Survivors of the catastrophic floods that ravaged Boulder and surrounding areas this past September have not misplaced a single fact or sound. Months after the waters receded, they are haunted by lucid memories immune to time and retelling.
Rainfall was staggering. By Sept. 18, 17.17 inches had descended. In one fell swoop, Boulder established a record for annual rainfall — 30.13 inches — and the year was far from over.
Major flooding covered a north-south path extending for 200 miles along the foothills west of Boulder, Jamestown, Longmont, Estes Park, Sterling and many other towns.
The floods engulfed 4,500 sq. miles, equal to the size of Connecticut.
According to preliminary statistics, 5,958 people were evacuated (2,256 by air); 1,047 pets were evacuated by air; repair of bridges and roads will cost $475 million; 1,882 homes were destroyed, 16,101 were damaged.
As the skies cleared and revealed the bleak destruction below, the numbers rose higher and higher, like the floods that generated them.
Behind every number, there is a human being.
Nearly four months have passed since the “1,000-year event” flattened 17 counties into fields of debris and claimed eight lives.
Survivors now deal on a daily basis with contractors, local and federal agencies, insurance companies and shattered dreams. It’s not like everything returns to normal once the floods disappear — far from it.
Resolution, whether mental or physical, is a long way off. Healing fluctuates. Praise for anonymous armies of volunteers is inviolate.
FEMA, a constant presence since the beginning, recently announced it had finished its work in Colorado and was moving on to the next disaster.
The following people contacted by the IJN lived to tell their stories.
“It’s a wonder more people didn’t die,” they say. Despite the hard road ahead, they are grateful to walk it.
What follows is a then-and-now snapshot of chaos and its continuing aftermath.
Dr. Nancy S. Loving, a horse veterinarian, and her husband Roger felt the first flush of panic on Monday, Sept. 9, as calamitous sheets of rain inundated what became Ground Zero.
“By Wednesday evening, we started to see the impact,” Loving says. “By 11:30 p.m., the water backed up to the house. We piled in the camper and drove to a hill behind our home.
“We came back for supplies the next morning. The creek was still flowing in its regular channel. Around 10:25 a.m., the sirens sounded in Jamestown urging everyone to move to higher ground.”
A new raging creek reared up like a monster. “Then it all went to hell. We were in full flood stage.” (In the wee hours of Thursday morning, Joey Howlett, a sweet man who lived in Jamestown for years, became one of the flood’s eight fatalities.)
The couple remained in the camper until Saturday, when Nancy and her cat joined the last military airlift out of the area.
Roger stayed put, sleeping in the camper at night and gauging insults to the property during the day.
The Lovings built the house in 2007 according to flood specifications. “It took three years to construct it and 30 years to save up the money. But this was mightier than a 100-year flood plan,” she says.
The surrounding property — massive trees, orchards, arboretums, flowers, grapes, berries, two horse corrals — was not covered by insurance, nor was the property immune to the harshest punch nature could deliver.
The James River reversed its course from the north side of the property to the south. Floodwaters deposited everything washing downstream on the Lovings’ land.
“We were hit by all of it, and then some.
“FEMA and the sheriff said we were at Ground Zero.”
Dr. Loving was flown back to Jamestown around Sept. 20 and hiked to her home. She couldn’t believe her eyes. A massive accumulation of gravel had elevated the ground four to nine feet.
There was no driveway, no electricity, no phone, no barn. The wells brimmed with rubble and rock.
The entire contents of Roger’s machine shop were ruined. Soil had been uprooted. Grass is a memory.
“We have spent every day for three solid months digging, de-mudding and cleaning each piece of equipment that wasn’t ruined.”
Loving sounds exhausted.
“Do I? I guess I am exhausted,” she admits. “I have not looked up since Sept. 11. I also have to run my equine practice. The rebuilding process will take years.
“Still, we’re luckier than most. We have our home, our documents, our memorabilia and clothing. And the volunteers — I hardly know how to thank them. These strangers just rolled up their sleeves and got to work.”
Loving can’t say enough about the agencies that came to their aid: JFS, FEMA, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Boulder Methodist Church, Texas Baptists, All Hands Volunteer organization, Air Land Emergency Response Team, military personnel.
“We are incredibly grateful, and stunned, by the outpouring of concern and good will from people we never met before,” she says.
“They gave us a tremendous morale boost at a very difficult time.”
