What Mother Nature Can’t Destroy

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32 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 who we are.

The Flood

It was about 6:00 AM on September 12th when the power went out. My husband was called into work in Boulder and my 8 year old son and I were alone in Pinewood Springs. 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 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 awhile. 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.

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Like many others, I got in my SUV and started driving around the neighborhood looking for signs of life. The Colorado Cherry Company had opened its doors and became a make-shift community evacuation center. The fire house was buzzing with activity as our volunteer firefighters juggled rescues with managing all of 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.

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Heroes…. all of them. Seriously. If you feel differently… then we need to talk. Obviously, there are stories you haven’t yet heard.

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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 started getting 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.

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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 I had what we needed.

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We connected with many other neighbors and they came to my house to put food in the refrigerators, use the internet, power their laptops… and in the morning enjoy some hot coffee. My house became a hub of activity each day. We had extension cords running all over our house powering whatever was that day’s priority. I was grateful my husband is a Master Electrician who had several 100 foot extension cords laying around. Actually…. I was just grateful for the help and the company of strangers. We were all in this situation together and in those days I feel our neighborhood really became a community.

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The rains momentarily 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.

The small mountain canyons are devastated by the massive floods to hit 14 counties in CO.

We had the highway to ourselves and we focused on very basic needs… not modern day “first world” worries. It was somewhat cleansing and made us focus on what really mattered. Food. Shelter. Water. Gasoline for generators. Our families. Our friends. Our community. Our homes. And  a few days into the floods when we felt we’d met the challenge… we just tried to feel “normal.” So, 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.

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The Evacuation

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. Our poor neighbors in Big Elk Meadows lost all their reservoirs and their roads. Boulder homes were flooded. Longmont homes were flooded. And the waters kept traveling east wrecking community after community. It was heartbreaking. Is this really happening?

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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. I took this photo a few minutes after he arrived…

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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” who 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 crashed down the mountain tearing down trees and massive boulders. One slide came within 100 yards of my house. The boulders were as big as cars. Trails were washed out or destroyed. The situation was dire. It was clear we would have to evacuate our community.

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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 the chain of command of all the other responding 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. When those helicopters started flying into the area it felt like we were transported to Afghanistan… or a scene from M.A.S.H. Chinooks and Blackhawks showed up one after the next in a rush to get all evacuees out… fast. Many of us felt like we had just hours to prepare our homes, pack our bags and get on the helicopter out. Just pack up and prioritize your life into two suitcases not knowing when you would be allowed to return. None of us wanted to go. I didn’t want to leave our community which felt like it was being torn apart.

On September 16th, 3 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. Did I mention that September 16th is our wedding anniversary?

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Life as an Evacuee

After we arrived in Fort Collins, we were loaded into 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 our new vagabond 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 sea 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. The media returned to the business of reporting stories of political battles and Broncos games. We stayed with very close (and patient) friends in Boulder until we found a place to live… it wasn’t easy. Housing was already tight but now there were thousands of evacuees who needed hotels and rental homes. Our son returned to school in a new city and…. life really does go on.

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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. weren’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. It was the price tag of staying behind in an evacuated area. Alone on their island. 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. This allowed those of us who left to check on our homes by foot.

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When the National Guard road workers were momentarily stalled due to the government shut down, these residents showed up with shovels and tractors and worked on the highway repairs themselves. Ordinary everyday people. Extraordinary people. 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.

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It’s a different kind of collective trauma to shelter in place and it is no less traumatic then being evacuated. Whether someone stayed or left, we were all going through something that took an emotional, financial and physical toll.

Lyons Strong

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.

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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.

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It was like a bad dream. I’d seen this kind of destruction on the news… always in other places. But 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…

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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 exchanged 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.

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Moving Mountains

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…

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County and city boundary lines faded away. Lyons didn’t just mean the town itself… 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.

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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 shattered and no one could really get to our area. We were kind of like the Island of Misfit Toys. A collaboration of our 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.

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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 finish those repairs to highway 36. 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…. so please don’t send me nasty emails if I’m wrong. 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. Thank you.

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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.

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A Community Broken… Wide Open

32 days after the flood and our little village of Pinewood Springs is on the mend. 32 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. They could all be home before the holidays.

