This is a flashback to an anxious morning we experienced over three years ago.
The date was Thursday, September 12, 2013.
At 5:13 AM, the familiar yet unwelcome chime of the alarm clock wakes me from sound sleep and soon-forgotten dreams. I roll over to see that Renée has already started her day. Her sleeping patterns are sometimes like that: “late to bed and early to rise.” Last night the driving rain had increased to a deluge as we crawled into the warmth beneath the covers of our bed.
Rain. The term in Colorado is “moisture.” Here, we seldom get real rain, but this week we are getting it—yes, buckets of H2O. Moisture is always welcome here in Colorado, but this is autumn, and the rains they had predicted seemed out of season and not very likely. “Rain during harvest” is considered an unwelcome and foreboding omen. Indeed, the rains came as predicted, but the magnitude was beyond anyone’s expectations.
Last night, before retiring to bed, fifteen-year-old Joel quickly ran outside our house in the foothills northwest of Lyons, Colorado. He sprinted down to the creek bed to see if there was any water running. He is the son who is particularly observant and interested in weather patterns and noting temperatures and precipitation amounts. He returns with news that there is a little water in the typically dry creek bed, but not enough to actually flow. And so we all go to bed at 10:00 PM listening to the gradually increasing sound of pouring rain. At 11:00 PM, I am jolted from obscure dreams by the frantic calling of Joel: “Get up everyone, there’s a river outside the back door.” Despite my heavy eyes, Joel convinces me to step out the back door with him to witness the creek surging over its banks.
This morning at 5:20, Renée returns to the bedroom from her computer where she had read a couple messages from friends who live along the river. Renée announced: “You’re not going to work today. There is flooding down in Lyons. It’s bad. The King’s bridge has washed away.” I see the image of their arched steel footbridge spanning the river whose foundations are typically five feet above the waterline. She also said that another friend, Cathy, sent a message that she gave up trying to keep the water out of her house and “evacuated.” Apparently, the blaring emergency sirens echoed off the sandstone cliffs that surround the small town. I listen as the heavy raindrops continue to punish our rooftop. Over the pelting of the rain, I hear the raging of the creek behind our house that had unexpectedly revived last night. In my early morning drowsiness, an eerie apocalyptic feeling slowly surrounds me.
As the rain-muted-light of dawn dimly illuminates the landscape, the situation becomes more apparent. The rain, out-of-season as it may be, has managed to totally saturate the typically dry, absorbent ground. Subsequent precipitation is now rolling off the earth as it would from the back of a duck. Keeping my distance, I walk along the creek donning rain gear and holding the umbrella that was so difficult to locate due to its infrequent use. Amazed at the volume of surface water that had suddenly appeared, I stand in awe, not quite sure I had ever previously witnessed a flash flood. Overcome by curiosity, my family and I run up and jump into the car to take a little tour of the neighborhood. Excessive water flows everywhere we look, obeying gravity, desperately seeking lower ground, mostly succeeding.
We drive the four-mile loop around the back section of our neighborhood and hesitate before crossing the section of Colard Lane that dams up the small depression that we call Bristow’s pond. For a couple weeks during the spring, if the runoff is plentiful, this pond can be full of water and full of life. Beyond that, it is usually a muddy, sandy slough that attracts thirsty mammals at night, a variety of birds during the day, and breeding mosquitoes during dusk and dawn. Today, the water is at the brim, and we are hesitant to cross the road that serves as its earthen dam, but across we venture.
Another mile along the soggy road, we approach another smaller creek-crossing that typically trickles through a couple culverts several feet below the surface of Rowell Drive. Today, the swollen creek kisses the shoulder of the road upstream to our left. Gushing water roars toward our property from the culverts downstream, beneath us to our right. I park the car a safe distance from the saturated, mushy road that crosses the normally dry creek bed. The rain continues to pelt the roof, windshield, and hood of our idling Subaru. Donned in rain gear, a couple of us venture out on foot to test the stability of the soft, waterlogged dirt road. Water from the upstream side is lapping onto the surface of the roadway now. Splashing dots pound the surface of the upstream water in the pond to our left, as well as the numerous puddles that surround us on the road. The road feels like a large pile of spongy mud beneath my boots. With sufficient velocity and subsequent momentum, we may have crossed in the Subaru without incident, but although our driveway is less than a hundred yards beyond this crossing, we make the wise decision to turn around and drive back the four-mile loop on the road we had already tested.
