Tag Archives: Colorado flood

And a new one just begun

“Do you have any words to share before I pitch the yeast?” John asks as I pour the last of the honey into the five-gallon bucket in our sink. We’re making our annual batch of mead, the fermented honey wine that we brew from our own Stonebridge honey. Mead is the ancient beverage from which the word “honeymoon” derived, for weddings were once accompanied by a celebratory “moon”—or month—of revelry and mead-drinking.

“To 2014,” I say simply. “A year without pestilence, flood, fire, plague . . . .”

“Or war,” John finishes.

“Definitely, without war,” we agree.

2013 is a good one to put behind us. Damages from the flood that ravaged our area are still apparent in the people displaced, homes lost, and businesses closed. Still, so much work has been accomplished in re-establishing infrastructure that it’s easy to forget how ruptured our lives were for weeks following the flood. Just driving into town on repaired roads without checkpoints or heavy machinery blocking lanes has brought a sense of normalcy back to our lives.

And the flood was the capper on a difficult year, one with freezing temperatures in April that killed emerging fruit blossoms; heavy hail in June that damaged tomatoes and grapes; drought in July and August that delayed fall crops; and then flood and its chaotic aftermath as our community was evacuated and our members relocated for weeks, with some still to return.

We are glad to put those times behind us as we rebuild and plan for the year ahead. But 2013 also had its gifts, both personal and public, like the publication of my book, A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, and the growth of new neighborhood and community bonds as we all worked together to survive.

I’m a little superstitious when it comes to the first day of the year. I like to fill the day with positive acts that portend the way we’ll spend the next 364 days, hence making a new batch of mead that we’ll enjoy this summer (and which we’ll keep in vintage bottles and label “New Year’s Straight,” since we brewed with straight honey rather than adding spices or fruit). Another new year’s ritual is taking a walk around the farm, so after the new batch of mead was stored in the basement brew room to ferment for a couple days, John and I headed outside to survey the land and visualize the coming year, me wearing the lacy knit scarf he’d given me for the solstice and he in the down vest that had been my gift to him.

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We stop to watch the water flowing through the upper ditch on the east edge of our farm. Even though we don’t own shares in the Highland, the return of water to this ditch is a welcome sight. The majority of irrigation ditches in our area suffered some damage during the flood. Even though our ditch—the Palmerton—didn’t overflow on our farm, it did breach on land before and after ours, and the headgate is now many feet above the new level of the river. We’ll learn more about the fate of our own ditch at a meeting later this month, but we’ve been told we’ll have water to irrigate this season and the winter water in the Highland is a hopeful sign for ours.

winternest

Yesterday, I’d seen a bald eagle flying above a former cornfield across the highway from Birch Lake east of Stonebridge, perhaps the same eagle we’d seen two weeks earlier perched in a tree at the edge of Hygiene nearby, so today I watched for birds and nests as we made our way to our north fields. A bald eagle in flight is stunning in size and strength; this one seemed to ride the breeze like a boat rides the waves, for I never saw it flap its wings as its prone body soared parallel to the ground, looking for small prey, its white head the telltale sign of its reign.

tree

We’re always happy to see the balds in our area, especially this frigid winter. I wonder how the flood has changed their habitat, since so many of the huge trees along the St Vrain were torn away by the surging water or have been cut down in the clean-up along the banks. I’ve noticed, too, that the red-tailed hawks are fluffier this year than I’ve observed previously, a sign, I think, of the frigid weather we’ve had so far—and probably of more cold to come.

hive

Since we’d just made mead from the past season’s honey, I wanted to check the beehives to see if any bees were buzzing in and out of the openings on this cold day. I didn’t see a single bee outside the hives, which are snuggled up for the winter, but I did startle a great-horned owl from a tree on the other side of the ditch.  John and I are always on the look-out for “our” owls, the pair that have lived at Stonebridge for over a decade now, but we haven’t seen much of them this year. Today’s sighting seems a magnificent omen for the year to come—and we’ll take every propitious omen we can get.

