By Julia Herz
Tonight when I see her on the bus I am reminded how I now keep snacks in my office and backpack and purse in a fashion I never would have thought of as logical before. I am reminded how a few hundred people are still not back in their homes or have simply moved away. I am reminded how much the 500 year flood of Lyons, Colorado, rocked our world, and I’m reminded how my feelings out of necessity have been pushed aside for a later time and I guess that time is now.
I’m here to say the ‘event’ of that night continues as many who have been through natural disasters understand. Almost one year later the flood is still going on, still happening, still claiming space and mental energy that never was occupied by the water before. Just because the physical flood is no longer happening in no way does that mean this event is over.
Now the town is a flood of activity or inactivity according to some who still are displaced, paying utilities on pummeled home sites that sit empty, paying rental fees to now second places of residences while time slowly drips by day after day after day. Some are now sadly still caught in the flood’s ongoing fury and helplessly wait for rebuilding permits that might not ever be granted. Yes the Lyons, Colorado flood story for some is still a story of many different plot lines including frustration, fear and leeching finances.
Tonight I am personally reminded of the event that leads me now to not trust my surrounding as much as before and that ignorance is bliss feeling is no longer. Forever on from September 11, 2013 I am consciously more vulnerable, aware and raw to the world.
I remember being out to dinner. And the rain, oh the rain. As we moved from West Flanders to Oaked, right on Pearl Street in Boulder, it just would NOT stop raining. At this point it had been raining for several days.
It was Wednesday night. I finally said goodbye and drove home happy. Happy for my evening, happy for my life, happy for the rain as any person of today should think in these times of drought and desert like conditions on the Front Range.
I drove across the bridge on Highway 36 and 66 that little did I know would soon would be washed out and closed for weeks. I drove across another bridge, the one closest to my home. It soon would have the road attached to it literally pummeled and pushed away. A five hour difference and I would not have been with my family for the next four days.
Off to sleep happy and unaware. 2:30 am. A garbled voice from a megaphone stated, “St. Vrain River, higher ground.” We woke up the kids while waking up ourselves. Into the car we went while getting wet from the skies above only to drive to a dead end that used to be a road but now was river.
Onto the other end of the ‘L’ of a road that also used to be a passageway. Water, water everywhere. We saw others also circling in their cars wondering what to do. Nowhere felt safe except back in bed which was not necessarily wise, but yet it was so close. So back to bed we went. My husband stayed up all night watching, patrolling and videotaping.
Daybreak Thursday. My 8-year old and I woke up in my bed to noise outside. I opened the door. It sounded like a tornado. No more like a train. It was neither. It was water and it was rising. I closed the door and turned on the news. Flood. Flood. Flood. Lyons was a focus. So was Boulder County. Too much to process all at once.
All I could do was look out my back bedroom window while I made phone calls to co-workers, neighbors, family and friends. I did not know how to verbalize it all and landed on the fact that yes the water was still rising and yes the land, property and parts of the town were being washed away right before our eyes but that we were safe, for the time being, and still in our home. Hour after hour after hour this continued as the water gained speed and width reaching a height and frenzy I referred to as rapid 5 flowing right in the backyard. Where the river used to be within ear shot it was now in full view nipping at our fence line and property.
We eventually set up chairs in front of the back bedroom window to just sit and watch instead of stand and watch. Kind of like when you finally settle in to watch a storm. As we received reports of who was evacuating up river from us I was in awe of its power and rage and beauty and presence. All the while the rain started to drip through a light above our chairs and seep into the siding outside the bedroom window. To this day mold still sits on the carpet in one small spot as a reminder of things yet to be dealt with.
It all started to sink in. We were indefinitely trapped. How long would this go on? How long would we be stuck in our residential neighborhood where safety is an assumption, but not the rule? For now I just needed to try and not fight it while I watched and bore witness to the minute by minute destruction.
Everything happened so fast and yet slow too. By Friday time had slowed down to the pace of the river that finally had receded away from our home foundation and back into the field behind us which was quickly becoming permanent new river bed. Time too was elapsing quickly. The hot tubs and propane tanks and cars that were in the river either quickly passed by, like voyagers on a trip to the unknown, or they stopped and became lodged against something larger while the water continued to carve its new course. Every hour the landscape changed as the river devoured land and dug new passages and channels. Gone was the twenty five foot deep pond in view of the house and in its place was this newer and wider river.
Big trees started to bend, snap and be swept away. From what we could see where there was highway became river too. The parking lot to the west of the house also became water. What about the church? They’ve been such good neighbors. I felt for them and the wistful washing away of their manicured and cared for earth. As their shelter and parts of their field crumbled so did the testament that humans can tame and mold Mother Nature. I was reminded that we are simply just visiting here.
Then came the reporting. Denver Post. Weather Channel and others reached out. It all seemed so strange to formally comment on the situation while in my professional life I’m a spokesperson for something so much more light and cultural and enriching i.e. small and independent craft brewers at the national association who represents them.
