Colorado Flooding Aftermath: A First Hand Report, by Roger I.

I lived in Jamestown Colorado until three weeks ago, and was prepared for various disasters, mostly fire, and I always expected a road system to exist.  Wrong-o!

I have a more keen sense of the Lord’s blessings, and they are amazing. The outpouring of support from the various communities that I’m in has been amazing.   I am walking in abundance, but not everybody is. My life has had a hard reboot – I was in some middle-aged doldrums – no more! I anonymized my name and corporate affiliation in the narrative, otherwise, it’s unedited, and reflects my understanding of the events at different times, as things unfolded.

This is a narrative of surviving a flood in a small mountain town of 350 persons in Boulder County, Colorado.  After several days of unusual rains, the situation was described as a 500 year flood event.    On Sept 11 I was having barbeque with a friend, and it started raining.   No big deal.  On Sept 12, I could not get to work, because of road flooding, the power was out, and I was prepared with radio, walkie talkies, electricity and food.  I thought we’d down for a couple days, or maybe a week.  On Friday, Sept 13, it became clear that we were cut off from the larger world, and that something extraordinary was occurring.  I was well prepared for the wildfires that come here, but not a flood. I always thought that the road system would exist – and that was the biggest gap in my planning!

Here’s a stream-of-consciousness description of events, unedited.

Roger’s Jamestown Flood Narrative #1 – Evacuation Sept 18 2013

The Bad:

Last Friday, Sept 13, a Chinook helicopter evacuated my wife and I from Jamestown, Colorado with 3 cats, a backpack each.

Even if the main road is open after weeks or months, my house in town on a minor dirt road was across a bridge. Bridges belong to the  town, as does the water system. Rebuilding Jamestown may occur at the earliest a year, or not at all, depending on FEMA. Given the damage in Lyons, Longmont and Boulder … well, Jamestown,  with  300 people doesn’t take  priority. On  Tuesday, Sept  24, I am mounting an expedition with a couple 4WD vehicles to winterize  the houses, and get 2 cars worth of possessions. Getting things out must be done on foot, over a makeshift bridge and ford with backpacks – even a wheelbarrow or wagon isn’t  possible, and I’m hiring some younger friends that meet the inflexible  Sheriff’s requirement of having a Jamestown drivers license. I am concerned about squatters and looters, but  the area’s secure for a week or so.

There is no vehicle access to the town. Jamestown may not be rebuilt – we’ve all heard of a ghost town.

Some great  learning opportunities! Did I mention that FEMA forms are full of  questions that you need legal papers to answer? Did I mention that Hospice Thrift Shop is the best  in Boulder? Did I mention that learning to live without my own car is a challenge? Did I mention that learning to use the bus system (which is quite good here) will be a hoot?

The  Good: Really, I’m blessed. My friend Norm picked us up from the Chinook [CH-47 military helicopter] at Boulder airport, and let us stay in his spare bedroom.

Rental with 3 cats is difficult, but it turns out my friend had a tenant not pay rent on Sept 1, and he just had evicted him and the guy left the place  smelling of cat piddle – perfect for someone with three cats! No need to paint, re-carpet, or even put an ad out for a new tenant, it was all done on a handshake.

My wife and I dropped in to my job to do the admin work of setting up a new house. It  is  so good  to have  a place with phone, printer and internet to perform change  of address, phone  service, and so forth.

Someone from my work  offered to loan a spare car!

The future – I may  have lost a house, but may still have  a primitive cabin! My old house above  Jamestown  survived, and because it has a well (with water  that  is rust-colored) and is on the main road may become habitable if they rebuild the road.   Currently, accessibility is via  seasonal mountain dirt roads and the commute to Boulder is 3.5 hours.

How great  is it to have housing, transportation and work’s understanding of the situation?

It’s  a disaster, but not a tragedy.

Roger’s Jamestown Flood Narrative #2 – from response to recovery Sept 22 2013

The initial disaster response is complete.  Immediate physical needs of housing, furniture and transportation are met.   Martha & Marc S. loaned me a Prius, and it’s a blast to drive!  Not having internet really hurts, but will be done Thurs, Sept 26.    I’m ahead of the curve in the physical world, but behind in the infosphere, and that’s okay.   I can spend way too much time on a computer. Last  week, my wife had an urgent care incident involving  a tiny nick on a finger that turned to a big infection requiring antibiotic injection.   If we had stayed in Jamestown, we would have been in real trouble. Wash your hands!

Weather permitting, I’ll muster a team on Tues Sept 24 to recover valuables. This is done with backpacks across a footbridge, and the distance is only 1/2  mile across  a new stream, and up a steep hill.   Our cars are not accessible, and still no word on a temporary bridge to retrieve them. At least our buildings are intact, but they are now buildings, not homes or rental houses. We’ll also perform winterization of cars and buildings (drain traps must have anti-freeze, empty water heaters, washing machines, etc). Greg, Rick,  and Nate are loaning 4WD trucks, and I look forward to using trained engineers as pack animals 😉 I also have a couple young volunteer firefighter friends.  I rent a house to one of ’em, and every time he did a call, I told him to take $50 off the rent, to show my appreciation of his public service.   Of course, he’s eager to help too.  Karma works.

