Be Careful What You Wish For

This blog was written, but not published, very soon after the flooding that affected about a quarter of the state of Colorado.  Now (December 16, 2013), according to observation and the latest news (I get updates on Facebook, Twitter and email from the Town of Estes Park and Larimer and Boulder Counties), we are returning to normal.  Virtually all the county, state and national roads are in some kind of repair and are usable, the FEMA office is closing, we’re back to “normal” status, whatever that is, regarding all emergency services and even Fish Creek Road is being repaired.  There are still some people who have lost their houses, some who can’t get to them (I think primarily in Little Valley and Glen Haven), some of the reason for which is that the roads in those places are private and the money for repair is quite limited.  It isn’t the normal we had, but we are reaching for a new normal that will be workable, we hope, for Colorado.  So what follows is, more than anything, the way it felt to me.  The way it still feels.  I’ve decided to put updates in italics and brackets throughout this blog if I have new information.

Flooded Creek - 34

Flooded Creek – 34 (Photo credit: Nikkayla Green)

Be careful what you wish for.  You see, last year, in 2012, Colorado was in a state of drought so terrible that we thought the entire state was going to burn down.  We had fires all over the place, ranging from a little baby fire that nevertheless destroyed over 20 homes and caused the evacuation of hundreds right here in Estes Park (including me), all the way up to fires that torched thousands of acres and hundreds of houses and other buildings.

So we all thought a little rain would be nice.  Wet things down and make it a bit harder for the pine trees to burn like fireworks.  So whether we prayed and prayed or hoped and hoped, or just wished for it (or as is more than likely, our individual and collective thoughts and prayers had nothing to do with it), this year we got it.  It rained.  And then it rained some more.  And then it really settled down and started raining.  Building an ark kind of rain, cats and dogs kind of rain.  Three weeks ago come Wednesday [this was first written on October 6, 2013], it started raining again and it rained all night and into the next day.  I remember going from window to window (apparently in the hope that I would find a window where it wasn’t raining outside) saying to myself and out loud “Oh, this isn’t good.  This is really bad.”  Having lived here for long periods at various times in my life, I already knew, as do we all who live here, two things:  First, that this was not normal Colorado late summer rain and second, that the Rocky Mountains are called that for a reason.  Underneath the three inches of gravel that we fondly call topsoil is rock.  Not a bunch of rock, but one big solid rock.  And rock is not really good at holding moisture.

This map shows the incorporated and unincorpor...

This map shows the incorporated and unincorporated areas in Larimer County, Colorado, highlighting Estes Park in red. It was created with a custom script with US Census Bureau data and modified with Inkscape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Plus, Estes Park sits at the top of a series of canyons carved out by normally cheerful bubbling streams of water plashing over rocks and providing beauty and recreation and a fish or two thousand.  But there’s this little thing called gravity (according to physicists, it’s a “weak” force; I’m sure they have their reasons for calling it “weak”, but obviously they’ve never been downstream of a flash flood) and water is heavy.  So because the land can’t absorb it, and gravity pulls it to lower ground, there’s nowhere else for water to go except down those narrow canyons.  And if it really rains, water swells those sweetly flowing streams into raging torrents that climb up the canyon walls and take out anything lying around loose or even attached that isn’t actually bedrock.  Including, in both the primary canyons with the main roads coming up to Estes Park, the roads themselves.  Sometimes wall to wall.

Highway 34, from Loveland to Estes Park, is a scenic highway at the bottom of a steep canyon that usually runs side by side with the Big Thompson River.  It’s 22 miles from Loveland to Estes Park via this highway.  In one night of rain, 17 miles of that stretch of road were torn out by the Big Thompson River, either partially (one lane) or literally wall to wall.  The town of Drake was nearly wiped out and the residents of cabins and streamside houses from Estes Park to Drake were evacuated to Estes Park, while those below Drake were evacuated to Loveland.  The north fork of the Big Thompson, which runs through the tiny hamlet of Glen Haven, virtually removed Glen Haven from the map during the flood, took out the switchback road from Estes Park and tore out all the electric lines to Glen Haven and to a rural mountain community known as The Retreat.  [Highway 34 is now open, but from what I hear will still require up to as much as $48 billion in permanent repairs to guard against another such flood from destroying it again.  I believe that residents in the Big Thompson Canyon and in Drake have returned to their homes, those that weren’t destroyed, but many people in Glen Haven are dealing with private roads (as mentioned above) and are still not able to live in their homes, although power has been restored.  Also, just to be clear, I didn’t know any of this, none of the people up here knew any of this, until several days after it took place.]