Then came the loss off utilities. No power after Thursday night had things setting in. No more plumed water. No more natural gas as pockets of hydrogen sulfide seeped into my conciseness while I peddled around our island in search of cell service. Lyons we were told during a briefing from authorities had become six different islands. Ours was called Lyons Valley Park.
Sleeping upstairs on the second level became the obvious option. Others in the hood were freaked enough to literally move their families uphill onto the ridge and camp in tents in the pouring rain. That felt safer to them.
And the ever thought of the water above loomed. What of the LARGE man made reservoirs high up the canyons above our home and town? Button Rock Dam was in gods spitting distance from Lyons. There was no way to know what might give all the while more rain, more rain, more rain continued with only some pockets of time that the skies cleared.
Then came Saturday. We had found a rhythm. Were ready to dig in. We were from Colorado after all. We could camp at our own homes. Live off what was stocked and continue to have group means and gather at bonfires and shelter tents now ever present in the cul de sac.
According the briefings we received at the high school each day we were told we might be able to drive out on Sunday night or Monday. Good. That meant we had time. Time to pack. Time to process. Time to prepare to maybe not be back at our home for weeks or months.
It was now Saturday at sunset. My husband was down the street helping neighbors rip out drywall as their basement had flooded (like so many) and mold was a large concern. With evacuation being imminent and sequester of the town likely thereafter it was important to take steps quickly to prevent the mold from settling in. As well other neighbors were reporting raw sewage seeping up into their basements. Since the river was flowing over the water treatment system reverse water pressure must have been pushing the unprocessed contents back through the lines towards their source. This was also evident out in the open where some manholes in the streets gushed water up and out. I kept having to remind the kids not to play in it.
Being that it was dinnertime we rode the kids (8 and 11) around the block on our bikes looking for a community BBQ like the ones in the past days that helped us all feel so normal and purge the fridges of the soon to be rotting food. There were no gatherings to be found. Seemed like one in twenty homes were still occupied but that was it. Where did everyone go? I thought we were trapped.
The helicopters had been overhead for days now. Many of them each hour. So many it sounded like we resided in a MASH unit. We knew those were for others higher up the canyon. We were supposed to eventually drive out once the water receded and they could shore up one of three bridges that was close.
A startling surprise appeared before us like so many other surprises rearing at every turn, of every hour since the event began. On the side of the church behind our house was graffiti. It was new graffiti. It said terrible things in large letters. It reeked hatred. Why of all the days on all the blocks did this misplaced anger have to show its ugly head? I started to cry. In front of my kids I started to cry. This was a mistake. Then I had to explain why. I was crying about the flood and being trapped with so much water around us and up above. I was crying about our neighbors west and north of us who might be gone from the flood and their homes that we knew were gutted from the water. On top of that I was crying because somebody felt it was okay to scar a building that had nothing to do with their screwed up lives or misplaced feelings or this crazy act of Mother Nature. Their graffiti was wrong and I did not know how to explain it all except simply to cry.
Home we went. I wanted a beer, which by now was no longer cold as the power had been out for more than 48 hours. Also warm was our food that was now thawed and would soon advance to stages of rot. Since the propane to the grill still was stocked we took advantage of our last chance to consume the degrading food supply.
And then there was the garden. Once we left when could we come back? Who would harvest what we had grown? And what about the chickens. When we left (to go where we did not know) how would the chickens survive?
Squeezing in a moment of fun like giddy like children we picked from the garden to our hearts content. On the grill we cooked thawed Alaskan salmon and garden greens. We had the neighbors over. One of the last few still around.
Over candlelight and the sound of the new river in the background we laughed, processed and speculated. After all we had until tomorrow night or Monday until we could leave. To bed we headed. My kids and I were brushing our teeth and my husband rushed in screaming, “Get out. Get out of the house now. Button Rock dam is going to give.”
Confusion, and scrambling ensued. We had to get two dogs we were in charge of across the street. Get our ailing dog, two kids and ourselves into the car. Take one car? Both? Separating did not seem smart. But if we were not to get back to the house for weeks or months (as we were briefed might be the case) then only one car would greatly affect our ability to work and get the kids to school.
School. What school? All their teachers were dispersed and now the town had no utilities.
So we got in the two cars in less than ten minutes after my husband gave the word. My daughter had no shoes or pants on and I drove separate. I just followed my husband who somehow seemed to know where to go. Down the road, onto the field across private property and onto Old St. Vrain. Then we saw a person in fatigues. I rolled down the window while rain fell into the car. “Once you leave you know you cannot come back right,” he stated. Sure right I thought. Whatever you say. Just let me get away from this water.
On the road once driving at full speed it dawned on me. Where were we driving too? I did not know. It was 10 pm, it was dark and I was following my family through town. I flashed the headlights. My husband pulled over. “Where are we headed,” I asked. “To the shelter,” he said. “To the shelter.”
So many people in those following days lifted us up or unintentionally brought us down. Every time we received help or inquires or supplies we felt higher. Every time we connected with a neighbor who had lost their home or property or had been injured we felt lower. It was months of ups and downs and still is. One data point on the actual weather system shared that for an area that normally gets on average fifteen inches of rain a year, we go seventeen inches in five days.
