Yesterday was a gorgeous early fall day. It would've been a perfect afternoon to hike the Anne U. White trail. Unfortunately, it's now the Anne U. White jumble of rocks and downed trees, made inaccessible by a river channel running through the parking lot and trailhead.
At 7 pm on Wednesday, September 11th, I was at work making a hilarious meme after three unusually rainy days in Boulder. Kelly asked me to pick up Chinese food on the way home, so I called and placed an order. Listening to Soelta Gael
, I heard an emergency broadcast system announcement that the rain clouds had just passed through Boulder and were expected to camp out above the Four Mile burn area and flash floods were expected. "Whoa," I said, "I'd better bring the Chinese home to Kelly before a bunch of debris washes up on the road."
With windshield wipers on the highest setting and a pleasant smell in the car, I arrived at the base of Wagonwheel Gap Rd to find two firefighters and a truck blocking the way. I asked if I could drive up to my house, which is just past Bow Mountain Dr. They didn't want to let me in, but suggested I drive through Pine Hills to Bow Mountain where another firefighter pair might let me cross the road. That route was significantly scarier, with hairpin turns in tight fog and deepening rivulets through the dirt road. I explained to the second set of firefighters that I lived in that house right there, on top of the steep driveway, and that I was bringing dinner to my girlfriend and wasn't planning to go anywhere else that night. They let me through; Kelly made a "my hero!" boast post on Facebook.
After dinner, I spent a bunch of time reading the Internet, then started writing some code, occasionally stepping out on the porch to admire the water running down the street, highlighted by firefighters' bright lights. At midnight, the elderly couple across the street, with the creek running strong along their back yard, drove past the firefighters and over the mountain to safety. At 1 am, the power in the neighborhood went out. "Oh my," I realized, "This experience might get a lot more exciting." Without sun, electricity or Internet, I did what anyone would do: went to bed.
At 5 am on Thursday we got a reverse 911 call announcing that electricity and gas would be shut off in our area for 24 hours. At 7:30 the sun, still filtered through clouds and rain, was bright enough to get us out of bed. I surveyed the canyon from our windows and porch, expecting to see a bunch of mud and sticks on the road, perhaps preventing me from getting to work that day. Instead I discovered that an entire 10-foot section of road at the bottom of our driveway had disappeared, replaced by a rushing river and a jumble of rocks. I realized then that this would be much more of an adventure (yet staying in place) than I'd expected.
I called my manager, thankful we have some corded phones that work without electricity. "I'm letting you know that there's no longer a road at the bottom of my driveway and we have no power." "Do you want someone to come get you?" "No, let me explain: there is no road
to my house." "Oh, so you're working from home?" "No, there's no power." "Oh, okay. Stay safe and take care of what you need to do." "Yes, we will. Could you please find someone to cover my oncall shift? I will not be responding to any pages for a while."
We realized that no power means no water when you're in the mountains on a well. We filled a few gallon jugs with the water left in the purification system. I filled a few more from the water container left over from Burning Man. We took advantage of the clogged gutters and continuing downpour to fill four large tubs with water for all our non-potable needs, primarily toilet flushing. We took stock of our food situation: fine. Chinese leftovers, some meat in the fridge, a table full of pretzels, ginger snaps, spam packets, dried fruit, and other non-perishable deliciousness from festival season. Not to mention a cabinet full of provisions and a freezer with slowly thawing meat, chocolate, and Tofuti Cuties. Cooking wouldn't be too much of a hassle, thanks to two camp stoves and a box of propane canisters. Also thanks to impulse Burning Man purchases we were flush with flashlights, AA, and AAA batteries. We found the pack of C batteries I'd bought when I really wanted Ds, thankful for the mistake that let us turn on the radio. Thanks to KGNU, Boulder's community radio station
and the National Weather Service, we had a pretty good idea of what was going on: flooding all over Boulder County, and plenty of folks worse off than we were.
Grabbing one of the 20 warming beers in the mini-fridge, I recalled a bumper sticker I'd seen on a computer at Burning Man: Maybe partying will help.
It turns out to be a pretty good motto.