Highway 36, from Lyons to Estes Park, is a bit longer, maybe 24, 25 miles.  It is a wider road, and designed for heavy-duty traffic, since it is Estes Park’s main supply line from Denver, Longmont and Boulder (the staging areas for mail, food for grocery stores and restaurants, FedEx, UPS and other deliveries).  The damage to Highway 36 was initially harder to determine, primarily because the little town of Lyons, at the base of the canyon road, seemed virtually destroyed by the flooding.  The St. Vrain river there cut a new channel, taking out the sanitation department, the lighting and power department, and natural gas lines.  So although, thank heavens, in the end only (ONLY!) 25% of the houses in Lyons were destroyed, it took weeks to be able to get Lyons up and running again.  [On November 20, I drove down the reopened Highway 36 to see flood plains where before there had been meadows and a much narrowed roadway where the river had taken out big chunks.  Lyons is now open for business, but it’s sad and brutal to see the smashed houses and the heaped up wreckage of cars still piled by the roadside.]  Bridges were washed out, cutting off the hamlet of Pinewood Springs, and several small earthen dams were destroyed in the neighborhood of Big Elk Meadows.  [Residents of Pinewood Springs are back in their homes now, with electricity restored, and their community is fully functional again. I have no information about Big Elk Meadows residents.]

Saint Vrain Canyon

Saint Vrain Canyon (Photo credit: Ed Ogle)

This was a major disaster for those of us who live in Estes Park (as it is for everybody who lives in the watershed area of northeast Colorado), especially with the government shutdown [now thankfully over, at least for the moment], because of the only two roads that remained open and actually left the area to get somewhere else.  One of them is Trail Ridge Road, which is the highest continuous roadway in the United States and runs from Estes Park through the center of Rocky Mountain National Park to Grand Lake.  RMNP was closed during part of the shutdown and reopened using state funds before the shutdown ended.  Thus one of our two lifelines to the outside world was, just like that, closed.  Thank you, Congress.  [Please also note that by this time, December 16, 2013, Trail Ridge Road would be closed for the winter in any event and was, in fact, closed for the winter by the end of October.] The Governor of our state, John Hickenlooper, earned my vote in his re-election bid next year and my undying respect, by the way, for stating that Colorado would use Colorado emergency funds to keep the National Guard working on repairing the roads into and out of Estes Park and reopening Rocky Mountain National Park.

The other road we had, a combination of roads including Highway 7 to Allenspark, then switching to Highway 72 to and past Nederland, going all the way down to Central City and then getting on I-70 to Denver, or turning back on flatland roads to Boulder or Longmont, was, during the emergency, held together with spit and bailing wire by the constant efforts of CDOT (Colorado Department of Transportation).  This high mountain road was never designed for heavy traffic and for some time was our only means of getting in or out or getting supplies in or out.   Apart from anything else, the loss of Highway 36 until November 4th when it reopened ahead of schedule turned a pleasant 30- to 40-minute drive down to the front range cities of Colorado into a marathon that could take as many as five hours (one way).  After Highway 36 reopened, life (or at least travel and resupply) returned to something like normal in Estes Park, although it’s not exactly the same normal it used to be.  The trip takes longer than it used to because the road in places is narrower, with sharper curves, and there is still ongoing reconstruction, which often results in delays as they reduce the road to one lane in order to work on the other lane.  We’re still too grateful to complain, believe me!

Estes Park itself didn’t actually lose any houses and only a few business buildings were condemned, for which we are all deeply thankful, but our major rivers–Fall River, the Big Thompson River, the North Fork of the Big Thompson River, Fish Creek, and the St. Vrain River, which all come together in downtown Estes Park (except for Fish Creek, or as we not so fondly called it for weeks Fish Raging Torrent)–left devastation in their wake.  Most of the digging out and gathering debris is over by now and a lot of the shops are doing business (while for others clinging to hope, the floods were the last straw).  We have two sanitation districts up here and one of them, the Upper Thompson Sanitation District, had to work frantically for weeks to repair the huge breaks in their major sewer line (which followed the creekbed of Fish Creek), with residents on both sides of Fish Creek living in a “no flush” zone so that raw sewage would not go into the watershed.  Porta-potties became the new black up here, very fashionable, although like a skimpy little black dress, they quickly began to get real chilly, especially after dark.  One of the favored Halloween costumes for grown-ups at the Halloween festival Estes Park holds every year was something to do with living with Porta-potties.  [This, thankfully, is over with and all the sanitation facilities are working properly again.  Perhaps this helped the popularity of the slogan (printed on t-shirts and sweatshirts and bumper stickers) that we up here are “Mountain Strong.”  I got real sick of that phrase.  As one of my friends said, she’s a “mountain weenie”.  Well, so am I.] 

