In 1965 the flooding South Platte River wreaked havoc from Denver to Julesburg; in 1975, the Big Thompson River ripped its own canyon apart after record-breaking rainfall. In both floods, people died and the land was changed. Then, in September 2013, came a flood that combined the worst of those two. This is an account of the author’s very personal experiences of that time.
My wife’s mother died on a Friday. By itself, it was no more or less significant than the death of anyone’s mother, and we certainly weren’t strangers to the emotions and tumult that would follow. We’d already lost both of our fathers, my mother, and a beloved aunt within about a five-year period, so we knew the drill.
I was prepared to hold her, to feel her sobs on my shoulder, to tell her it would be okay (if you don’t count the vivid dreams in which her mom would be very much alive) and help her through this one last loss.
What I wasn’t ready for was the blow Mother Nature would deal her and her family. On the day Mom died, the northern Front Range was already reeling from unprecedented rainfall. Familiar vacation spots were blown away by the raging water in the canyons. Our youngest son and his family had been evacuated from their home by the flooding Big Thompson; further south his older brother and family were battling leaky ceilings and flooding crawl spaces. As the reality of her mother’s death sank in, my wife came to another realization: All of that water was headed our way.
By the weekend dire predictions were marching in advance of the relentless water. We watched, helpless, as Kersey, Orchard, and Weldona became inundated. Weld County seemed to disappear under a brown blanket, then Morgan County. Sunday morning we frantically filled sandbags and piled them against our garage, mimicking what we saw elsewhere, with no idea what we were really doing.
“It never got onto our property in Sixty-Five,” she kept saying, but we sandbagged anyway.
By mid-day Sunday the news got worse. Bigger than ever, people said, and even the official word was either grim or lacking altogether. (Not that the emergency management people shirked their informational duty; it’s just that when Hell is lumbering toward you, it takes its own time getting there and there’s not much to say.)
We saw the first evacuation notice go out. It was south of Highway Six. Maybe, we thought, that would be enough. My wife’s telephone kept beeping and warbling and tweeting and tinkling; updates on the river, updates on the funeral arrangements. Is it really twenty-four feet at Balzac? Can’t be, not possible, Brush would be washed away. Did somebody sing “Ave Maria” at Dad’s funeral? Who’s working on the obituary? Did Johnny’s place flood in Sixty-Five? Yeah, “Ave Maria” and “How Great Thou Art.” Did we sandbag enough at Mom’s house? Yes, and there’s a good berm. They didn’t have that in Sixty-Five. Is somebody going to deliver a Eulogy? Oh, God, if that ditch is running, we’re gonna’ get water! Check facebook again – are we going to be evacuated? Which priest will be have?
And so it went all day. We packed, we filled water jugs, we filled the dog feeder, we left keys in the cars, we got ready to leave, we braced to stay. Mom had died and the apocalypse was upon us. The mind and soul are taxed to cope with either; my wife was trying to handle both at once.
Finally, late in the afternoon, with the Broncos up by an almost embarrassing score, she couldn’t take it any more.
“I have to go,” she said flatly. I knew she wasn’t talking about evacuation, though that was the context. She had to get the hell out of there, to run as fast and far as she could before it all crushed her. I threw her bag in her car, kissed her and promised I would stay safe. She left for our son’s house in Denver. She left her lap dog Cocoa behind, much to the pooch’s distress.
I went back in the house and experienced a loneliness I have never known before. I wanted to call her back, to beg her to stay. I wasn’t going to abandon the home I’d spent eight years building and landscaping and planting and fencing; it’s mine, and if it’s going to get washed away, well, it will have to be washed out from under me!
That was silly, of course. Water never even got on the property in Sixty-Five. The floor of the house is nine feet above flood stage. I drove down to the river bridges to check. In the waning daylight it didn’t look so bad. The “middle channel” was running, the river was certainly full, but there was plenty of capacity left, wasn’t there?
I haunted the internet and Facebook pages. The people who are supposed to watch things lost track of the crest, that all-important gob of water that defines a flood out here in the valley. It was supposed to be here at eight o’clock, then maybe nine. In the night, nobody knew where it was or how big it was or when it would get here. Ten’ o’clock, where is the crest? Eleven o’clock, no news. Then, suddenly, it was at Messex, and then Merino, and then it was in Atwood, and in a flash the authorities doubled the size of the evacuation area. I looked at the map and looked again. There it was, the interstate on one side, the old highway on the other. And we were in the middle of it.
