Thirty-two Days. It has been only 32 days since the waters roared down the canyons and into our lives. It feels like a lifetime ago. When I look back at our lives and our community 32 days ago, it is overwhelming to think about the life-shifting events we've all had to endure. We all have our individual stories, yet they blend together in a complex web of experiences. We've gone through something as a community. Mother Nature did her best to tear down everything we built, yet she couldn't tear apart the fabric of our community.
It was about 6:00 a.m. on September 12th when the power went out. My husband was called into work in Boulder and my eight-year-old son and I were alone in Pinewood Springs west of Lyons. I had been up all night obsessively watching the news on TV and reading more news updates online. The stories were terrifying. Sirens were going off in Lyons. Roads in Boulder were considered impassable. The dams were failing just above us in Big Elk Meadows. This wasn't just heavy rain. Something truly extraordinary was taking place in Colorado. It was clear I wouldn't be seeing my husband for a while. We were on our own. Fortunately, our home wasn't damaged. As I organized my supplies and assessed our situation, I also knew it was time to check in with my neighbors.
Like many other neighbors, I got in my SUV and started driving around the neighborhood looking for signs of life. The Cherry Company had opened its doors and became a make-shift community evacuation center. The fire station was buzzing with activity as our volunteer fire fighters juggled rescues with managing all our questions and fears. We will probably never know the magnitude of what that team of firefighters went through during the first few days of the flood. Heroes... all of them. Seriously. If you feel differently... then we need to talk. Obviously, there are stories you haven't yet heard.
Many of us sat in the Cherry Company during those first few days. We sat in the dark with no way to communicate with the outside world. As we drank our hot coffee that was prepared on a camp stove by neighbors, we began to get to know each other. I recognized many faces from seeing each other at the mailboxes... or in Lyons... but realized I didn't really KNOW my neighbors. And as I started introducing myself to people at the other tables, I felt a sense of loss for all those years I could have been enjoying the company of extraordinary people.
Plans began to fall into place. People traded and bartered to get what they needed to survive. I still had water service. If I could borrow a generator, I could also fire up the 3 refrigerator/freezers in my house and use satellite internet. I met a wonderful couple who had a generator but no water or internet. A deal was made... they would bring their generator to my house and use my water and internet. I had invited complete strangers to stay at my home but it was the best thing I did to ensure my son and me had what we needed.
We connected with many other neighbors and they came to my house to put food in the refrigerator, use the internet, power their laptops... and in the morning enjoy some hot coffee. We had extension cords running all over our house powering whatever was that day's priority. We were all in this situation together and in those days I feel our neighborhood really became a community.
The rains had calmed and we started attending meetings at the fire house to get updates on our situation. FEMA was coming but we didn't know when. The highways were destroyed. We were marooned on Pinewood Island. And we thrived. People became neighbors. Neighbors became partners in this epic event we were all going through together. And on some level, it was kind of fun. Let's face it... we're mountain people. We enjoy our solitude and our fortitude. We're resourceful... and mountain strong.
We had the highway to ourselves and we focused on basic needs not modern day worries. It was somewhat cleansing and made us focus on what really mattered. Our families. Our friends. Our community and homes. On the Sunday after the floods, about 20 of us gathered in my basement and fired up the generator to watch the Broncos game. What a great time spent with people we hardly knew before the floods.
It took a few days before we saw the first helicopters arrive. It was a relief to get help... but it also reinforced how serious the situation was all over Colorado. Little mountain hamlets like Jamestown, Drake, Glenhaven and our neighbors just up the road in Big Elk Meadows were just crushed. Boulder homes were flooded. And the waters kept traveling east wrecking community after community. It was heartbreaking.
I missed my husband and wanted him to come home. He is very athletic and expert mountain biker. Besides that he's just tough and resourceful. A man's man. He was stuck in Boulder since the night of the flood. While staying at a good friend's house who took him in, he got out maps and made plans with another friend to ride his mountain bike from Rabbit Mountain to Pinewood Springs. My son and I had done a good job on our own those first few days... but I wanted my husband back home. I was tired. And I knew he would figure out how to get to us. He did. On the afternoon of 9/14, I cried when I saw him standing on our front deck after riding (and hiking) his bike all the way up the remains of highway 36.
We were together. Our family and home was safe. Complete.
Our fire house meetings continued. We heard about our neighbors on the newly formed "Kiowa and Cree Island" streets that were cut off from the rest of the neighborhood due to the now raging Little Thompson river. It wasn't so little anymore. The "tubs" -- our beautiful cascading natural swimming holes -- were essentially gone. Crescent Lake was gone. Our phone service was out. Power was out. The water system was badly damaged. And it started raining again. When would it ever stop raining? Several rock slides had come down tearing down trees and massive boulders. Trails were washed out or destroyed. It was clear we would have to evacuate our community.