Porta Potties On South Beach For Winter Party 2011

Porta Potties On South Beach For Winter Party 2011, but Estes had lots more than that (Photo credit: Phillip Pessar)

Other than that, if there can be said to be an “other” to losing one of the basics of modern life, we’re doing a lot better than many communities downstream.  The town itself did not lose power (until after the flooding was over, when a transformer blew) or internet, although cellphone service and landline phone service were out for several days.  [Outlying areas, especially Glen Haven and parts of Fall River, if I remember correctly, did lose power and that was the first priority the Town of Estes Park made in terms of repair.]  In my part of town, several crawlspaces were flooded and had to be pumped out, although that did not happen to me.  Two sets of friends were in the “no-flush” zone, which ended up being more boring and inconvenient than anything, according to them.  Another couple had their basement flooded so severely that they spent days, even weeks, in the clean-up, trying to salvage possessions and furniture.  During the emergency days, and again I am grateful for this, that’s official, my own worst problem was not being able to find out any information about my friends and determine whether they were all right and if they needed any help I could offer (weak back, weak mind, but I can still carry stuff, and did).

The most remarkable circumstance up here in Estes was that unless you got as close to one of the rivers as the barriers would let you, it didn’t look much different.  The aspen turned gold, the effect against the blue sky was startling (now wind and snow have stripped the aspen for another year and we’re in deep winter, with the bears denned up, a huge snowstorm and the beginning of the wind that will be our constant, if not much-loved, companion until March or April).  The mountains stand as they always did, now with a frosting of snow that’s getting thicker and more beautiful with every storm.  It’s underneath and behind that you see the effects.  The edges of Lake Estes are piled with debris.  [Cleanup of this debris has been ongoing and is nearly finished now.]   (The town, in an excess of what can only be called highly creative common sense, scooped out a lot of the debris from the lake to use as crushed underlayment to fix the roads next to Fish Creek and going down to Glen Haven, thus lowering the burden on our then one frail highway supply line, not to mention the costs of rebuilding Fish Creek Road.)  Fish Creek is twice as wide as it used to be and is still flowing as if it were spring and not fall (the rock underlying this portion of the state, having absorbed more water than it can manage, then started percolating that water UP to the surface in the form of spontaneous springs (most of which seem to be situated under people’s houses), so the streams ran very high, quite near the tops of their banks).  [NOTE:  This was written in  November — because of the deep freeze we’re in now, the streams have drained back to their winter levels.]  We got mail service back after five days (because of a heroic convoy over Trail Ridge Road to pick up mail that had been piling up in the Grand Lake post office), FedEx and UPS were back so quickly, it seemed they were never gone.  We have new and beefed up cell towers, landlines have been fixed, Safeway (also heroically — can you imagine in a town meeting the biggest applause going to the Safeway manager?) kept us supplied with all normal foodstuffs, prescriptions and so forth.  Restaurants are open for business, and so is RMNP.  And certainly the elk are cooperating by spending their winter all over the place, especially, it seems, in my front yard.  However, we would love tourists to come up here and see for themselves, stay a few days, help us out by buying some Christmas presents or fall souvenirs here, have a nice dinner out.  Because economically Estes will be having problems for years.  Many businesses did not have (because they could not get) flood insurance and it turns out flood insurance does not pay for loss of business or inventory.  Convenient, right?  For the insurance companies, that is.  Also, in terms of businesses and homes, you don’t have to get it if you’re not on a flood plain, and to everybody’s surprise, some of the worst damage to homes were those definitely not on flood plains but on the sides of hills that could not absorb one more drop of rain.