Returning to the dry confines of our home, I find myself staring mindlessly out the picture windows into the driving rain, and at the raging river that only yesterday had merely been a damp creek bed. Sitting along the edge of a river or stream has typically been one of my most relaxing “activities.” I find it soothing to watch something completely obeying gravity on its journey to the sea. But today, the sight is far from soothing; definitely unnerving. At this point, I can only imagine the volume of water that is flowing down the north fork of the Saint Vrain River which is a thousand vertical feet below our home.
Our sons, overcome by curiosity, asked to run up and see if the road had given way yet. With raincoats and hats, they disappear into the driving rain as the front door slams behind them. I did not even consider looking at the clock or setting a timer, but it was approximately two or three minutes after their departure that the creek of high-flowing milk chocolate suddenly doubled in volume and the color changed to a distinctive color of dark chocolate. Marcel and Joel are both within the precarious age group of males that consider themselves invincible, and I feel adrenaline and cortisone pouring into my bloodstream. I quickly calculate the time required for my boys to run up the twenty-five sandstone steps, scamper up the hundred foot driveway, and over the rise in the road and down the hundred yards to the creek crossing in question. In the corner of my eye, I see a large, black object tumbling down the creek. Turning in wonder, I see a twenty-inch diameter, thirty-foot long plastic culvert doing somersaults past our house. The apocalyptic feeling returns to my gut. This storm seems to have reached Biblical proportions.
I had always taken pride in my ability to remain calm in stressful situations. I suppose it is one of the side effects of working in power plants that are, for significant safety reasons, designed to shut themselves down if anything is not just right. It is said that we work in the middle of “controlled danger.” Modern combustion turbines fire at over 2500 degrees Fahrenheit, have 70 tons of metal spinning at 3600 revolutions per minute and crank out over 400,000 horsepower. Steam turbines utilize steam at over 2000 pounds per square inch and 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. Should someone be nearby if one of the steam lines ruptures, there would be no sign of them, not even enough to match dental records. Whenever any of these turbines trip off-line and the generator breaker opens, the safely controlled dispersal of that immense amount of energy is never guaranteed. Perhaps I exaggerate, but after decades of experience working in this environment, potentially hysterical and dangerous situations can begin to seem routine.
But the situation feels quite different when the water flows outside the confines of pipes and turbines and the driving force is unregulated gravity. The panic reaches another level when it is my own family in jeopardy. This morning, my nerves got pushed over that proverbial cliff.
As I run up the stairs toward the front door, I yell to Renée, “Watch the creek to see if the boys go downstream.” Wearing jeans and a tee shirt, I run past the jackets hanging on the hooks by the front door and out into the pouring rain. My heart is leaping from my chest as I scale the steps two or three at a time. Prayers pour from my lips with every panting breath. Up the steps and up the slope of the driveway, I reach the soggy road and turn left with frantic eyes scanning the ever-expanding horizon.
As I crest the top of the rise in the road, the unstable section of the road enters my field of vision. It is now a wide, impassable chasm. Recognizing my sons among the small crowd of spectators, I physically and emotionally release the stress-filled contents of my lungs. An audible exhalation is my first response. I then reduce my desperate sprint to a brisk walk. As I approach the group of neighbors, I realize that I am soaked to the bone, and a shiver rattles its way down my spine.
Our neighbors from across the road, Meg and Josef, are there with a friend of theirs, as well as Larry and Rhonda, and their grown son, Dustin, who live a mile further up the road. They are responsible for grading and plowing these private roads, and are here to assess the damage. The witnesses are looking out from beneath the dripping hoods of their rain gear, smiling and shaking their heads as one who had just heard a bad joke. As I join the assembly, we hear a rumble and turn to see another slab of the dirt road plunge into the stream in the bottom of the newly-formed canyon.
As we stood chatting in the rain a thousand vertical feet above the town of Lyons, the Saint Vrain River, which typically meanders peacefully through town, was in the process of sweeping large trees, vehicles, propane tanks, and homes downstream. At this point in the day, we had no idea what a wild torrent that little river had become. Tragically, during the previous twelve hours, eight human beings had been consumed by the cold, suffocating water that rushed off the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains.
Marcel and Joel, who are distance runners for Lyons High School, are often seen running up and down these hilly roads around the neighborhood. Dustin, who is also periodically out grading the dirt roads looks at them with a suppressed, cynical grin and says, “Well, I guess you won’t be running this direction for a while.” Waiting for the next chunk of earth to fall into the torrent, we stand in the rain and connect with the neighbors in the context of our mutual adversity. This was a precursor to many subsequent visits with a wide range of neighbors in the next couple weeks when the social landscape of the neighborhood would become more compact while particles that had composed the physical landscape dispersed downstream.