Boulder reeling from epic flood event

| Sep 15, 2013

Mt. Sanitas open space after the storm (Reporter video)
Here in northwest Boulder, we were pretty much at ground zero of the most intense wave of the Great Colorado Monsoon, which hit its peak on the night of Wednesday, September 11, 2013.

On that night, what had been a hard rain much of the day became an eerily hard downpour, pounding on the flat roof above our heads. I went outside to make sure the gutters and downspouts were all working; they weren’t, and soon I was climbing a ladder to the roof, then scrambling around the yard, removing obstructions to try to get the water flowing off the roof and away from the house.

Toward midnight, the rain seemed to get even harder. As a journalist, I am inflicted with a malady that drives me zombie-like toward “breaking news.” It was thus that I set out northward from our house at about midnight, under a very large umbrella.

Within five or so minutes I had walked the bike path running north of 4th St. and Kalmia Ave., reaching the corner where Linden intersects Wonderland Hill Ave. In calmer times, Linden Ave. is a fairly major road leading from Broadway up to the Pine Brook Hills neighborhood above North Boulder. A usually dry ditch runs west to east at the north end of a big open field, then there are houses.

But that night, in the dark, I looked north at the field and did a double take. Two giant rivers of gray water were flowing across the formerly empty field. A catchment basin on the corner was full, water pouring out of its east end in a torrent. I suspected that, were I to stand there much longer, that water was going to overflow its channel and start flowing south — towards me. I turned and walked quickly back down the bike path, looking backward frequently to check for water coming at me.

By some point later that night, the water did in fact begin racing southward on the bike path toward Kalmia, where it turned left and merged with other eastward-rushing streams to become a river racing down Kalmia, setting in to its job of flooding many of the houses between 4th St. and Broadway.

It turns out the situation on Linden was more dangerous even than I knew. As I was to learn in the next two days, two teenagers died that Wednesday night probably a quarter-mile west on Linden. Four kids had tried to run their car through the rushing water to get up to Pine Brook Hills. Bad move. One boy’s body was found quickly, his girlfriend’s only later. Two others lived.

A video I shot Thursday afternoon from the corner where I’d stood staring in amazement the night before.

We spent much of Friday dealing with a flooded guest bedroom, fortunately enlisting a contractor friend to help us move furniture and tear out wet carpeting and a few inches of drywall. The scope of our particular “flood” didn’t extend to the inches or feet of standing water suffered by a lot of neighbors. And, no, our insurance doesn’t cover it.

Our triage tasks complete, we set out walking the neighborhood around 4th St. to view the damage done to foothills hiking trails and nearby streets. A tweeted photo from Congressman Jared Polis had already alerted me about the state of the block of Hawthorne Ave. going uphill west from 4th St. toward Jared’s childhood home. Going up the hill we realized that water, amazingly, had carved long, deep trenches into the pavement. The torn-up asphalt was now a tableau of small waterfalls.

As we walked on, neighbors exchanged stories about whose houses had flooded and how badly. On the mountainside, mudslides had laid bare three long gashes of exposed earth and rocks, each maybe a quarter-mile long. Sand and mud and rocks were strewn about in yards and streets.

The storm was capricious. On that Thursday morning, I drove fairly easily across town to Home Depot to buy a length of downspout. Many blocks of neighborhoods adjacent to ours, such as Newlands and Mapleton Hill, showed few signs of damage except occasional debris or water rushing along at curbsides.

But when we explored the Mt. Sanitas trail on Open Space just west of North Boulder, giant ruts had rendered the main trail unpassable, and long-familiar landscapes had been resculpted by the water almost beyond recognition (see attached video). Throughout North Boulder, the extent of damage seemed determined by location and terrain, with the downward-flowing water making the decisions.

When I finally went to bed Thursday night and closed my eyes, I could see only images of rushing water. In the ensuing days, the sound of falling rain, which I have always found soothing, now seems fearsome. When will it start up again? How hard will it rain? How long it will last?

This is just one small story among thousands. The big picture and a lot of touching individual stories have been very well portrayed in local media, including some very good local TV coverage. NPR had a great sound piece, and a The New York Times account helped tell our story to the nation.

Is it too early for some big lessons to be learned here? Well, you’ve gotta think hard about the role of climate change.

And you’ve gotta wonder about some personal ironies. Here we thought that living in our house at the very, utmost, extreme, literal edge of the Rocky Mountains — where plains that begin somewhere west of Chicago give way to the start of towering mountains right across the street — was such a great blessing.

Turns out, not always.

NOTE: A slightly different version of this article appears on my Huffington Post blog .