We called parents to assure them we were okay and would be staying put for a few days until the river goddess's visit was over. Our landlord called; we assured him the house was fine. He asked if we wanted him to bring us anything. No, people hiking in would just make the situation worse. We've got plenty of food and water and batteries and flashlights. What we'd like you to bring, our upstairs neighbor said, is three pepperoni pizzas. We're fine; we'll band together; we can survive like this for a week. We're Burners, we do this sort of thing for fun.
Over the next three days we had a fantastic, if somewhat damp, time. We met way more neighbors than we had in a year of living there. Potlucking with the folks on either side of our house, we ate steak, halibut, vegetables, omelets, and bacon. We drank beer, wine, and mead. We played Dominion, crazy eights, and a bunch of percussion instruments from my room. After a year of random access clothing storage on top of my dresser, I folded all my T-shirts and put them in drawers. I found my copies of The Hobbit
and The Cyberiad
that I'm in the middle of and had been looking for since July. We packed and repacked for hike-out evacuation in 21st Century style: two changes of socks, a pair of cargo pants, a warm hat, a Ziploc with cell phones, a tangle of cords, a grocery bag with my Mac Mini and another with my hard drive.
As Thursday and Friday unfolded, we'd saunter down the driveway every hour or two to ogle the river and marvel at how much less of a road we had
. There was a car stuck against a tree in the middle of the creek, having floated 200 yards downstream after falling out of a garage. There was also an electric lawnmower at the edge of the paved precipice, arriving by some great measure of cosmic luck or perhaps an uphill neighbor with a sense of humor. As water receded the gas lines were revealed, naked as they ran up the canyon.
A year ago in September there was no water in Fourmile Canyon Creek; a hike up the Anne U. White trail revealed only a few strips of mud. We had a box packed for the cat in case we had to evacuate in a hurry from a fire. Flames were no longer a concern as the soil refused any new water, forcing rainfall to flow down the slope. The minor ditch on the north side of the street–downhill from a totally separate drainage basin than Fourmile Canyon Creek–had become a creek of its own, conjoining with the canyon's main water course several feet below the end of our driveway. I remarked that if we got three feet of snow we could get some fantastic air sledding down our driveway before crunching safely into powder padding the rocks. Yet again, maybe partying will help.
On Saturday morning, the rain took a break and the skies cleared. Dozens of folks were exploring the area, sharing speculative tips on how to hike out and where it might be safe to cross the river. Our upstairs neighbors rescued two cats from a nearby evacuated house. A few guys from the power company hiked in, surveyed the lines, and before noon we had power back on. This changed the fun survivalist game quite a bit. The food in the freezer wasn't in danger. (Cold) showers, dishes, and toilet flushing were possible. Nights would be more normal, less intimate. Without much warning, our upstairs neighbors took the slight rain reprise and crossed the river with three cats and a dog, meeting up with a friend on the other side and hiking up the the road on side of the canyon.
On Sunday the 15th, as we finished camp coffee, tea, and bacon, a UTV of firefighters came down the canyon. They told us more rain was expected through Monday and Tuesday. "That's disappointing," I said, "We were planning to hike out on Monday or Tuesday." The firefighters let us know that they had some trucks parked just up the road which could evacuate us now, and that they wouldn't be coming back in the next few days. Making sure our next door neighbors (who couldn't hike out) were coming, we grabbed our backpacks, put the cat in the carrier we'd prepared with comforts and treats, and gave a big thank you to the BLM firefighter from Rifle with a pickup who drove us out through Carriage Hills, skirting the chasm near the top of the road while a crew shored it up. It was a more abrupt departure than I'd expected so there wasn't much closure; as I looked down from Lee Hill a part of me wished I was still there, enjoying the flood, the camaraderie, and the lack of chaos and responsibility from the rest of the world. It had been a fleeting glimpse of how life was not so long ago in parts of the U.S., and still is today in many parts of the world.
