[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.
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.
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.
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.