FEMA help is a mixed blessing.   They provide a lot of help, but are pretty nosy. I paid my taxes for 40 years, and getting some back would be soooo nice. FEMA is a road show – they may leave here this week, so coordinating their inspectors with my Jamestown expedition is challenging.    It  may require 4 trips to Jamestown. My wife is affected financially, as she was a landlord, and now has only a meager state pension, (in lieu of Social Security), and now has rent expenses as well as loss of income. She will be navigating state  and local government assistance, as well as  FEMA. Funny how our plans can change  – I thought I’d be trimming the trees and doing some fire mitigation this month.   That’s  one pain in the neck that I don’t have! (Later we see this wasn’t true ! )

For  my geek friends,   this has been a life-reboot, and I’ve just gotten past POST, and am in that place where you’re waiting and waiting for the OS to come up and display the logon screen.

I  have the understanding of my company management team at this time – folks I know do not have the work flexibility that I’ve been blessed with.  The outpouring of generosity from employees is noteworthy –  I asked for a  bed, and had 3 on Friday by noon.  I have better cookware  and cutlery that I had in Jamestown.    Physical goods are abundant,  and buying them doesn’t make much sense – money’s  a lot harder to come by than stuff.

That’s all for now!

“It’s a disaster, not a tragedy”

 

Roger’s Flood Narrative Three Wednesday Sept 25 A backpack expedition:

On Tues, Sept 26, my wife and I went on an expedition to retrieve our belongings from our homes in Jamestown.

Recap:  The house is standing and undamaged, but after the flood, there’s no longer a road  to get  there. The old road that took 30 minutes  to get to Boulder is gone, and some dirt roads must be used, but they’re damaged, and the route takes 1.5 hours, and is downright hazardous. In winter it will be impossible to get from Boulder to Jamestown some of the time, and dangerous at all times.

We were able  to get to with 1/4 mile of the house, then we had to cross a makeshift foot  bridge, climb a mud path on a hill with a rope to stabilize yourself, and  backpack everything we wanted out.    Besides getting our things, we wanted to make a start on winterizing the houses – all the water must  be blown out from the  P-trap pipes on dishwashers, washers, sinks, bathtubs and toilets and replaced with antifreeze in order to have a drain system in the springtime.

We enlisted the aid of Nate VanDuine (software engineer), Victor Smith (firefighter), David Lindquist (firefighter), Chris Ryan (firefighter) and Rick Sutherland (painter).   Using  software engineers as pack animals is always an iffy proposition, but after some training, Nate did great.   Also,  Greg Walter graciously loaned the use his 4WD pickup, as did Nate.

It was a beautiful day, and our mission was pretty successful – we got  clothing and computers, but didn’t get things like books, cookware, or furniture, obviously! Friends at work and in general, and the thrift stores have all provided  wonderful support.   On Friday, I put out a call for a bed on an employer-sponsored board, and had three offers by noon! People are incredibly generous, and work is incredibly supportive at the local and national level.

Dealing with FEMA  is  my next challenge.   Gathering paperwork is tedious, as is waiting in line, but all in all, I’m impressed with the FEMA response, and with the compassionate and helpful attitude of the workers.   The delivery of services isn’t perfect, but the people are pleasant, and that makes a world of difference.  They really must have learned a lot from previous disasters, because my experience is pretty good. One big thing they learned from Katrina is  to let people bring pets on the helicopters. my wife and I have our 3 cats, and that’s huge.

In order to get aid for our non-accessible houses, we need to be physically present for FEMA inspectors in Jamestown, and the only scheduling mechanism is telephone at the last minute.

The rumor yesterday was that a temporary road will be up within about a week, so that  we can retrieve our cars in Jamestown.   Not having access to your  car and house is frustrating – so  near yet so far! It’s unlikely that the road system will be rebuilt before 1.5 years (two summers), and may not  get rebuilt at all. The water system is a different – because the main access road is a county road, it might get rebuilt. However, the water  system is from 1930s WPA work, and was rickety – it’s owned by the town of  350 persons. Now that the distribution system is damaged, and the main plant will go unattended,  it strikes me as unlikely that we’ll get the tax base together  to rebuild it to modern standards. A  well isn’t an option due to state regulation.  So have a house that’s  inaccessible at present, may be uninhabitable for at least a 1.5 years, and possibly forever. As mentioned in the first  narrative I may have a house in a ghost town, but it will make a great weekend getaway – the night sky will be very dark, and perfect for my 13″  Dobsonian reflector!

“It’s a disaster, not a tragedy”.

Roger’s Flood Narrative Four Sunday Sept 29

The finish line for the sprint and start of the marathon, and a word of advice to the prudent.

Sunday Sept 29 2013

It’s been 2 weeks since I was evacuated via Chinook helicopter from the Colorado flood.  I can finally use the Biblical and Epic as adjectives without hyperbole. Since then, I’ve seen an outpouring of generosity from the communities I’m in that’s been incredible.  I never thought I’d have so much goodwill to manage!