In the end the kids were out of school for two weeks, which is amazing considering. School was relocated to Longmont until the week before Thanksgiving. Oh how receiving and helpful the entire Front Range and Colorado community at large has been.
Now eleven months later, finally I sit down to write my account of what hit me like a ton of bricks. Like a baseball bat to the back of the head kind of feeling. It took one precious rare night at home alone for two hours and having it triggered from seeing my neighbor on the bus. She is one of the ones I knew was in the confluence area. I knew she lived alone. I knew she likely was flooded but never had gotten any of the story until tonight. She seemed as present and high in stature as before, but she had aged and gained weight. She looked the same but different. She looked sad.
On my walk back home as I stumbled and fell over the river rubble that I now stare at daily I started to cry. On the bus she had told me some of her story. Still living in an apartment and not her home. Talk of flood way, flood zone, and where our houses now lay. When she asked how was my home I shared how we watched the water stop feet (less than ten) from our foundation before it started to recede. How those words sounded so lucky and fortunate and unaffected compared to her and many other families we know.
Now when I stand out my back door and see river spilling where there was no water before I remember being trapped and evacuating and my dog passing the week after evacuation and getting the apartment and the kids’ new school and the whole mess in my little world. I’m simply reminded how that was all merely an inconvenience. Recovery is what matters for all on the Front Range and getting those settled who have become so unsettled and misplaced from their homes. This is what should remain at the forefront of our town and government’s minds.
I am reminded how recovery takes perseverance and diligence and focus and attention. I am reminded how life is cycles and so is grief. I am reminded how beyond taking homes and property and life the river took away our library, many of our roads, several small businesses, our parks, wildlife, the festival grounds and my son’s baseball field. It took trees and town structures and town equipment that will take years to replace. It stole sleep from us residents and to this day still claims the time and attention of those desperate to move on and back in. Some are still stuck on the island between owning land and not knowing if or when they can rebuild while they struggle to keep pace, meet their bills, fill out mountains of paperwork and hold their jobs.
Simply put the flood took what we built in its path reinforcing the notion that we are just visitors here and where the river flows is what it owns regardless of what humans have nurtured. The river has literally aged us and matured us. In all an estimated $50 million in damages not including personal property and homes is what Lyons documented losing. 20% of the homes were damaged or destroyed.
On the flip side even though the river took away so much it did not take away the community. That is what it helped us gain and is the silver lining in this crazy ongoing story. Stronger, more gracious and connected than before we will continue on until the recovery efforts are completed. Want to see this spirit in person. Come visit Lyons. Have dinner, fill your gas tank up, shop in our small and independent shops (there are no corporate national chains in Lyons) or consider donating to any one of the many recovery organizations dedicated to flood relief. Also ask our town officials what they need to close out the loose ends of those in limbo who sit, wait and wonder if and when they will be able to move back home.
Cheers and thanks for reading.
A post I shared on Facebook on September 18 once we had secured a new apartment to live in on a three-month lease:
Hello All. I am back! Digitally that is.
This crazy Colorado flood has set some of us behind, but that is not permanent.
In the last few days I’ve been witness to and the recipient of so much hardship but yet kindness and generosity. My sweet family of four are now living in a temporary apartment in Longmont, Colorado until we can move back into our amazing town of Lyons, Colorado. Our hearts go out to our neighbors who have lost their homes or who have been injured or have had flooding, but what matters most is being safe.
On that there have been repeat themes in the past few days.
‘Like’ this post if the words below, all echoed numerous times by so many, sound familiar... (or add some of your own)
Flood, flash, evacuate, river, warning, rush, hurry, stop, water, food, gas, septic, raw sewage, mud, soot, rapid 5, rain, livestock, dog, cat, warm, dark, flashlight, candle, propane, car alarms, man hole, sirens, phone, flashing lights, windows, grill, oven, camping gear, sleeping bag, ridge, backpack, Facebook, Twitter, bridge, road, FEMA, injured, helicopter, displaced, shoes, running water, bother, sister, mother, father, neighbor, friend, stranger, help, family, generous, lock, vandalism, looting, hug, tears, sad, worried, fireplace, BBQ, eat, not hungry, fruit, garden, duck tape, borrow, lend, give, take, electric, power, cell phone, charging, infrastructure, toilet, refrigerator, freezer, car pass, re-entry, shelter, briefing, town administrator, sheriff, authorities, property, river front, receding, rental, contract, inventory, stock up, bottle, fill, gather, on foot, drive, private property, block party, children, elderly, healthy, sick, medication, rush, rest, sleep, no sleep, run, sit, wait, listen, pray, news, confusion, house, school, tools, utensils, kitchen, money, clothes, potable, groover, safe, unsafe, car, reservoir, breech, craft beer, heal, security, federal government, lock down, ponds, erosion, scared, rebuild, computer, meetings, strength, perseverance, community