People started forming into two groups: those who would evacuate and those who would stay behind. We had a son who needed to go to school with the rest of his Lyons classmates. My husband and I both work in Boulder. Staying wasn't a good option, and we felt like we needed to be safe and get out of the way of the crews who would ultimately show up to repair our infrastructure.
Emergency management isn't a perfectly orchestrated science. It's a constant state of reaction to the crisis and other governing bodies like FEMA. When FEMA did arrive it was a blurred, furiously fast race to get all of us out of Pinewood Springs. It wasn't gentle and calm. Many of us felt like we had just hours to prepare our homes, pack our bags and get on the helicopter out. None of us wanted to leave our homes. I didn't want to leave our community which felt like it was being torn apart. On September 16th, three hours after we were told FEMA wanted us all out that day, my family and our dog, Ginny, left Pinewood Springs on a Chinook helicopter. The tears started falling as I looked down at Pinewood from the helicopter window as we made our journey to an evacuation center in Fort Collins.
Life as an Evacuee
After we arrived in Fort Collins, we were loaded onto school buses for a 20 minute ride to the evacuation center. It was surreal. We felt the ultimate culture shock going from survival mode to evacuation mode. It was a sunny day in Fort Collins. The rains had subsided. I watched people enjoying normal lives from the windows of the school bus. People riding bikes, driving cars and shopping at stores. Didn't any of them know what was happening? I felt like a refugee and wondered if this is how prisoners felt when they were reintroduced back into society.
From the moment we arrived at the evacuation center the whirlwind of evacuation life took hold. Forms to fill out, FEMA representative interviews, insurance company calls, returning dozens upon dozens of emails and calls from worried friends and family, and waiting in lines all merged into a muddy mess of tasks. Where would we live? Could we get our cars out? How would we afford paying for our home and our evacuation accommodations? Would our home be safe? What was going to happen with my son's school? How would I keep up with my work? I can't describe the anxiety and disconnection you feel as an evacuee. We were homeless. Even now, weeks later I still feel out of sync and out of place. If I could just find my car keys...
Life in the metro area outside of those areas ravaged by flood started to return to normal. We stayed with very close (and patient) friends until we found a place to live. It wasn't easy. Our son returned to school in a new city. Life really does go on. Our close friends and family were very supportive and helped us navigate these new waters. But many people just didn't understand how it feels to be plucked out of your old life and into a new one you didn't choose. If I heard the words "You're lucky your family is safe, that is what is important" or "It will be O.K." one more time I was going to scream. They were well-intentioned words of encouragement...but let's face it... things just aren't ok! We didn't know when they were going to be ok. Our community was broken. Our road home was broken. Thousands of displaced families were going through a collective trauma. A trauma that would only be healed when we returned home. The worst case scenarios that were floating around suggested we may not return home until Spring. Did they really say Spring?!?!
And then there are those who stayed behind in Pinewood Springs. Imagine the erie, quiet sensation after the last helicopter left the valley. Knowing that you'd have to fend for yourselves since FEMA warned you that no supplies would be arriving. No support of any kind. A coalition of those who remained formed to take charge of their remaining population. They organized supply runs, shared generators and a neighborhood watch to protect the homes of those who left. They became the custodians of our empty homes. They helped to rebuild our roads and water system. They collaborated with the Larimer County Sheriff. They created a make-shift trail to get from Pinewood Springs to the other side of the highway break near Big Elk Meadows.
When the road workers from the National Guard were momentarily shut down, these residents showed up with shovels and tractors and worked on the highway repairs themselves. And the list of their tasks goes on. For awhile they were cut off from the world and all its conveniences. They were home... but they were also completely alone and on high alert.
It's a different kind of collective trauma to shelter in place and it is no less traumatic then being evacuated. Whether you stayed or left, we were all going through something that took an emotional, financial and physical toll.
The first time I saw Lyons after the flood I was in shock. We live in Pinewood Springs, but Lyons is our hometown. What had happened to our beautiful, artistic and uniquely wonderful town? You needed an access pass to get beyond a military checkpoint. The devastation was hard to comprehend. Two rivers collided in a powerful and angry torrent that literally washed away people's lives. Apple Valley was in ruins.
The town had no services of any kind and had effectively closed. It broke my heart to see the homes along the river... ripped from their foundations, cars crumpled like a balls of paper. Water, mud and debris filled the streets. Phone and power lines were tossed about like spaghetti.