Rivkah Bacharach vividly remembers the night of Thursday, Sept. 12. It had been raining all week in Boulder, but Thursday it reached a furious pitch. A damp chill permeated the town home she shared with her son Toviah, 12.
Trusting things would settle down, they went to bed early. Bacharach plugged in a space heater for good measure.
“I woke up at 3 a.m. and turned off the heater,” she says. “About a half hour later, I heard our dog Banana barking. I wondered why he was sleeping on my bed.
“I swung my feet out of bed into cold water. I thought, ‘Now that’s not right.’ It was like going from a dream to a dream.”
After checking on Toviah, Bacharach bundled up and went outside. The neighbors were standing around, asking one question of each other: “Is your house flooded?”
“I ran back to the house and woke up Toviah. We trudged upstairs, then back downstairs. I called the property manager.
“He said, ‘Get in line.’”
Mother and son were left to their own devices.
“We put on our rain gear and went to the back side of the house and started unloading important possessions above the water line. We did that for hours.”
Bacharach, who calls Toviah “my champion,” says her son turned off the downstairs electrical system and grabbed photographs and books.
Meanwhile, Banana the dog continued barking an ominous warning. “It sounded like, ‘The ship’s going down!’” she laughs.
“We fought the water but it kept filling up,” says Bacharach, who belongs to Bonai Shalom and Aish Kodesh.
“We tried to salvage our possessions for four or five days while we stayed with one of my girlfriends.”
By then, three to four feet of dank sewage swirled in the town home.
“It was putrid,” Bacharach says. “I tried pumping it out but that didn’t work. It was untenable. People kept telling me, ‘You can’t live here anymore.’”
It was time. Bacharach and her son left.
They never returned.
“We have slept in so many different beds since then,” she says, “but we hope to move into our new place in a couple of days.”
FEMA, she enthuses, “is the best leg of our government we’ve got going.”
The Bacharachs have lived in Boulder for 10 years. “There are such brilliant people here,” she says. “But no one put it together that there might be a flood — not even a whisper or an idea of a flood. We live in a desert. Our landscape can’t accommodate that much rain.”
Humor and fear change places throughout her story. While friends and neighbors helped clear the town home, Bacharach briefly handed out whiskey “to go with the flow,” she says.
“My son lost so many things,” she adds softly.
“The flood was probably the most intense experience of his life since birth.”
Zoya, the baby daughter of Sarah Jane Romano and her husband Stu Morrison, turned one year old on Dec. 28. Thankfully she will never remember the pitiless flood that threatened this milestone.
Their waking nightmare began Thursday morning, Sept. 12, in Boulder.
Unstable rocks dislodged by heavy rains the previous night started sliding down the hill behind their home.
“We talked about evacuating to higher ground,” Romano says. “We were on a hill, so we didn’t think the creek would rise. But it seemed like the river was coming down the back of the mountain.
“Suddenly I heard a big smack. Something hit the side of house. I put my daughter in her carrier.”
About 20 minutes later, the whole mountainside collapsed. Huge boulders slammed into their home, knocking out windows and walls.
“My baby would be dead if I hadn’t put her in the baby carriage when the house exploded,” she says, disbelief shadowing her words.
Romano and Morrison packed hurriedly and deliberated their next move.
“But there was no way to get out of Four Mile Canyon. The road was completely washed out.”
They jumped in their car with a few belongings and headed for the nearest fire station.
“A man who lost his home in the  fire took one look at us and told us to drive up the steep hill to his place. We stayed there for three days before we were airlifted out by helicopter.”
When they returned to their Victorian-styled house, the couple found 40 tons of boulders and trees in their basement.
“Our home was beautiful,” Romano says. “Now it looks like a haunted house. It’s destroyed, and it’s heartbreaking.”
Their homeowner’s insurance did not cover floods, let alone a landslide. The insurance company informed them that an engineer must survey the damage.
So they called an engineer — but another two months passed before he examined the house. He attributed the cause to “mudflow.”
“FEMA gave us $1,000 because it was unable to assess the basement,” Romano says. “The insurance company told us it needed to examine the shape of the foundation for repair purposes. That required a contractor.”
The insurance company paid $7,500 to cover the job, which demanded Herculean efforts and a great deal of time.
About six or seven volunteer organizations, including All Hands and the Mudslingers, helped as well.
“Without the volunteers, we never would have finished before the first hard freeze,”Romano says.
