Lessons from a 100-Year Flood: It’s All About Community

When the rains came and flooded Boulder, CO, we learned what one community after another learns when facing adversity: don’t do it alone.

After a blisteringly hot start to the school year, many of us with children in the Boulder Valley School District were more than delighted when the temperatures sank from the 90s to the 70s the second week of September. And then—even more refreshing—it started to rain. On Wednesday of that week, I headed to back-to-school night at my daughter’s high school, which sits on a bluff overlooking the city and is appropriately named Fairview. It was raining lightly. Several hours later, I came out of school to a fierce storm. Water was roaring down the streets, sloshing over the curbs and down sidewalks. Soon I was ankle-deep in water and a cold rain was spraying my face through my cheap umbrella. It was bracing, to say the least. And slightly worrisome: I was wearing my good Danskos. 

The steady downpour continued through the night. My kids stayed up late, glued to the windows, marveling at the intensity of the storm. It was as awesome as the first rainfall in spring, when almost everyone stops to admire the changing of the guard from winter to spring, from snow to rain. In Boulder, we don’t see rain for a good six months of the year. When it returns in March or April, you stop and appreciate it. A new season is on its way. 

One of the many things I love about living in Colorado is the wonder of the natural world. We have over 50 of the highest mountains in the country. I can see snow every day of the year on the peaks in the distance. The temperature can change 50 or more degrees in a day and nobody bats an eye. 

Boulder values this environment with its pocketbook. Since the 1960s, residents have again and again voted to tax themselves to buy up surrounding foothills and open space. We are home to 100,000 people, more than 110 miles of hiking trails, the country’s atomic clock, a state university, several national atmospheric research labs and more than a few free spirits. Yes, we are known for our affinity for comfortable footwear and garages full of outdoor toys. But we have also consistently won top ranking in lists such as the Happiest City, the Brainiest City, the Best City to Raise an Outdoor Kid, the Top Town to Live Well, America’s Foodiest Town, Most Educated City, and, most recently, Most Popular City for Technology Start-Ups. But by Thursday, September 12, we surely could’ve added Wettest City of 2013 to the list.

The telephone woke us at 5am on the morning of Thursday the 12th. School was closed due to flooding. All day it rained. The sound of water roaring through the downspouts, the streets and the nearby creek was deafening. One day in and I was feeling done with this particular wonder of nature.

By Thursday evening, the sheer amount of moisture still falling from the sky was alarming. Between 6pm Wednesday and 6pm Thursday, we received a staggering 9.08 inches of rain, making it the wettest day in Boulder’s history since records were kept in 1897. Another few weeks and this amount of rain would’ve translated to nearly 10 feet of snow. But the same conditions wouldn’t have existed in colder temperatures. It was precisely because the cool, wet storm stalled and mixed with a high-pressure system that we were experiencing the likes of a tropical monsoon. In fact, this rainfall would later be called a 1,000-year event. 

The city of Boulder, Colorado, sits in a valley at an elevation of 5,430 feet. From any direction, you enter town on a downhill slope. I have lived here 22 years and it’s still a wonderfully comforting feeling to descend into the valley and know I’m home. To our east are the high plains. To our west are the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Statewide, this region is known as the Front Range. Within our city limits, we only have five roads heading west out of town and four ascend canyons: Boulder Canyon, Sunshine, Lefthand and Four Mile. But there are many, many more canyons and gulches emptying into our valley that then feed into creeks and farmer’s canals. Imagine all those clefts filled to the brim (and then some) with water and racing into our valley.

Friday brought the news that Boulder and surrounding areas had experienced massive flash flooding. Sidewalks and roads were ripped up by the sheer force of the water. Huge boulders rolled down quiet residential streets. Cars dog piled. Basements filled with water and muck. Some homes completely destroyed. And the scariest: People were missing. We would learn later that some of those missing had not survived.

All over town, bands of neighbors roamed the streets, helping out the less fortunate. Together, they bailed out window wells, moved furniture, ripped up sodden carpets, loaned fans and tarps. They poached sand from playgrounds to make sandbags and used rolls of ruined carpeting to try to divert the water that kept streaming through the city like an unwelcome waterfall. Just as with the old bucket brigade, neighbors became efficient at making sure the wet vacs, the pumps, and the pick-ups got to the next house as soon as they were available. We used our snow shovels to move mud and our ice scrapers to peel up soaked flooring.

Adversity brought forth innovation, some of which was spread via social media. After all, we’re brainy people, right? On Facebook, a batch of high school kids shared their tried-and-true method for siphoning water from a basement with a garden hose. (Expect to see this perfected in time for the Science Fair). One neighborhood rigged together a pulley-and-pitchfork system to clear a ditch of debris. Craigslist posts devoted to the flood offered childcare, strong backs, dog-friendly accommodations and more. A website (boulderfloodrelief.org) sprang up to list volunteers. 

We learned what one community after another learns when facing adversity: don’t do it alone. We are hardly the only region to experience a natural disaster. We are hardly the only region to have gained a newfound respect for those affected by the Northeast’s Hurricane Sandy or Colorado Spring’s Black Forest wildfire. It’s simply our turn. But when you live in a town showered with accolades for all the right reasons, you must have faith that someday soon, we will recoup and rebuild and come out again on top.

But give us some time. Right now we’re battered and bruised (in strange places). For days all we heard was the rumble of huge National Guard helicopters in the skies searching for stranded residents. For more than a week, driveways and curbs loaded with ruined belongings made it feel like the whole town was being evicted. We are completely severed from the entire western edge of town; our canyon roads wrecked and our mountain trails washed out. 

Someday, I hope we’ll win a new number one. Maybe they’ll call us ‘Most Innovative in a Monsoon’ or even ‘Most Failed Sump Pumps.’ I don’t care. I’m here for good and looking forward to a good dose of Colorado sunshine to put us back on the right path.

But I can’t wait for the day when I again enjoy the sound of rain.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic, Kate. You summed it up so well. I too can't wait for the day when I enjoy the sound of rain.


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