In Pinewood… our water system is being repaired not with big 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… torture. But it appears the light is just ahead at the end of the tunnel. Managing this website and the Pinewood Facebook page has been healing experience for me. I’ve been able to float between those who stayed and those who left in a virtual way… to remain connected. It’s been a blessing during a very difficult time.

We have so much work to do. Flooded homes left in a hurried evacuation aren’t pretty after sitting for weeks. Our trails and land have lots of downed trees and debris. But we will organize.. and we will help each other to clean up our community.

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.

Laura Levy

 

14 Comments

  1. RANDY CANER
    Oct 13, 2013

    Such a well written story with such insight. The intended message sent here should compel us all to celebrate the new tomorrow!

  2. Mary Johnson
    Oct 13, 2013

    This is wonderful!. Thank you, Laura, for sharing this. You are a gifted writer and story teller.

  3. kheli
    Oct 13, 2013

    Laura,
    I think you forgot to add the ‘grab a tissue’ disclaimer at the beginning of this beautifully written piece. Thank you for sharing your experiences and your time on the webpage and Facebook page. I personally don’t know what I would do without them. Blessings to you.

  4. Vicky Cassabaum
    Oct 13, 2013

    Well said Laura!“ This has been a crazy ride! As a 22 year resident of the community.I love my Pinewood home but I like you have really never gotten to know my community. Those first few days were rewarding to see the community come together.strangers reaching out to each other. I wish we could have stayed but unfortunately without working and an income we would not survive. Your words ring so true in the trauma of life outside of home. My dogs are in Loveland,I in Lakewood and husband in Estes . I am anxiously awaiting the words It is safe for you to go home! Thanks for your postings! They are what I look forward to each day!

  5. Arlene Johnson
    Oct 14, 2013

    Laura:

    Thank you so much for your description of the tragedy of the flood in Pinewood. I will keep it forever to pass on to my descendants, to give them a glimpse of what it was like.
    I live in the “Kiowa and Cree Island”, as you so aptly named it. My husband had died a few months before the flood occurred and my dear grandson came to stay with me for a couple of months to help his “I Love Lucy” grandmother.
    I remember the night just before the bridge gave way. The firemen were on our corner of Kiowa and Hopi with their lights flashing. They warned us that the water was up to the bridge and it might be washed away by morning. By morning it was gone. We were “stranded”.
    Later, we were without water, phone or electricity. Our basement flooded the next night. Then an alarm went off and we didn’t know what that meant. It was dark and we were totally unprepared, having only a candle to see with.
    We decided to walk through the “walls of rain that we couldn’t even see through to go to our neighbor above us to ask for help. I had never seen rain like this. We struggled to even find the entrance to their house.
    But, Jerry immediately came down and assured us, it was only a high water alarm, nothing to worry about.
    People began sharing what they had, inviting everyone to “Fish Fry’s” and other meals. It was a way to join together to use meat that otherwise would have spoiled. I was even invited to a neighbor’s house to shower because she had a well. It was an unbelievable display of kindness.
    We all met several times a day to watch the roaring river and see our bridge dissolve before our eyes.
    We watched as helicopters flew over us. We were asked to pack “small” bags and be ready to evacuate. On Saturday the evacuation began. They were taking people with health issues our first. Since I had no health problems, I was surprised to be one of the first ones out. I am 81, and I guess there are times when old age has its advantages. I was one of the first evacuees to look down and see the devastation.
    I am being cared for now with much love in my son’s and daughter in law’s home in Loveland. I miss the home I shared with my husband since 1979, and wonder when I can return home. I must admit the tears flow frequently.
    I am so grateful for neighbors and firemen who keep us informed and did all they could to help- and for loving children who hiked to my inaccessible home to clean up the mess of flooding and rotten food.
    So, in spite of the devastation, we now realize how truly blessed we are to live in place called Pinewood Springs. I am looking forward to the day I can return and express my gratitude to my wonderful neighbors and great firemen.
    Thanks, Karl, Rick and Dan-and also the many others who are working so hard to get us home.
    Sincerely,
    Arlene Johnson

    • admin
      Oct 14, 2013

      Hi Arlene!