It wasn’t an order, actually, but it wasn’t an idle suggestion. The order would come later, in the wee hours of the morning, but it was going to come. Make a decision and make it now; get out or get trapped.
Water never even got on our property in Sixty-five, remember?
This is bigger than Sixty-five, they said.
I grabbed Cocoa, locked the front door, climbed in the pickup and headed for Denver. I was evacuating. I was being prudent. Maybe I was being silly, but if so, I’d be back home by noon the next day and at work by one o’clock.
Monday, while the river swallowed everything around our home, we walked our granddaughter to school. She told her teachers that Nona and Grandpa were from Sterling and they’d been “flooded out.” The teachers clucked and cooed over us, making sympathetic faces, and then we walked back to our son’s house.
The phone calls and messages started again, more of the same, funeral arrangements made from 120 miles away, juxtaposed against images of highways closed and bridges washed, our chances of returning dwindling by the hour. Cell phone batteries were exhausted and recharged and depleted again. There was a conference call with a priest, calls to brothers and sisters, text messages, emails, tweets, the full complement of modern telecommunications harnessed to keep a handful of men and women abreast of the latest developments. The music, the highway closures, the priest’s rules, the state’s regulations, the Gospel reading, the road conditions, bridges open and closed, flowers ordered, hotels available, relatives who could and would be there and the detours required for them to attend.
And then the game changer. A key pump in the wastewater treatment system was swamped and damaged and out of commission. No-flush. No way in, no way out, no way to tend to basic sanitary needs. The bad news was relentless; the electrical sub-station was inundated, maybe the power would go out, delaying the funeral another week, forcing them to close the casket. A very large clan was going to descend on our home in five days to bury the matriarch of the family, and there were no beds to rent, no restaurants open, no useable indoor plumbing anywhere in town. Back at our own house our toilets worked and we had fresh water, but the roads were cut. The wretchedness of the possibilities became clear.
By Tuesday things weren’t any better, but they weren’t any worse. We had to come home, had to see for ourselves. We piled all of our luggage and Cocoa into the pickup, locked my wife’s car, and headed for home. We were not prepared for what we found. The brown blanket covered our friends’ and neighbors’ homes. The road to our house was impassable. The affable police officer manning the barricade gave me all of the facts he had, including the fact that I was not going around his barricade. I respected that. A sympathetic CDOT worker took me aside and surreptitiously pointed out a “back way” around the barricade to where a dry road would lead us home. The affable police officer turned his back and studied his barricade. I climbed into the pickup and informed my wife that the truck’s four-wheel drive was about to become useful.
“What!?” she replied.
“Buckle up, Buttercup,” I said.
I won’t deny I enjoyed being bold and brazen and a little bit outlaw-ish, especially since the detour involved driving from open prairie into the sheriff’s office parking lot. In a few minutes we were home.
My employer was open and needing bodies, so I reported to work the next day. I don’t know what my wife went through, making the necessary arrangements over the next two days, but the value of her sisters’ assistance is incalculable. A brother-in-law conspired with a co-worker to get Mom’s burial clothes to the mortuary and another sister met my wife at the barricade to make the long trip through Atwood into town for last-minute arrangements. The three women, through sheer dint of their strong wills – inherited from their deceased mother – got the job done, even as the combined resources of local, state and federal authorities struggled to set their world aright.
The funeral was little different from all the others I’ve attended for my wife’s family. An unaware observer would have wondered at the priest’s comments about hardship and extreme circumstances. There was no talk of no-flush and only rare mentions of the inconveniences of having to rent motel rooms 40 and 50 miles away. At the end of the day it was clear that what I had watched was not so much a natural disaster as the hard determination of a family to render proper respects to its beloved mother, regardless of what Mother Nature threw at them.
The water will recede, the infrastructure will be rebuilt, and blessedly boring routine will return. But for my wife, things are irrevocably changed. She’s fled her home because it was no longer safe; she’s lost the last person standing between her and mortality. These things change a person. For her, life will never be the same.