It wasn’t quite 40 days and nights, but there was definitely some Old Testament smiting involved in Colorado’s “biblical flood” of 2013. Well over a foot of rain fell over the course of a couple days in a region where the average annual precipitation is only 21 inches and most of that is in the form of snow. The liquid stuff usually only comes in a tenths of an inch at a time. We here at Sanctum Central were fine–undamaged and undamp–but the same cannot be said for far too many others in the area. Creeks overflowed their banks and changed their courses. Roads were washed away in many of the canyons and bridges were destroyed on the plains. Basements flooded, sewers backed up, cars floated hither and yon, and there was serious talk of building arks.
The waters have mostly subsided now and people are taking stock. The devastation to infrastructure and natural landscapes is horrific and everyone is grieving in his own particular way. For many of us in the outdoor-oriented crowd, especially those of us who escaped without any personal, more tangible loss, this grieving has been for lost access to the outdoors. As basically all east-west roads into the mountains are impassable, we are cut off from any access to the local mountains (IPW, RMNP) for foreseeable future. The local trails are all closed and trail damage is reportedly extensive. It’s killing me that I can’t get out there and visit my precious wilderness in its time of need nor directly do anything to help those less lucky than I.
With such a huge and motivated workforce available, it was perhaps inevitable that it self-organize (sort of) into something like the Donate Boulder Mudslingers. Shortly after the floodwaters receded and people switched into recovery mode, a Facebook page was established, office space found, corporate donors rounded up (everything from shovels and gloves to beer and hamburgers), and the good works commenced. It’s growing exponentially and only a few days after inception, the organization is placing dozens of volunteers throughout the community to help where they can.
I hooked up with them on Friday to help assuage my survivor’s guilt and get some good things done. I spent two hours in the morning mucking out moldy boxes and drywall in a basement in South Boulder. Cutting drywall is quite therapeutic though not exactly fun. Note to self: store things in the basement in big rubber bins, not old cardboard boxes.
It took eight people about two hours to get the worst of that basement taken care of and I wandered back to HQ for some lunch (Five Guys Burgers! Mmmm!) and reassignment for an afternoon location but was immediately redirected by Generalisima Blair, doyen of the computer database, social media, and ostensible coordinator of the brute labor force, to north Boulder where Isaac was assembling a “big crew for a big job”. Sorry, no burgers for you!
An hour later, I was (still hungry) piling out of a van a few yards shy of the big Road Closed sign in one of the local canyons along with about two dozen other people, gearing up with shovel, pry bar, and a big stack of plastic buckets (thanks to Home Depot for that), and trooping off under the police ribbon. What the sign should say is “Road Gone” because just around the bend, the pavement simply ceases and there is a 15′ cliff down into the raging river. I’d seen lots of aerial photos of the road damage, but they simply don’t do the reality justice. It was humbling, despair-inducing, and yet beautiful all in one.
We scrambled down a very rough trail along the edge of the cliff, across some large rocks, and along a newly-formed beach on the other side before regaining only moderately-damaged pavement a hundred yards later on. From here on, it was a beautiful walk through a Front Range canyon down the middle of the rock-littered road along the still-raging creek for a mile or so. It’s weird that this post-apocalyptic landscape could be so beautiful; blue sky, birds singing, flowers blooming, and a totally unusable piece of major engineering.
We finally reached the project site at about 1pm… and immediately saw why our help was needed. Early in the biblical storm, a flash flood had carried thousands of tons of rocks, logs, mud, and water down a previously-dry valley and straight through a man’s house. The homeowner, Steve, had been outside at the time but managed to sprint back into his house just ahead of the wall of water, rocks, and trees. The water caught him in the house, carried him out through the garage and a hundred yards down-slope to the other side of the raging river where he ended up in a tree, miraculously, uninjured. He said the whole thing was over in 30 seconds.
Also miraculously, the house was also pretty much uninjured just very very messy. Most of the rocks and trees were diverted to one side or the other thanks to some serendipitously-fallen tree trunks and large rocks. A huge tree and pair of rocks protected the house and propane tank and most of the debris flowed down the driveway or behind the house down into the road. However, the mud had come right in through the patio door and it looked like someone had poured chocolate fudge to an even depth of six inches throughout the entire first floor of the house (though not the basement). The refrigerator had a scum line about a foot up the front, but immediately above that, photos and knicknacks hung placidly from their magnets. It was beyond a doubt one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen!
We got straight to work shoveling the mud into buckets and dumping it off the back deck. Steve had been pretty despondent about whether his house could even be saved, but with a couple dozen people working at it (with others working on shifting debris from his driveway and other places), we got the mud emptied out in about three hours, then tore out the rugs and carted out much of the furniture. I spent a while on shovel duty, some time carrying and emptying buckets, and then tackled the engineering problem of getting a couple of furniture-sized rocks off the back deck. We shoveled out around them and, with great leverage and grunting, managed to roll them off the deck into the newly-landscaped back yard.
The effect was startling. Sure, the house was still dirty and a lot of furniture had been ruined, but gone was the isotropic mud. The house was still in good shape with only a single broken patio door and one corner of the deck broken down. Steve’s reaction to seeing the clean house and deck was really moving. He’s a former emergency first-responder, EMT, and life guard and has apparently saved the lives of more than a thousand people over four decades. I would have been happy to help regardless, but it was especially meaningful to help someone who has given so much of himself for other people.
There is plenty more work to be done and Steve’s story is only one of thousands in the Front Range. But today proved that there are plenty of willing and enthusiastic people out there and I hope to get back out there for more mud slinging in the coming weeks. The power of water to alter things beyond recognition is hard to comprehend, but the power of human good-will and hard work goes a long way toward evening the balance.