated to parks, and those parks were mostly obliterated during this flood.  It is terrifying to think of the potential loss of life and property had there been dwellings on those sites…

James parents live in a town without such stringent building codes, and it was one of the towns that is likely changed forever.  Tucked at the base of the mountains, with the St. Vrain river running right through the center of town, Lyons had spent millions of dollars improving infrastructure and amenities over the last 10 years, turning it into a quaint tourist destination and well-loved artist community.  The river almost completely covered the town when it swelled over its banks, and most residents still do not have power, telephone service, or fresh water.   Roads in and out were wiped away, and the National Guard continues to monitor traffic coming and going; only residents are allowed in.

At the height of the flood, James’ parents found themselves stranded above Lyons, with no power, phone, or water, and a lower level of their home filling quickly with water.  When we didn’t hear from them for nearly a day, James got into his truck, talked his way past the National Guard roadblock, and braved washed-out roads and still-dangerous water levels to get to his parents’ house.  Once there, it took some begging and pleading to get them into the truck and down to the flatlands.  They arrived at our house on Sunday, September 14th, dirty, exhausted, and in shock.

In the days that followed, I helped James’ parents navigate the FEMA process, and James guided them through their insurance claim.  James and his dad purchased a pump to get the flood waters out of the house and a generator, which would power the electricity in the home, plus the pump for well water and the sump pump to keep any additional flood waters from their lower level  As soon as the National Guard began issuing 1/2 day passes for residents to re-enter Lyons, James and his dad returned to the house and stripped it of the damage.  On Thursday, September 19th, his parents returned home, feeling blessed to still have a home mostly intact, and ready to begin rebuilding.

So what about us, you ask?  James and I and our home survived without any damage at all.  Not so much as a leaky roof, which is truly amazing, given the destruction just yards away from us.  Our beloved neighborhood park is severely damaged, and the new bike paths that the kids rode all summer are damaged or completely gone, but those are small losses compared to the suffering of others.

Park bench in our neighborhood park, after the waters had receded.

Park bench in our neighborhood park, after the waters had receded.

Stories abound of communities pulling together to rescue each other and salvage what can be saved.  Money and assistance is pouring into our area from across the country, and families are creating new normals in the face  of destruction.  In the midst of all of this, there have been so many perfect little miracles, but there is one otherwise insignificant aspect of the flood that still makes me shake my head, and it actually happened before the flood even began.

On September 10th, I rose early and dressed to go to a new networking group in the hopes of jump-starting my job search.  Dark clouds hung low and thick over the flatlands and concealed our mountains as my friend Denise and I pulled into the parking lot of the mega-church where the networking group meets each Tuesday.  As we got out of the car, the first sprinkles began to fall.  Inside, it was a fairly small group, but a good one.  As an icebreaker, the facilitator asked everyone to share their “Worst Weather Story,” and we went around the room relating mostly light-hearted tales.  When we broke up, people exchanged numbers and offered contacts.

Forty-eight hours later that very church became the primary evacuation center for those running from the floodwaters.  That same room where we so blithely shared our Worst Weather Stories was filled with cots and the miscellaneous belongings that one might grab in the middle of the night before fleeing.  The halls through which Denise and I walked were converted into command central for the Sheriff’s Department, the National Guard, and FEMA.  Those first sprinkles that we dashed through on our way into the building became the historic deluge that changed the lives of so many, including some of the people in that room during the networking meeting.  What must their Worst Weather Story be now?  I think of each of those strangers, and I wonder how they fared. I wonder if any of them have marveled at how we shared those stories on the eve of one of Colorado’s biggest floods ever.  And I wonder at the facilitator’s choice of icebreaker.  Had he known, somehow?  Or was it simply the kind of thing we all label a coincidence and never think of again?

I don’t believe in coincidences, but I do believe in miracles.

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the fractured family

The last time I wrote, my life was floating in an odd kind of limbo, awaiting resolution of a judge’s decision on whether James’ three young children would be sent back to their mother in Georgia — the object of an abuse and neglect investigation prompted by the kids’ therapist — or whether they would stay here with us, a family complete, a family whole.

On August 12, 2013, we went to court and showed the judge everything we had.  Professionals took the stand to lay out our case, and witnesses (including one from Georgia) substantiated the claims the children had made to their therapist.  But the judge chose to disregard all of that, and instead believed their mother, who swore under oath that the children’s claims were lies fabricated by James and me.  It was her word — and her word alone — against multiple witnesses on our side.  But she pulled it off.  And so the children were sent back to Florida.

It was a stunning, unexpected defeat.  Everyone following the case, including sitting and former judges, were shocked and amazed that Carnie, the children’s mother, had managed to convince a judge to ignore all expert testimony to the contrary.  But that’s how powerful a liar she is.