All the above is just one small, not truly important except to us, story in this vast disaster.  The floodwaters, having scoured the canyons and picking up debris (everything from logs to pieces of highway to rocks to propane tanks), then hit the foothills cities, which were (of course) built next to the watersheds for water and sanitation.  From the northernmost (the Cache le Poudre River, the flooding of which was worsened by the fact that last year’s fire had already scoured the ground so there was nothing to hold the floodwaters back, going through Ft. Collins like a wet freight train off its tracks) to the middle portion (the Big Thompson took out ALL the bridges on north/south streets in Loveland and for several days even closed I-25 while the St. Vrain played with Lyons like a destructive child whose building blocks were actual buildings) to the more southern tier with Boulder Creek rising to a point where the University had to be closed because of flooding.  And there were lots of little tiny streams, most of which are usually dry this time of year, wreaking havoc with small settlements, backing up septic systems, eating away at narrow dirt roads, pulling down power lines, all through the foothills and mountains east of Highway 7.

North Platte River

North Platte River in normal times (Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn)

And then the waters really got going.  All the northern rivers in Colorado east of the Rockies pour themselves into the Platte, which is a major river system that eventually goes through Nebraska and feeds into the Missouri and then the Mississippi (south of Colorado Springs, mountain streams one the eastern side feed into the Arkansas which eventually itself feeds into the Mississippi).  The Platte, which is on a very flat flood plan and usually is a fairly wide, shallow river, crested at over 20 feet in places, a bulge of water that can only be compared to a large rodent being digested by a python.  Evans lost its sanitation system completely and so many houses were pushed off their foundations that I don’t think all of them have actually been counted even yet.  [I have no new information on that, although I suppose by this time they’ve gotten housing organized again.]  Weld County, watered by the Platte and irrigated, usually, from the Big Thompson, is the second most productive agricultural county in the United States (topped only by Fresno County in California).  I read that somewhere and having lived near Greeley as a child, I see no reason to doubt it.  It was about to go into harvest, vegetables, fruits, orchard fruits, so many delicious things.  I’m fairly certain the flood waters destroyed the entire crop for virtually all the farmers in Weld County.  Not just by drowning the growing things, but because by the time the waters got there, they were a really ugly soup of feces, sewage, chemicals, debris, all churned into the water and impossible to separate out.  I wonder how long it will take to clean up the soil in Weld County so that it isn’t toxic.  The flood waters also knocked oil and natural gas tanks off their foundations and that got added to the stew.  For a long while, quite a few agricultural towns remained cut off, their bridges out or their roads turned into asphalt kibble.  [Latest news I’ve heard is that all county roads in Larimer County have been repaired to some degree and are open, but I don’t know about Weld County.  All news is local news.]

But the waters weren’t finished yet.  Up they went, north with the Platte, to mess up Sterling’s sanitation plant and evacuate quite a few more homes and businesses.  Other news has taken over, of course, as it always does, but I would imagine that Nebraska did not enjoy its part of the Great Colorado flood.

Nearly one-fourth of the state was directly affected.  It was the greatest natural disaster in regional history, second only to the last time Yellowstone blew itself up with an earthquake and rearranged that portion of the geography of the west.  And, because of the news cycle and because of the even worse horror that the Philippines also underwent, it is already a more or less forgotten disaster to all but those of us affected by it.

Heavy Rain Shower

Heavy Rain Shower (Photo credit: AlmazUK)

And what will be the aftermath?  All of this has made me think a lot.  Part of that thought is that I’m not real fond of myself right now.  I wasn’t directly affected, my house was and is dry and kept all its services, both in and out, except that I lost cellphone for a while, and basic cable for a few days.  Oh, poor me, right?  So there’s survivor guilt.  And there’s the fact that for a long while I couldn’t get out of here.  I have a bladder disorder and the longer route had very few facilities along its length.  So I was basically going stir crazy.  There is nothing like not being able to get out of a place to make you want to get out of a place.  Desperately.  I was irritable and unable to concentrate and biting my own head off, not to mention having to be very careful about what I said to friends.  And (and I stress this)  I didn’t have any problems.  I was thinking it was just mostly me and that I was a selfish narcissistic bitch (old cartoon based on a combination of those fifties-style romance comic books and Andy Warhol–gorgeous blonde with a tear in one eye and the caption says “Nuclear war?  What about my career?”), which of course being an “artiste” I pretty much am–narcissistic, that is, although I do try to work on the “bitch” part.  But I’ve discovered there are a lot of us with this less than comely combination of irritability, survivor guilt and cabin fever up here.  In my case (and for so many this wasn’t possible), a trip to New York City to see friends and, well, just get out of town, helped immensely — ironically, of course, three days after I got back, I got snowed in, but thank heavens for the break; otherwise, the snowed-in week would have resulted in my cowering in a corner, gibbering nonsense and picking at my cuticles.