Bureaucratic holes keep popping up like existential Catch 22s: The insurance company says it needs a report to move ahead. But the report is missing. No one can find it. Nothing is accomplished.
“Even if they give us enough money to build from the ground up, we don’t own the mountainside behind us,” Romano says. “You can’t make that hillside safe again. It’s terrifying to see the scars up there that were left by the boulders that hit us.”
Although their home is listed as a hazardous property, they just learned that FEMA has denied further rental assistance. The family is searching for an affordable one-bedroom apartment — which can be rather pricey in Boulder.
“My husband’s job is to go to work and handle the contractors. Mine is to find a better place for us to live, as well as to seek more donations.
“We’re humble people. And it’s incredibly humbling to be in a situation where you’re walking around with your hand out.
“Boulder JFS has been amazing,” says Romano, who has an MA in social work.
“We get a couple of hundred dollars a month from JFS and received a one-time gift of $150 for groceries. No one ever makes us feel embarrassed.”
Some of Romano’s neighbors were trapped under mud up to their necks for hours. She can’t imagine their fear. Others had no power or food. In many instances, trauma robbed them of their voices.
“I can understand if it’s difficult to locate people to talk about the flood,” she says. “They are desperately trying to sort out how to put their lives into some recognizable order again.
“What happened to us is real. It’s not a joke.”
Brandon Shaffer, former president of the Colorado State Senate, woke up at 4 a.m. Friday, Sept. 13, after a night of torrential storms in Longmont. He planned to beat the traffic to Denver, where he chairs the Colorado parole board.
Jessicca, his wife and a public school teacher, turned on the news. The situation was very serious. Shaffer, still calm and cool, decided to work from home.
Brandon, Jessicca and their two children had moved into their new house five days before the flood.
“My wife went outside, talked to the neighbors and ran inside,” Shaffer recalls. “She said, ‘We might need to pack a bag!’ I said that’s not going to happen. I was confident we’d be OK.”
A little while later, she came upstairs and said, ‘We have to go now. The water is coming!’”
Shaffer decided to take a look. “I walked around the corner and you could hear the water coming down the street.” He sprang into action.
“We got the kids, our dog and two cats and loaded the car. I said we could go to our old house, which hadn’t sold yet, and wait it out until we got the all clear.”
While he was backing the car out of the garage, three-foot deep water suddenly rushed into their cul de sac. “It was a dramatic change,” he says.
“We drive an SUV. By the time we were turning out of our community, the water was up to the hood ornament.”
The SUV was unable to climb the hill leading to their old house.
Delete Plan A.
“My mother-in-law lives in Longmont, so we went there,” Shaffer says. “She has two dogs and is very good at managing pets. We stayed there for five days.”
Shaffer and Jessicca returned to their new home several times a day to survey the damage. The National Guard, which was stationed at access points, refused to let them check the house.
The St. Vrain River had jumped its boundaries and cut a new course through their neighborhood, Shaffer says. “You could see the river running past all the houses.
“After a few days, we snuck around through the golf course and made it to our home.
“It was very scary. The water was so deep you couldn’t see anything underneath it. You didn’t know where you were walking.”
They finally found the front door and walked inside. Shaffer took a video with his smart phone. “The water was uncontrolled. The backyard was a pond. The entire basement was flooded.”
About two days later, the National Guard deemed conditions safe enough for the Shaffers to permanently return home.
“We were fortunate,” he says. “The water didn’t make it to the first floor.
“Because we just moved in, we used the basement as a storage area.”
They managed to find a couple of dry boxes containing Jessicca’s wedding dress and Shaffer’s Navy blues.
About 100 people, including neighbors and volunteers from Longmont, Chabad of Longmont and CU Chabad, went to work cleaning the house and removing ruined carpets, drywall and irreparable furniture.
JFS presented the Shaffers with a generous grant to rebuild their fence, and the hard-hit Chabad of Longmont, where their two children attend Hebrew School, also assisted financially.
“Every little bit helps,” says Shaffer. “It’s wonderful to see the way the community responds to a crisis like this.
“This morning, I walked my dog through the neighborhood. Everywhere there are little visible patches and memories of what we experienced. We were fortunate. It could have been so much worse.
“We have a beautiful house. It just has an unfinished basement,” he says with a touch of levity. “Everyone’s happy and healthy. We came through it that much stronger.”
Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News