It was like a bad dream. I'd seen this kind of destruction on the news... always in other places. Now it was us. What we witnessed up the hill in Pinewood was nothing compared to the damage in Lyons. And then the worst news came as we learned that one of the pillars of the town, Jerry Boland, died in the flood. Oh God...
But it also became clear that Lyons was going through a similar community bonding experience. People organized in a majestic fashion. They didn't wait to be rescued. They rescued themselves. The rebuilding started almost immediately. Mother Nature had won a battle but this little Colorado town would ultimately rebuild and win the war. Lyons Strong. You could feel it when you would walk past another resident and exchange a knowing look. You could feel it when you would run into your friends while waiting in line to pick up your displaced mail at the Longmont Post Office. You could feel it with each passing caravan loaded with National Guard workers, contractors and relief organizations from around the country. Lyons started its healing process in the midst of its destruction.
The rains and the river may have destroyed our infrastructure... our homes... and our balance... but it didn't destroy our strength... or resolve... or passion for our community. I saw a sign that said it best..."The Lyons Community is now a family."
County and city boundary lines faded away. Lyons didn't just mean the town... it included Spring Gulch, Pinewood Springs, Big Elk Meadows and beyond. We were a community that had been given the ultimate test, and we rose to the occasion. Community leaders organized and created a plan to rebuild. Some of these leaders were elected and some appeared like angels and elected themselves to do what needed to be done. Surrounding areas from Estes Park to Fort Collins and Longmont were also hit hard. There was so much to do. Team after team of relief workers arrived and organized to clean up and rebuild. These are volunteers who travel from crisis to crisis. Not only are they saints -- they are professionals who know exactly what to do. They are the calm after storms like Sandy and Katrina.
But that was all happening in Lyons. Just up the hill our little valley remained fairly quiet while the road construction began. The highway was still impassible so no one could really get to us. We were kind of like the Island of Misfit Toys. A creative team of volunteer firefighters, residents, hot shot crews and Spring Gulch residents allowed us to caravan our vehicles out on a newly refurbished stage road after our evacuation. How did we return to get our cars? We had to drive more than 1.5 hours around the back side of Estes Park, park our cars where the highway was broken and hike in to our homes. It was worth it to have our own cars. And it was kind of fun. Who needs highways anyway? We will just forge our own path. Pinewood Strong.
Road construction continued. The National Guard/CDOT crews were on a mission.. and I don't just mean the mission assigned to them by Governor Hickenlooper. It was clear that the "boots on the ground" felt compelled to get us home. They would do anything to fix that road. The goal for the road opening is December 1st... but between you and me... I think it will be a little bit sooner. That is just my personal opinion -- not fact. These crews are so motivated and accommodating... they will move mountains to finish that road. And we will move mountains to express our gratitude to them every day.
The first Red Cross truck rolled into Pinewood Springs exactly 30 days after the floods. 30 days. They arrived and then quickly realized... those who stayed were ok. Our community is tough and resourceful. But it was still nice to know we could now have some help. Supplies arrived from the Christian Church of Estes Park. They brought in palettes of food and were the first to really ask how we're doing and if we needed anything. It was nice to have our neighbors in Estes reach out. They brought in a BBQ grill and many of us (those who left but were visiting their homes... and those who stayed) gathered on a sunny day in front of the fire station.
A Community Broken... Wide Open
Thirty-two days after the flood and our little village of Pinewood Springs is on the mend. Thirty-two days... and although every single day sometimes feels like a year, it's remarkable what has been accomplished in a short amount of time. In Lyons, they are testing the newly repaired water system, much of the town has power. More than 20 businesses have reopened to sell goods to residents with access passes. They could all be home before the holidays. Anything is possible.
In Pinewood our water system is being repaired not with big faceless teams of contractors... but by "Karl" and "Rich".. and other residents who are helping out. Our system isn't online yet but it will also probably be fixed before the holidays. Our internal roads are being worked on by "Dan"... and a few residents who help him out. We have our own equipment.. and our own resolve. Dan started working on the road repairs while the rain was still falling.
And now those who left... and those who stayed are beginning the process of coming back together. We aren't home yet... we still don't know when we will be home. The waiting and wondering is at times... pure torture. But it appears the light is just ahead at the end of the tunnel.
Pinewood Springs, Colorado. We may have been broken by the waters... but we were also broken wide open... exposing the best of us... showing us friends who were once strangers. Showing our inner strength we didn't know we had. We are Pinewood. And that is something Mother Nature simply can not destroy.