      What a wonderful comment. I must be honest… your story just did me in. Pinewood is proud to have a resident like you. When the new temporary bridge is built… I think you should be in the first car driving across it. Looking forward to meeting you someday soon when we all get to go home. – Laura

  6. Charlie Gau
    Oct 14, 2013

    Warren

    Who are you to tell anyone to stay out if their homes. Stop posting negative comments and welcome residents back to their homes and not be negative and try and keep them away. I’ve seen more people in this community come together over the last month than I’ve seen in the 8 years of living up here.
    I welcome them back and hope for them to try to get to a since if normalcy instead of living out of a trailer or at a friends house.
    Some of us own our homes and don’t rent their residence. If I want to return home I will and so will a
    lot of other people I know.
    We have been making water for a week or so and we’ve had power before most of us were told to evacuate.

    Hope to see everyone back soon.

    The Gau’s

  7. Marcus Richardson
    Oct 15, 2013

    Warren

    Charlie summed things up quite well:

    If we want to come to our houses (which we OWN) – we’ll come up there – and I encourage everybody to come visit their home.

    All your comments make me want to do is empty my hot tub and refill it a few times.

    By the way – US 36 is paved past the Stone Mountain bend – it looks awesome. I’m guessing a week to 10 days the rest of it will be paved and we’ll be racing each other up the mountain again.

    See everyone soon –

  8. Lori Jonker
    Oct 15, 2013

    Laura, Thanks for putting your experiences and emotions down for all to read. I, too, felt compelled to write and posted my experiences at http://flashfloodcolorado.blogspot.com/
    I resonated with your comments on community and am eagerly awaiting the return to our homes and to the new friendships and bonds that were formed in those first few post-flood days. Our community will be stronger and better than ever before. It can’t come soon enough – these “limbo” days are tough.

  9. Gina
    Oct 16, 2013

    What a Wonderful Written True Story!!! It had so much feeling and emotions!!! I could feel all of them!!! You are a great writer! Thank You for sharing this traumatic time for all of your Family which was once only a community…Speechless

  10. Gina
    Oct 16, 2013

    God Bless all of you! Wish the best to come through, for you all!!!

  11. Barbara Gilsdorf
    Oct 16, 2013

    Laura,
    Thank you so much for your beautifully written words. You put into writing everything I’ve been feeling since this whole thing started. I can’t wait for this “limbo” to be over with so we can get back to our community. I also can’t wait to see our neighbors, who helped us get through those first few days with so much friendship, hugs, smiles and kind words. I never knew how fortunate we are to live in such a wonderful community! And yes, it’s sad that it took a flood to make me realize it, but I will forever be proud to be from Pinewood Springs.

  12. Teresa Merau
    Nov 3, 2013

    Thank you for sharing your experience, Laura. I’ve worried about you and yours since the flood, and wondered how you were doing. This is a very powerful story of the human spirit and resilience. Big hugs, and I hope you and your neighbors can return home soon.

  13. Lydia
    Nov 4, 2013

    Laura, I have missed your wonderful recipes! I live in Atlanta but was flying into Co the night the floods started returning my 14 month old grandson to my daughter and son-in-law. My daughter works in Denver and could not believe how the water swept past her car on the way to the airport. We were 1 1/2 hours delayed and the flight was one I will not soon forget! Just hours earlier she had called to wish me a good flight and to assure me that, unlike other flights, this one would be uneventful and wonderful as the sun was shining and no rain was in sight…. never imagining the devastation that was about to descend on this beautiful area.

    Visiting that week I was glued to the TV watching the devastation and praying for all of the areas involved. I watched your posts and suddenly you were gone… my heart sank and I prayed for the safety of your family and community. I am grateful that you made it through and thank you for the update and your amazing story.

    Often after these devastating occurrences happen, and the news finally stops reporting, we go about our “normal” lives and forget about the lives so tragically impacted that will not return to normalcy for months even yrs to come…… You are an amazing writer/ story teller and brought me to tears, again.

    I have a closet full of clothes that I would love to send to anyone in need so if I can help please send me your address and I will get them out immediately.

    God Bless all of you and I look forward to your posts once more.

    Lydia

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