From Boulder, Colorado: Notes on a Thousand-Year Flood

A resident recollects the wet and fearful days at the center of a historic natural disaster. 
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U.S. Air National Guard/Handout via Reuters

Wednesday, September 11

The rain begins to fall in Boulder on Wednesday. It's heavier than usual, but I figure it will blow over the way storms do in Colorado. I pick up my son Theo from preschool and my daughter Maya from second grade as the water begins to pool and lap across Foothills Parkway.

My husband Julien and I had driven through Jamestown to hike along the St. Vrain River just the weekend before. We'd visited Lyons and Estes Park not long before that. I would have observed them more carefully if I'd known it would be the last time I'd see these charming mountain towns, hosts of music festivals and summer tourists. Because by the time this storm ends, none of these towns will be the same.

Thursday, September 12

School is cancelled as the rain continues. The news grows increasingly alarming. When I try to venture out, the water in the streets is too high for my car, so I turn back and stay in. Water geysers up from the manhole covers in the streets. Boulder officials tell us to "shelter in place."

I should work, but can't concentrate so I nervously clean as we listen to reports of a twenty-foot wall of water rushing down nearby Left Hand Canyon. Water starts to flood into our neighbors' basement, so Julien heads over with our wet vac to help.

Our basement begins to flood later that evening. At first we're able to fight it back with the wet vac and some mops. Maya and Theo push water toward the drain with brooms. Our neighbor reports the sewer is backing up into his house. Our front door is unlocked, drenched neighbors wandering in, consulting, and commiserating. The water seeps in from the foundation now, faster than we can remove it. The kids bring their toys upstairs as we go room by room salvaging. At some point I open a bottle of wine to calm myself down. I drink the entire bottle that night.

As I shuffle stuff from my office upstairs, I vow to live differently in the future, aspiring to the minimalism depicted in the old photo of Steve Jobs sitting cross legged on the floor of his house furnished with just a lamp and a cup of tea. From now on I will immediately throw out all non-functional pens instead of lazily returning them to the penholder until I find one that works.

The Internet and landline go down. The only sources of information are the radio and the TV, which tell us the surrounding roads around us are impassable, yet we should seek higher ground in the event of an evacuation. The nearby Baseline Reservoir dam is showing signs of damage as the rain continues to pelt—if it doesn't hold the only option for us is to climb onto the roof. We hear flood sirens in the distance. I panic as the water rises in our basement. Julien tells me it's not going to rise so high that we'll have to leave and I try to believe him. I don't know which way to flee with my kids if it comes to that. My brother and parents call and try to look up exit routes for me. I throw my wallet, cell phone, checkbook, clothes and snacks for the kids in a suitcase.  

We are so busy coping with the flood in our basement that four-year-old Theo turns free range.  He helps himself to cookies, watches monster truck videos on an endless loop, and dumps all the toys I've carried up and placed neatly in his closet all over his floor. I finally put the kids to bed around 11 and hope I won't have to wake them in a few hours to evacuate.

Boulder absorbs more rain than it ever has in a 24-hour period.

A stranded home near Golden, CO on September 12 (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Friday, September 13

It's still raining. A neighbor comes to use our toilet as sewers continue to back up into his house. I use the Wi-Fi at his. Maybe between our entire neighborhood we can cobble together one functioning house.

Boulder officials hold a press conference from my daughter's elementary school. "That's the mural in the cafeteria!" she says as we watch the grim-faced men and women talking about the toll this ongoing storm is taking. A dazed, sopping raccoon wanders across our driveway.

When the rain stops briefly and some roads clear, Julien drives off to find a pump but fans are sold out at every store. "Get on your social network and ask people to lend us fans," he tells me. I post a message on Facebook using our neighbor’s Wi-Fi, and within minutes there are many offers.

We know we're fortunate—entire sections of towns have been wiped away or stranded, and several people have died. The missing number in the hundreds.

A couple examines the damage on the ground floor of their home in Boulder on September 13 (Mark Leffingwell/Reuters)

Saturday, September 14

The damage to our neighborhood is stark. Driveway-sized dumpsters sit everywhere. One has labeled a pile "CONTAMINATED," to discourage dumpster diving in belongings covered with fecal matter, I suppose. Generators power pumps shooting sewer water out of people's basements through fire hoses.

Down the street, a neighbor's sewer line collapsed. The street is filled with cleanup crew trucks and porta-potties. All the family's belongings are strewn over the yard, like a sodden eviction. Tomatoes have ripened and rolled away. The woman who owns the home sits outside, sorting through wet pictures, flicking them severely onto the ground, her expression the most extreme frown I've ever seen. There is no emoticon for her emotion—a mixture of anger, sadness, and disgust. I want to tell her I’m sorry, but she doesn't look up, so I leave her alone.

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Jenny Shank is a writer based in Boulder, Colorado. Her novel The Ringer won the High Plains Book Award in fiction.

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