With the mead brewing in the basement and the owls and eagles flying overhead, I feel more confident about the future than I have for quite a while. Looking back at 2013, we can say, “We came through that and we’re stronger for it,” but the strength came at too high a cost. Let’s hope for peace in the new year, for homes rebullt and families resettled, for cooperation among our policy makers, and for the extension of the ethic of sharing from our small community to the wider world, an ethic that promotes prosperity not just for a few, but for all.

HNY14

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A Comfort

I’m feeling tender these days, softened to the land and the altered lives we face. The landscape has changed, not only geographically by a river outside its bed, but emotionally as we wonder what will be lost and what will be left. As one friend says, “Recalibrate. Recalibrate. Recalibrate.” We note the strangeness of life on the outside as we assess the damage and hold away despair.

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What the river left behind

We helped some friends last weekend who used to own riverfront property. I say “used to,” not because they’ve moved, but because the river has. During the flood, the St. Vrain cut a new channel 10 feet deep and 40 feet wide across their grassy land. After the river changed course, two dry river beds—one old, one new—remained. Cleaning up, we found debris that had washed down from other people’s homes. A duffle bag was wrapped around a tree trunk. We pulled it free and wondered what we’d find inside. Nothing. A disappointment. We’d hoped at least for a good story, a curiosity of floodtimes to remember.

Driving into town these days, we pass the boneyard of ravaged vehicles dragged from the waters. The pile grows by the day, joined by appliances and propane tanks waiting for scrap. Mountains of trash line the streets, the sodden remains of homes and businesses along the way. I’m not sure where it’s all going, but I think of the Trümmerbergs in Munich, grassy parks built upon the rubble of WWII.

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A former horse pasture at the confluence of the North and South St Vrain
rivers became a funnel for debris

At the edge of town, excavators are digging new trenches to connect the old irrigation ditches to the river’s new course. Our ditch has not been damaged and can still reach the river. We should have water next year, a comfort in these sad times.

A comfort. When the world goes awry and familiarities seem forsaken, we look for small tokens of normalcy amid the decay. Our members say that picking up their vegetables is a comfort, a routine that connects them to their pre-flood lives. For others, knowing that our fields weren’t damaged is a comfort, one shared by grateful farmers here.

Stonebridge crew picking vegetables last weekend.

Stonebridge crew picking vegetables last weekend.

Some readers have told me that they found my book a comfort in its reminder that seasons pass in cycles, some more difficult than others, while nature measures time to its own accord.

Other readers took comfort in the strength of my grandparents and great-grandparents, rugged people who lived close to the earth without modern conveniences. If they could survive the Dust Bowl, who are we to complain of a temporary lack of water, power, and—what my ancestors could never have foreseen—communication technologies?

And where do I take comfort in these disrupted times? I’m suffering some pre-flood amnesia. I seem to have forgotten events that happened right before the disaster. Things I had started but then abandoned seem to have slipped my mind. So I look for any small return to that pre-flood life as a reminder of what had been.

Like today, the first yoga class since the flood on September 12. We practiced together again with our teacher, who lost so much, but greets us, smiling, with words of strength and love. The town still lacks water, gas, and sewer, so our studio was chilly, but it didn’t matter. We warmed each other by showing up, a homecoming to the normalcy we all crave.

I take comfort, too, in the beauty of the river, peaceful after its destructive course. New vistas have appeared, new access to the wildness it harbors, accompanied by a new respect for its power and no doubt that it will rise again.

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In the middle of the riverbed last weekend, I found a book, a salvage of words twisted by water and tumbled upon smooth stones. My friend recognized the names of the characters from a popular series for teenaged fantasy readers. How this book found its way down the river we’ll never know, but for me, its survival tokens a comfort, a wish for words washed clean downstream to welcome arms below.

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What We Need

Our gas was turned on yesterday morning, a relief after 18 days. John lit the tank so the water could heat. We made lunch on the stove and turned on the dishwasher afterward. I had a bath; he took a shower. Soon we forgot that we’d been heating water to bathe, solar-showering outside, and cooking on electric griddles, crockpots, and the community room propane stove.

In the afternoon, we drove to Boulder on Hwy 36 for the first time since the flood on September 12th. We couldn’t believe what the St. Vrain River had become. The corner of 36 and 66 is no longer a highway intersection but a crossing of riverbed three times its previous size. The two-story log home that used to sit at the corner is gone, the bank where it stood now shirred off high above the river. A mass of twisted metal lay on the side of the road, former guardrails and the debris they’d stopped as the river roared through.

