Colorado Floodwaters Force Thousands to Flee
By Dan Frosch and Jack Healy, NY Times, September 13, 2013
LONGMONT, Colo.—“Get up!” Abe Mares was jolted awake. It was 2:30 a.m., a swollen river was pouring into his home in the mountains of Colorado’s Front Range, and his roommate was scrambling.
Seeking higher ground, they retreated with their dogs to the second floor as Colorado’s worst flood in years crested around them.
Elsewhere, thousands more people ran for shelter, or just ran for their lives as record-breaking rains swamped fields and tore apart roads, heaping more pain on a state that has been tested by several years of drought and devastating wildfires.
Ranch families had to choose which animals to save and which to abandon. Neighbors camped on one another’s floors and waited for rescue. Cars were swept away like bath toys. Two experienced mountaineers huddled together at 13,000 feet on a treacherous peak, stranded by ice storms.
"This one is awful," said Linda Stacy, 57, as she sat outside an evacuation center here.
Four people have died in the floods, and the authorities said Friday that 80 people had been reported as unreachable or missing. With cellphone service down and the power out, some of the missing may simply be unable to communicate with friends or family.
On Friday, thousands more Colorado residents were forced to evacuate their homes in the face of rivers and streams choked by heavy rains, dirt and debris.
In scenes that have become hauntingly familiar, families packed their cars with pets and suitcases and made their way to the nearest church or school that was offering shelter, left to wonder about the fate of their homes and neighbors. Some made it on their own, or in a neighbor’s car. Others fled on foot.
Up in the mountains, helicopters flown by the National Guard skimmed over ravaged roads to pluck scores of stranded residents from the flooded town of Jamestown.
Here in Longmont, several miles east of the worst-hit corners of Boulder County, a caravan of yellow school buses arrived at the LifeBridge Christian Church on Friday morning, carrying hundreds of evacuees from Lyons.
They milled quietly in front of the church, waiting to be registered by volunteers, and hoping for a break in the weather.
Many marveled at how swiftly the pounding rains had swamped their homes and carved up the mountainsides, transforming picturesque towns and vacation communities into scenes of waterlogged devastation.
"We’ve been through floods there before, but this one had a little different taste to it," said William Martin, 88, who has lived in his home since 1955.
Here in the Mountain West, it is a cliché—but often true—that people come for the winters and stay for the summers. As the snows melt, the valleys echo with bluegrass concerts and summer festivals, and car roofs bloom with mountain bikes, road bikes, kayaks and camper shells.
As gateways to Rocky Mountain National Park, the towns of Lyons and Estes Park, in particular, bustle with summertime traffic. Campers and minivans full of tourists and day trippers meander through town, using it as a base camp for adventures, or just stopping for coffee at the Barking Dog Cafe, or for roadside pies at the Colorado Cherry Company.
"The street during this time of year is still bustling with people," said Sarah Lewis, 22, who works at a hotel in Estes Park. "Now, it’s filled with water."
Video shot by The Estes Park News showed muddy water churning through downtown. Residents said that the floods had ripped apart asphalt roads as if they were strands of black licorice.
Like others who did not leave before the deluge, Ms. Lewis was stranded in her duplex in Estes Park on Friday, the road at the bottom of her neighborhood impassable.
On Friday, the storms that had soaked a 150-mile swath of Colorado began to ease, giving some residents their first peek of blue sky in days. Kari Bowen, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Boulder, said the rains were expected to continue intermittently through the weekend before tapering off on Monday.
But the authorities cautioned that any new rain would fall on ground already saturated by nearly a foot of precipitation. Recent wildfires that have burned trees and underbrush have made some hillsides especially vulnerable to landslides and floods, meteorologists said.
"There’s nothing to capture that water," Ms. Bowen said. "When you have a lot of rain, it just wants to flow right off."
Mr. Mares, who was jolted awake at 2:30 a.m. on Thursday by the sound of the St. Vrain River hurtling into his house, described how he, his roommate and their two dogs, Bentley and Buddy, had forded the rapids and scrambled for safety.
"It was up to our hips and moving really, really fast," Mr. Mares said. "It was very intense and very scary. The whole town was flooded."