The judge’s ruling came down late in the evening after a 3 1/2 hour hearing.  I will never forget reading the verdict on my iPhone while out to dinner with James and our Georgia witness, and knowing that when I turned to show it to James, I would be delivering a crushing blow.  The children were already with Carnie, as the court had ordered parenting time for her after court adjourned, and she was to regain custody, effective immediately.  She was not even required to let the children say goodbye to us.

James texted her to ask if we could bring the children some of their things from our house, and she agreed, upon the condition that she wanted to speak to him, alone, with the children.  At first he resisted, but I convinced him to go and hear what she had to say, while I waited nearby, within sight. The meeting was wrenching to watch from the sidelines, as the kids clung to him and Carnie pleaded with James to get back together with her, going so far as to get down on one knee.  He blanched, and I honestly wondered if he was going to lose his dinner all over the pool deck, but he held it together long enough to make clear that such an idea was preposterous and to end the conversation. She didn’t want to allow the children to say goodbye to me, but James insisted. I had but seconds with each of them, time enough for a few whispered words of encouragement and endearment, before she ordered them back to her side. And then we left, hearing their whimpered tears behind us, and leaving pieces of our hearts there on the pool deck.

I don’t remember much from that night after our goodbyes.  I remember calling my girls (who were at their dad’s) to tell them the outcome, and Bryn’s anguished cry when she realized that Chelsea had been ripped away from her.  Sabrina was furious, wondering how a judge could ignore the videotaped interviews of the kids, their earnest pleas to the social workers that they be allowed to live here with us and not be returned to Florida.  My girls wanted answers, and I had none.

The next morning — and many mornings thereafter — I awoke and immediately felt the heaviness of grief press down upon me.   The first few days after the hearing were nearly unbearable.  Our house was so quiet and our pain so palatable, that James and could hardly stand to be there.  We tried to distract ourselves.  We shut the doors to their rooms — left disheveled because no one expected that they wouldn’t be coming back — and tried to block out the memories of the summer.  We got random texts from them as they made their way back to Florida.  Short phrases, pregnant with their ache and loss.  And we felt helpless.

James and I both cried a lot at first.  Small reminders would reduce one of us to tears.  I had to avoid music altogether, as it brought back too many memories of riding in the car with the kids, going here or there, with the music blasting, the windows down, and all of us singing along together.  I framed lots of the art the girls had made for us over the summer, crying each time I placed another piece between glass.

We had set up new email addresses for the two oldest, Chelsea and Jay, for them to communicate with us, and during their first two weeks back in Florida, we heard from them frequently.  They used the email portal just as we’d intended — as a small way to touch back to us, to connect and feel our love without the filters their mom tries to impose.

The allegations and evidence presented at the hearing clearly frightened Carnie.  She quit her bartending job, began spending much more time at home on the weeknights, and started trying to connect with the kids in more positive ways.  The court ordered that she be randomly tested for alcohol, and as far as we know, she is complying with that order, but we have yet to see any test results.  The court also ordered another parental evaluation, to be conducted by a licensed Child-Family Investigator (CFI).  Carnie’s attorneys tried mightily to get the court to approve a CFI in Florida, but our attorneys prevailed and a local CFI was assigned.  The CFI begins her investigation next week, which will include interviewing licensed professionals associated with the case, family, and even the children.  She’ll travel to Florida to see the circumstances there and conduct interviews, and will visit our house and us as well.  It’s an intrusive, long process, designed to overturn every stone in search of any deep and dark secrets hidden beneath.  The judge — thankfully, a different one from our earlier hearing — will likely follow the CFI’s recommendation, so the outcome of the case might ultimately hinge on this one person’s conclusion of how to serve the children’s best interests.

Whether Carnie’s new-found persona as Devoted Mother will hold up over time or even convince the CFI in the short term is anyone’s guess, but for now it is having its desired effect on the children.  They have pulled away from us, for reasons we can only guess at.  Perhaps they feel let down that we couldn’t win the case and allow them live in Colorado.  Perhaps they believe their mom that we somehow manipulated them to say awful things about her.  Perhaps they are tired of all the drama and have resigned themselves to their situation.  It’s impossible to know, and heartbreaking to wonder at.

In the meantime, our home continues to heal.  The first weekend my girls spent here without James’ kids, they cried quite a bit.  Things were solemn and we spent even more time than usual together as a family.   But they are now becoming accustomed again to the relative peace and quiet of the house, as are we.  School has started and life has fallen into its familiar rhythms again, so that sometimes I can almost forget how close we came to being a whole family.

The case will likely not be fully resolved until early Winter, but I am no longer feeling certain in the outcome.  August reminded me that even “slam-dunk” cases can be lost, and those things we count as certain, upended.  So for now, we try to find the good in the moment and pray deeply for the future. And a time when we might not be a fractured family any longer.

Snowy Owl, by Chelsea, age 10, Summer 2013

Snowy Owl, by Chelsea, age 10, Summer 2013

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Filed under blended families, healing, parenthood, relationships, sadness