At Middle Fork Road, Left Hand Creek had engulfed a house and torn away a garage. The house still stood but the porch was surrounded by river rock and tree limbs dragged through the waters. Driving to Boulder and back home again, we gawked at new vistas left behind by a river and creeks straying madly off their course.

After dinner, we walked to our neighbor’s house to tell him about the dumpster arriving this week for cleanup along our stretch of road. We crossed the highway to look at the train tracks that normally run from the cement plant to the south, now shut down and silent for the first time in decades. The ground beneath the tracks and trestle have disappeared, washing rails away like Lego pieces snatched from a toy train. But no real trains will run that way for months, maybe years, maybe never.

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Exactly two weeks before, we’d stood here on the highway at the checkpoint temporarily restricting access to the town of Lyons, its residents evacuated from the flood that destroyed roads, homes, and businesses. We’d been called down to the checkpoint to vouch for friends staying with us temporarily. The barrier was intended to safeguard residents, but had become increasingly frustrating as rules changed daily.

By the time we got there, words had been exchanged and our friends had left down a side road now closed for the night. The officer confronting us wasn’t happy with the situation. He’d heard enough about who needed to get where. “Why don’t you people leave?” he yelled. “There’s nothing for you here.”

I paused to calm my voice. “But that’s not true.” I shook my head. “We have water. We have power. We have food. We have everything we need.”

He stared, surprised. Clearly, this was new information. He must have thought the rural places along the highway had been affected like the town. He didn’t know how self-sufficient we are with our generators, propane, septic systems, and gardens, not to mention our general off-grid attitudes.

Without a word, he retreated to find his superior officer. By the time they returned, the situation had eased. They took our friends’ names so they could return to our farm; we thanked the deputies for their long hours of work.

Everything we need.

I can’t speak for those who have lost their homes or businesses in this flood. I can’t even imagine that loss. But for those of us trying to hold as hard as we could to what we still had, the flood swept off the trivia of life’s worries, leaving a renewed vision of what matters most in its wake.

Now we’re rebuilding with the certainty that disaster can come when we’re not looking. What will happen next, we can’t ensure. But for now, we’re grateful  for the chance to rethink what we really need before it’s taken away .

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Resource Full

Flooded ditch waters running down highway 66 the first morning

Flooded ditch waters running down highway 66 the first morning

The first day of the flood, the phone relay began. Our cell phone and internet service were out, but our land line still worked for local calls, so I phoned my daughter to call my sister with a message to call me for a list of people she should phone to cancel my book reading that night.

Later, my sister told me she’d reassured one worried friend that we were okay. We didn’t have gas, internet, or cell phone, but our electricity, water, and home phone were still working. We had a wood stove and lots of wood for heating, a propane stove in our community room for cooking, stored water if needed, and lots of fresh vegetables. “Yes, they are resourceful,” our friend agreed.

Resourceful. As in, “full of resources.” But even more, “resourceful” means thinking about alternative ways to do the things you normally do. In a disaster, the systems you depend on every day are disrupted so you have to figure out other ways to meet your needs.

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The ditch waters reached the top of the bridge behind our house but didn’t overflow

We were lucky. The ditches held behind our house and the river didn’t rise in the front, so other than some water in our basement, we were dry. We were safe from flooding that first morning, but we couldn’t drive out because floodwaters were rushing across our driveway from the ditches breaching further west of our farm. Still, if we needed to evacuate, we could walk east along the old highway to where officials had set up a roadblock, so our immediate need for safety was met. With gas, water, phone, electricity, and plenty of food, we had no reason to leave as yet.

Our next need was for information. Our oldest daughter called with news that our little town was engulfed in water. A dam burst above Lyons, sending floodwaters down the North and South St Vrain rivers. It was good to know what had happened to cause this emergency, but to find out what was happening right here on the ground, we knocked on our neighbors’ doors. How were they doing? What did they need? Who had services? Who didn’t? That way, we could share resources—pumps, phones, freezer space for homegrown produce, or coop room for soggy chickens.

