You Can’t Get There From Here

Monday, September 9th, it started to rain.  We hadn’t seen rain in months; our rainfall for Longmont since early June had been a whopping .7th of an inch.  We were all looking forward to a few days of rain, something unusual for this time of year.  Tuesday, it rained again.  Then it really rained on Wednesday.  It rained almost non-stop from before dawn until bedtime, and by 11 p.m. that night, roads were starting to be closed, and flash flood warnings were lighting up our phones.  Earlier that evening I’d met my friends at Panera Bread to do some writing, and when the first of the flash flood alarms starting going off at about 7 p.m., half the phones in the place were screeching the warning tone.

But hey, it doesn’t really rain that much here, so it couldn’t be that bad, right?  And I’m from Missouri.  It takes more than a couple days of rain to really cause major flooding.  Our dirt here is sandy/rocky, it drains fairly well, and even after a hard rain, the ground rarely looks wet even a few hours later.  At 11:30 p.m., I got an emergency notice on my phone from my campus at the University of Colorado warning people to stay indoors, and canceling campus operations for the next day.  At midnight, Tater’s school district canceled school and we got that emergency notice as well.  We barely slept, listening to the rain pounding on the roof and running out of the gutters and alert after alert coming out on our phones.  At 4 a.m. I got up, checked radar, saw the very first of the morning news, and knew we had a problem.

By Thursday noon, every north-south route through our town was closed.  Our town was roughly split into 2/3rds and 1/3rds. Two waterways run through our town, the St. Vrain River, and Lefthand Creek.  The river is not what we Missourians would call a river.  Even during spring runoff, it is still nothing more than a big creek.  It is shallow, runs relatively slowly, and is mostly a drainage ditch for runoff from the mountains.  These last few weeks, it’s been pretty low, as fall approaches.  Lefthand Creek is also a ditch channeling runoff from mountain snows.  It runs just south and parallel to the St. Vrain River, with about two or three blocks of homes and businesses in between.  Lefthand Creek joins the St. Vrain river on the eastern part of town, a confluence I ride by on my bike on a regular basis. So these two slow, lazy run-offs had been swelled to 20 times their normal size, and instead of staying in the ditches they’d been occupying, they started making their own.

Our town was effectively cut off.  We could not go south, or west, or north.  Every river in the area was breaching its banks, and flooding out roads.  We could go east, but pretty soon the highways were closed too.  The Perfect Child barely got home from her overnight shift at work, coming west down the main highway into our town.  She said water was already over the right-hand lane, the west-bound lanes were already under water, and the police were closing the highway behind her.  We were safe where we were, as the northern end of town is higher up by a couple hundred feet.  Evacuations were occurring in neighborhoods closer to the river and in places that had never seen water like this. The railroads shut down, and there was no more train traffic (or train horns).  Our town was eerily quiet.

By Friday morning, emergency officials had declared this a 500-year flood event. And other communities were much worse off than we were.  We had power, Internet, a warm and dry house, and plenty of food and ways to cook it.  A nearby community, just six miles to our west, was completely devastated.  People In Lyons weren’t able to be rescued until Friday night, when the National Guard came in with high-profile vehicles.  Lyons is the gateway to the Rockies for us, and how we get up into the mountains and to Rocky Mountain National Park.  It is at the confluence of two streams, one of which is the St. Vrain River.  Other towns in the mountains were worse off.  They not only lost power, with buildings collapsed and people dead or missing, but no phone service or any way to reach the outside world.  They weren’t rescued until Saturday morning, by military helicopters.  Estes Park, at the base of Rocky Mountain National Park and built up on both sides of the Big Thompson River, suffered a similar fate.  The only way out of the town was by going west through the park, coming out on the other side of the continental divide (and 50 miles away) in Grand Lake.  The Big Thompson flooded Loveland, the town to our north, cutting it in half too.  Further movement of the water also flooded the Poudre River and river valley, and moved out to the North Platte, which acts as a bit of a delta.  Boulder, where I work and which is only 10 miles from us to the west, suffered severe flash flooding over and over, flooding homes and businesses and washing away the walkways students use to get around town.  Nederland, up in the mountains above Boulder, saw the dam on Barker Reservoir try to bear the weight of the water, which overtopped it and came crashing down the canyon towards Boulder in surges that defied physics.  In that rush of water was debris – rocks as big as minivans, logs and downed trees, and even vehicles.  Two lives were lost in Boulder, and one in the cut off town of Johnstown in the mountains.  One life was lost in flooding south of Denver, near Colorado Springs.  There will likely be more deaths announced, as there are literally hundreds of people not accounted for yet.