Returning to the connected world, we discovered that several of our friends and relatives were a bit panicked about us and considered hiking in to see if we were okay. We found this a bit amusing, since we weren't panicked about our conditions at all. We were rather glad that nobody hiked in to save us, because we wouldn't have let them hike back out: the river was pretty dangerous and we've got a hammock you can sleep in, not to mention bacon. Furthermore, we were in a far better position to assess the hiking options: we know the curves of the canyon, we know exactly where we live, and we could turn around and retreat to safety if we got to a dead end. If you're concerned about your loved ones in a natural disaster, check the people finder resources and contact the folks organizing the emergency response. Volunteer firefighters who live in your friend's neighborhood will do a much better search and rescue (or search and say hello and leave in place) operation than a pal with a backpack with some trail mix and a gallon of water.
As flood evacuees, I think we're pretty lucky. My parents live in Boulder; they greeted us with open arms and an available master bedroom. Kelly's mom isn't far away either, and her house is a good base of operations for Kelly's weekend classes. The only damage to our house up the canyon was some water that seeped into the carpet in my bedroom; the only damaged objects were empty cardboard boxes. Although our cars are stuck at the top of a driveway which ends at a chasm, we're in one of the best cities in the country for alternative transportation. Before I got my bike situation sorted out I spent a few days walking to work, a 45-minute opportunity to catch up on podcasts from August. Our evacuation expenses have been fairly minimal, too: cat food and litter, a week's worth of clothes and other immediate needs at Target, a couple hundred bucks to my parents for food and gratitude for space.
Cruising around town in the two weeks since the flood has been a bit surreal. Boulder was just the focal point of a major natural disaster, yet after two days of sun there was less visible damage than after any heavy snowstorm in March. Boulder Creek was higher and faster than I've ever seen it before and you can tell where creeks and ditches had overflowed by the red- and orange-tinged dirt residue that's been swept to the sides of the streets. Open areas along waterways are now covered in this dusty umber, a subtle surprise out of the corner of your eye when you're used to seeing a field of wilting green. Several bike paths, which almost invariably follow the water, are still under an inch of gunk.
Yet these evaporated muddy fields and closed bike paths are all part of the plan. For several decades, Boulder city government has displayed an unwavering focus on flood mitigation, pushing back hard on people who wanted to build in 100- and 500-year flood plains. Along came a thousand-year flood
and the city came out in fine shape. Fewer than 10 people died in the county and most of the buildings which washed away were in the mountains or in Lyons, which hasn't had as flood-focused a zoning process.
The flood response and rescue effort also highlighted effective government at its best. The National Weather Service provided fantastic and timely information. County and local officials started disaster response on Wednesday night and were (as far as I could tell, with the radio as my only connection to the world) on top of assessment, response, and communication. Volunteer firefighters hiked through the hills to check on folks and prioritize evacuations. The federal government got involved quickly, with National Guard helicopters flying rescue missions as soon as the skies were safe, FEMA organizing crisis response, responders from other jurisdictions joining the effort, and government-supported relief organizations Red Cross and United Way setting up shelters, staging areas, and providing other social infrastructure. Road crews were quickly working hard in tough conditions and Xcel has been on the ball restoring utilities.
Over two weeks, a crew established a replacement road for the sections of Wagonwheel Gap Road that had transformed into Wagonwheel Chasm. It's not paved, and it's one-lane in several sections. It also, unfortunately, leaves a large gap at the bottom of our driveway, so our cars are still camping out, wondering when partying will help. Our house is one of the few in the county without gas, though they expect to be ready to turn on the pilot light this week. It will be a week or so until our carpet can be replaced–you won't be surprised to learn that there's a backlog of carpet orders in Colorado. In the mean time, I'm boxing up all my books and moving all the ends and quite odds from my bedroom into the living room. It's a bit like moving, with the object placement rejiggering and the "I probably don't need most of what's in this box but I don't have time to go through it" sighs and the "where am I living" angst and the "I have other things I'd rather do with my spare time." Other things like hiking the trail. I'll miss out on so many great colors of leaves and crisp breaths of air. I'm glad I was present for this experience, though. It's rare in our modern world to see up close the dangerous power of water, the abysmal
and how it handles the obstruction of a mountain keeping still
. We got to watch local geography be made.