John watching the water flow down highway 66

John watching the water flow down highway 66

And then the information circle widened. What was happening in town?  Which roads were open and which were closed? Where were the evacuation centers? How could people get prescriptions filled? Pet food? Gas for their cars? Who was leaving and who was determined to stay?

On the second day as the rain continued, we learned more about the extent of damages in town. Where the raging North and South St. Vrain rivers had converged at the west end of town, new channels formed as water rushed through homes, knocked out bridges, and cut off neighborhoods. Information trickled in about how Stonebridge members were faring. We learned that part of the highway up the canyon had disappeared, stranding people in mountain communities. John helped friends move their belongings temporarily to our barn. Army trucks went back and forth in front of our house as townspeople began evacuating to the mega-church down the highway. The local coffee shop hosted a party with all the food they could cook from their failing refrigerators.

First morning waters flood across our driveway

First morning waters flood across our driveway

On the third day, we went into town to tear out our friends’ soggy carpet so the subfloor could dry. Remarkably, some areas of town were untouched, while others were buried under river silt and debris. Most people made plans to leave because, without water, sewer, and electricity, staying in town would be difficult. Soon, those who left wouldn’t be able to return to their homes for what could be a very long time.

Friends arrived to stay in our granary and we joined our fresh vegetables with food from their emptied refrigerators for a communal meal. As we ate, we heard helicopters crisscrossing overhead to airlift people in mountain areas to safety. Mountain people are more resourceful than most, with their own generators, water purifiers, and stockpiled necessities for long winters, but without roads, evacuation became urgent for many.

On the fourth day, more rain and clouds hampered the rescue efforts and the stream of trucks in front of the farm slowed, so the day seemed calmer. We got a welcome phone call from a close friend in the mountains saying he was safe and had everything he needed. Ever resourceful, he’d constructed a sophisticated system of pipes and containers to catch rainwater off slick rock that he could boil for himself and his many animals. He’d wanted to call for days but his phone, like most peoples’, needed electricity to operate. Then he’d remembered an old phone in the attic that charged from the phone line. Success! We were relieved to hear from him, although we’d been confident that if anyone could survive alone in the mountains, he could.

Another self-sufficient mountain friend finally got through to us on day five. He was fine, as we’d expected. The folks on his road were pulling together and he was feeding all his neighbors with the eggs he usually sold in town.

Resourceful. John and I have learned a few things about our own resourcefulness during this disaster. We learned that we can lose services in a disaster, even if we have them initially, so thinking ahead is important. We had stored water, but the outside tank we’d counted on was compromised by rain and soil runoff during the storm, leaving us with less than needed if our district water should fail. From now on, we’ll save more in jugs and store it on higher ground than our leaking basement.

Another lesson was designating a central spot for backpacks to keep keys, wallets, flashlights, change of clothes, medications, extra eyeglasses, and other essential items handy in case we had to leave in a hurry. If the ditches broke in the night, we could grab our bags and walk out. Even if the electricity went off, we’d know where to find things in the dark.

Trucks begin rolling into Lyons with stone to rebuild roads

Trucks begin rolling into Lyons with stone to rebuild roads

For those who have internet services, posting updates on websites or social media works wonderfully, but for those of us without internet service, the next best thing was changing the message on our answering machine with each day’s date so that people whose calls we missed would still get some information about our situation (thanks, Mary, for that tip).

Water, power, heat, and food are essential resources to cover. We can store some things ahead of time or find alternate ways to generate them.

But our most important resource is each other. A knock on the door or a phone call or email lets us know that someone cares. Pooling necessities and exchanging skills allows more needs to be met. Sharing information and problem-solving communally increases everyone’s chance of survival. Everyone can contribute something to a critical situation. Each person can offer their own form of physical or emotional comfort, be it an air lift, a nourishing meal, or a hug to get through the day.

I’m not trying to romanticize this catastrophe or our response to it. What’s happened to our community is horrible, but moments of lightness keep us going. As we rebuild our roads, buildings, and infrastructure, we can draw on the new relationships of the cooperative community we’ve fostered during this emergency and know that we are most resource full when we work together.

The wet, green, post-flood world

A wet, green world emerges from the flood

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