Meteorologists are saying that places in the mountains, like the destroyed Johnstown, received more than 13 inches of rain this week.  Boulder had 12.  Estes Park had 14.  Longmont had 9.  These amounts are higher than our average yearly rainfall, all packed into the span of a few days.  I have never seen water rise so quickly, spread so widely, in such a short amount of time.  Even as a Missouri girl, flood-aware that I am, I have never seen something like this.  And people who live here have never seen it.  They are stunned.  They are speechless.  They don’t know what to make of it.

Thankfully, here on Saturday, the rivers have gone down, some of our north-south roads have re-opened, and mountain rescues are slowing down.  We have the National Guard in town, helping with cleanup and posted at the roads that have been closed to keep out people and help direct traffic.  Our police and emergency personnel have been working nonstop since Wednesday night, not able to handle routine emergencies, much less get rest or a shower or food.  I am thankful for their hard work, in our community and in communities all over the Front Range.

Much cleanup and rebuilding lies ahead of us. And the flooding isn’t over, as the storms that sat over us for the past week are now in the counties just east of us, doing the same thing.  And there is more rain in our forecast.  We are hopeful these are the standard Monsoon storms we get this time of year – a quick hit of fat raindrops and then it either dries up or moves on.  We all need a break, for sure.  Roads into the mountains are closed –  large state and federal roads that allow mountain people to get around, and allow those of us on the plains to head uphill for cooler weather or leaf-peeping or hiking.  Many roads are washed out, or undercut so badly that they aren’t safe to drive on.  Bridges are out, and rock slides and mud slides have made other areas impassable.  It is mid-September, and snow will be here within a month.  The roads will need repair quickly, or they will be closed until spring.  Without infrastructure, towns cannot recover. We have local, state, and federal declarations of disaster, but that won’t make time stand still so that we can get everything built back up in time.

I am grateful and thankful that our home was dry, that we had food, electricity, Internet, and each other.  We were never in any danger in our home or in our neighborhood.  Our fear was high as The Perfect Child had to make her way to work and back, and as Klown had to do the same thing on Thursday.  Roads were closing as quickly as the raindrops came down, and it was only a matter of time before every route in and out was inaccessible.  But we made it.  I fixed comfort food, and we rode it out.  My work was closed Thursday and Friday, and Tater is off school until Thursday.  Since her school district covers much of our county, which has been devastated by the storms, there are schools that are out of commission, or the roads to them are impassable.  Hopefully the next few days, and a lot of hard work, gets everything back to what it needs to be for the schools.

Today, the sun is shining, and people are out and about, and roads are reopening.  It is odd how quickly we can get back to “normal” after such devastation.  We will, however, never be the same.  It will be forever different.  No one expected this.  Not even the meteorologists.  When it started raining Monday, no one was worried.  They weren’t worried on Tuesday, either.  What a difference a day and 9 inches of rain can make.

I have now lived through two 500-year floods.  How is that possible for one woman who is barely over 50?

Main Street Closed – one of our major thoroughfares from north to south.

Main Street closed to traffic 9-13.-13

Before and after view of the St. Vrain River at Martin Street.  I took the first picture on September 7th, and the second one on September 13th.

St. Vrain River before at bike path

St. Vrain River after

The river that you normally can’t see from this view.

St. Vrain River 9-13-13

More river pictures.  The smell of diesel fuel was very strong here.

St. Vrain River in flood

St. Vrain River in flood

The river further east, near Sandstone Ranch.  Look closely, you will see a pedestrian bridge.  This bridge is where the river should be.  The concrete pathway you see is about 8 foot wide and is part of the St. Vrain Greenway, a walking/hiking/biking trail I ride a lot.  It is mostly washed away, and the river has created itself a brand new channel to the south (I am standing north of the river as I take this picture). The large tree left across the pathway was certainly not there before the flood, and also shows how quickly the water actually went down less than 24 hours after it had likely covered that entire valley.

St. Vrain River in flood to the east of Longmont

I don’t recommend buying a car from this dealer on Main Street.  You can see the debris under them, and the log under the white Dodge pickup.  They didn’t have time to get the cars out before the river claimed them.

flooded car dealership St. Vrain River flood 9-13.-13


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