This is my story of the 100-year flood in Boulder County, Colorado. It’s not nearly as dramatic as those of many people, in part because I live in Louisville (on a hill up from Boulder, where much of the worst flooding came through). What a send-off for my last night in Colorado! Follow the hashtags #Boulder, #BoulderFlood, and #COFlood for more information. Please consider donating to the relief funds for the Red Cross, and check out
@BoulderRelief for more information on efforts to clean up. Boulder’s Office of Emergency Management ( @BoulderOEM) is the best source of reliable information on this ongoing disaster.
It’s Wednesday night, September 11,2013. I’m making my final preparations to move to England. My sister is over and we work on a Stonehenge/Flatirons hybrid set of paintings to emulate the move with megaliths from both homes. We listen to classical music and sip Colorado wine in celebration of the move. We’re almost too busy to hear the insistent alarming of our phones, going off several times within about 20 minutes. My sister glances down.
“Flash flood warning for Boulder County.” We shrug.
In the last month, a flash flood warning for Boulder County was a daily afternoon ritual. Thanks to the wildfires for which our state became famous in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013, the National Weather Service seemed to issue one at least once a day. Nothing had ever materialized. We keep painting, the satellite radio silent on the rapidly worsening weather situation. Soon, it’s time for my sister to head home. We take a few self-photos with our artwork.
As she’s about to head out the door, I remember that I bought a card for her and her boyfriend. “Wait just a minute!” I shout, and run down the stairs into my bedroom to retrieve it.
It’s dark down there, but I know the way without my eyes. I run through the living room, past my suitcases for England that are laying about half packed. I avoid the many boxes of apartment goods piled on the western wall, turning the corner with my eyes closed. I always do that in the pitch black, for some reason. Makes it seem less dark.
My eyes snap open, but I can’t see what’s going on. I almost fell on my face, so I shuffle down the hallway to my room, opening the door and turning on the light.
“Mom! Dad! Help!”
There is water all over the floor of my room, and it’s leaking out the door into the living room. My computer is sitting on the desk, a waterfall coming in the window and spilling over the keyboard. I grab it and rush out of the room, pouring the water out of the computer onto the floor as my parents arrive. “There’s water everywhere,” I state, stupidly. It’s blatantly obvious.
Less obvious was the source of the waterfall. The window well behind my desk is nearly full to the brim with brown water, but it is hard to see how badly from inside. The light camouflages the water and made it look empty. Once we run outside it becomes clear, as the water starts rushing from the patio and grass into the window well almost as fast as we can get rid of it. My dad takes off to get a pump, my mom has the shopvac in sucking the water out from the window, and my sister and I are frantically bailing the yard with buckets. I have the feeling of being on a sinking ship.
My dad would later estimate that there were between 170 and 200 gallons of water in the window well. The decorative silver pail from the garden gets put to hard work, as we fill it again and again from the window and throw the water as far away as possible. As the water recedes it gets deeper and deeper, requiring me to lean all the way into the window well and pull the full bucket all the way up to throw it. “Again!” I tell myself aloud. “One more!” I’m getting tired, but there is still water coming in. “Come on!”
My dad gets back with the pump, but it’s still too high in the window. We can’t reach in anymore, and he can’t fit into the opening easily. “I’ll climb in, it’ll be ok,” I hear myself say. It’s a little scary, actually. What if the floor is quicksand, and I just sink in to my shoulders? How will we get me out? I lower myself into the window, slowly. At first I can’t feel the bottom, the idea of being stuck in the filling window well flashing into my mind.
I have to jump the last few inches, hoping for solid ground. It holds. My brand new leather boots, with no time to change into older shoes, are now submerged in knee-deep brown water, filled with dead spiders and a potent cocktail of bird and squirrel droppings. I can barely see my mom inside, still manning the shopvac. I start pulling buckets as fast as I can, balancing them on my chest as I have to raise them from floor level to above my head to get it out of the hole. The top of the metal cover for the window well is just above my head, and i have to arch backward to pass it to my dad. My sister throws me a smaller bucket and I fill it, too. The big bucket spills squirrel poop water over my head with every pass. I can’t really see after a while, with so much dirt and birdseed and poop in my eyes. I am continually spitting, dirty water going in my mouth. I’m realizing just how out of lifting shape I’m in, and this is boot camp!
Eventually we get the water just below the sill, and it stops coming in. My dad and sister pull me out of the hole, and I hit my hips in the effort to miss the glass with my foot. No need for an actual emergency on top of our water emergency.
The pump won’t work, so we go back to bailing. We’re losing ground, though, and the water is pouring back into the window well. I’d rather not have to get back in there. What we need are sandbags, I think.
“The compost bags! Grab them! Let’s make a barricade!”
The rain is pouring down so hard it’s pushing my contacts around in my eyes. My sister and I heave the bags of compost from the garden onto our backs. We walk over to the worst flooding and drop them unceremoniously directly into it. The water sloshes around them. “Are there any more?” We find some mulch in the corner, still in bags. We couldn’t use it in the vegetable garden because it was dyed. Thank god.
We build a small barrier with the bags and start pushing the water out with a flat broom and buckets. The next fifteen minutes are spent yelling back and forth trying to get the pump working, which took off. But the water was still pouring in. By accident, I pulled the end of the rain gutter off it’s base. This revealed a small drain outside the window well, which was clogged. I stuck my hand down into it and made a fist, trying to plunge it with my hand and clear it. Momentarily it works, and the water flows toward the garage.
Throughout the rest of the night, I stay in my soaked clothes. The water is encroaching on another window well and filling it, and we fall back to pull all the boxes and items up from the basement into the first floor of the house. I stop only around 11 PM to fuel up with some pizza and then am back carrying artwork and family heirlooms like a rocking chair up the stairs. By midnight the rain is slowing, and we take a rest. I don’t change out of my wet clothes, knowing it’s not yet over.
Within the hour, I’m out carrying buckets of water across the yard again. I can see my breath in the humidity and I’ve been soaked for hours. I try to guzzle hot water from the tap to raise my core temperature, but it’s not really helping. I have to call it a night.
Luckily, the next morning shows that we managed to mostly save the basement and keep the water out. The carpet begins drying and smells of mold killer, and I repack my luggage on four hours’ sleep to get to England.