That whole internal reaction got me thinking, though, not just about my not being the saintly strong wise tough (but funny) person I’d like to pretend I am, but also about the fact that no matter how awful the disaster actually is, it stops feeling like a disaster, the critical right now crisis reaction stuff in your mind and heart, and starts being mostly a huge inconvenience.  And it doesn’t take long for this to change.  It apparently is a constant in human nature throughout history.  After 9/11, many pundits were saying that the spirit of cooperation, of help, of getting things done would mean a long-range change in the way people in the US behaved.  Uh, well, no, it didn’t.  The horror became yesterday’s news, none the less horrible and tragic, but not immediate any longer, the emergency energy that filled us and made us help and work and cooperate returned to our usual baselines.  We want normal.  I hate to say this, it seems so callous, it is so callous, but even when death comes into the picture (and Colorado’s flood left us incredibly lucky, comparatively), the desire for normal grows and the grieving, while it leaves holes that are never filled, has to become a background to living, and we have to go on.  We want normal.  The disaster recedes and becomes a monumental clean-up job, an inconvenience to our lives.

San Andreas Fault 1101

San Andreas Fault 1101 (Photo credit: DB’s travels)

I was in LA during the Northridge Earthquake, and it surprises me still to realize how quickly I went from terrified to worried about my friends and relatives, to helping out in the neighborhood, to getting really sick and tired of being in the house, to wanting things back to normal, even if the “new” normal was different than the old normal to, finally, annoyed at Caltrans for not getting the I-10 fixed faster.

Somebody from another planet would, I imagine, think of human beings as adrenalin junkies, always going after conflict and terror and excitement.  After all, it’s on the news each night (even if some of it feels manufactured), it’s the central tenet of all our entertainment, even the so called “reality” shows, it’s the primary topic in the newspapers and magazines.  We must live lives of incredible emotion, not just fear but terror, not just love but ecstasy, not just anger but rage.  All the time.  But most of us, let’s face it, want all that adrenalin to stay where it belongs, on the other side of the TV screen or movie screen.  Even the most naïve of us really do know that when the Gladiator dies so bravely at the end of the movie, the director yells “cut” and the actor gets up, grinning (we hope) to the plaudits of the other actors and crew for a job well done.  And goes back to his trailer and calls his sweetheart, or wife, or kids, or maybe agent (“hey, get me a gig where I don’t have to die, okay?”).  In other words, his normal life.  And ours.  We leave the theater, having felt all the Gladiator feels, our hearts bumping with terror and rage and ecstasy and loss and all those adrenalin-filled emotions, and then we go home, kind of wrung out if the movie was really good, and we’re very glad that our homes are working normally, that we are in our usual and normal state of health, that our families and friends are living what to that visitor from another planet would consider to be lives of amazing boredom.  We want normal.

But we never wish for normal, do we?  We wish for excitement, for drama, for love, for rain when it’s dry and clear skies when it rains and maybe we overdo the wishing part, not realizing that we don’t really want all that excitement, we want normal, with maybe just a hint of novelty and fun, but we’ll go to Disneyland or the movies for that if necessary.

So maybe we should think a little when we wish.  Maybe even wishing for normal is too much.  Because the world isn’t normal.  It is filled with all sorts of things, events and movements that are not normal.  I’m not suggesting that there is a clearing house up there or out there that listens to our wishes and gleefully or even absent-mindedly leaves the water running (“they want rain, we’ll give them rain”), although that’s how it feels lately in Colorado.  Just that I’m going to try to wish a little more carefully for a while.  You know, there is something called the law of unintended consequences.  You want something and you wish for it and you work for it, and you get it, hooray!  And instead of a lovely summer of no fires and plenty of wildflowers and growth, you get floods.  That happens in human transactions, too.  You can’t always see all the consequences.  But it may be a good thing to at least take a few of them into consideration when you’re wishing and hoping and praying and working for something or someone you want desperately.  Be careful what you wish for.

Estes Park Colorado