A few bad things I’ve seen after the event:

The drunks in my town started “borrowing” bottles from their neighbors who were not home. Societal breakdown happens quickly, and normally honest people become criminals of opportunity. I also experienced a theft after the flood, and that stings. You can’t let down your guard, and have to be vigilant when fatigued, and at the same time gracious to others who were affected. These events bring out criminals of opportunity and they hurt those on the margins the most. I’ve seen of the homeless and marginal members of society hurt a lot. The scene of a mentally ill person at the FEMA site harassing the guards and evacuees haunts me still.  He was eventually arrested.   I can’t imagine how the security folks, police and FEMA workers maintain their civility and humor. I’ve seen scammers trying to game the system and swindle refugees, which is shameful. I’ve tried Korean toothpaste from the Red Cross and wow – they sure make a different-tasting product.  However, Red Cross will get my donations in the future – for feeding us at FEMA sites, and the general immediate assistance they provide.

In terms of life experience, I was in a rut, and the good news is that I’m not in a rut any more!

The finish line for the sprint: A temporary road has been built, and I’ll retrieve the cars today. My FEMA administrative will be finished tomorrow. The time for disaster, new housing for my family, a psychological reboot and return to a semblance of normalcy has been two weeks of running on adrenaline.

Today, Sunday Sept 29, I’m going up for my final FEMA inspection. The drive there is grueling – it takes a couple hours up rutted dirt roads with a lot of traffic and breakdowns, and it will be worse in winter. The FEMA guy and I missed each other on 2 previous occasions. There isn’t land line or cell phone there, and a commute of two hours and missing someone makes me depressed.   On the other hand, when God made time, He made lots of it, so I try to enjoy the aspens turning, and there’s plenty of chores to do in Jamestown. At 60 years of age, I get a few joint aches doing this much physical work under a deadline, but I’m thankful that I’m in good enough shape to do it at all. JWR’s advice about physical and spiritual fitness is to be taken seriously. I did, and now I’m glad for it.

Writing four narratives helped immensely, so that I have some understanding of my new situation, and to get help from folks.

The start of the marathon: Our buildings are undamaged, but uninhabitable due to lack of access and water.  You just can’t drill a well, legally, and putting in a cistern and having water trucked may have legal as well as logistical challenges. I have yet to winterize the houses, but I’m hiring that out to locals. I need to complete a fire mitigation project that I was in the middle of, and will now hire that out too.   Expensive. Ouch. The time for a new road to looks like summer 2014. In that time, I hope to rebuild my home, but I have to consider living in an unfamiliar community – which is not a fate worse than death, despite my initial feelings about it 😉   My bucolic lifestyle had it’s downsides, and the ability to get a pizza delivered has some charm. Defending the old homestead from fire, looters, and squatters will be a challenge. I don’t know if I’m up to being a combination fire and police department. Winterizing the houses so the pipes don’t burst, and maintaining the septic systems is necessary until a water system is restored, and the FEMA funds are uncertain.  If a water system is funded, the time frame is unclear, and there’s no guarantee it will be concurrent with a road, but you never know.     I realize more keenly now that homes require constant maintenance and use to keep them habitable. And there’s changing building code and occupancy requirements by local government.   The folks relocated by fires in Boulder county found that only a few percent were able to rebuild to code. Insurance does not cover inaccessibility due to flooding, and I’ve noticed that things have become more expensive than when I was a lad. My best case scenario is re-occupying the house by fall, 2014. That’s what I’m hoping for.

This is going to be an interesting engineering and planning exercise, and I’m up for it !

Here’s advice in one word.

Laminate.

I had a disaster plan in place with a friend in a neighboring community. We discussed it in advance, and the plan had a list of procedures to follow. The plan was for a fire, but it adapted to a flood.

Laminating a plan brings it to a level of formality that’s executable, and if it rains cats and dogs, you can still read it!

The Lord’s blessings and lamination are a powerful combination!

Roger’s Postscript and Debrief Sunday Oct 6

Situational awareness was key to taking the right course of action. During the rains, after the 2nd bridge washed out, those of us on one of the “islands” that now define Jamestown got together at the 1-room schoolhouse. Most folks didn’t understand what was happening, and thought that we’d be back up and running in a week or two, and that between the individual preppers and the government, we’d be up and running in a couple weeks. I had a talk with a friend that I regard as bright, and he simply said “I was in Katrina, and I can tell you that Jamestown is done for a year.” That sentence made my situational awareness change, and I could take appropriate action. Most folks didn’t get it until a week after they were off the helicopters. I was able to set up a new household based on that one sentence, and I’m now helping others, and participating in small-town government plans to rebuild. Whether we can raise the money is unknown, but there’s enough infrastructure left for it to be worth a try.

Some of JWR’s readers will take issue with me using FEMA.  Don’t judge me.   They are there with money, helicopters and housing. They were effective and compassionate. I suspect that a small town in Colorado can get different treatment than the nightmare that was Katrina, just on the basis of scale.  One of the things that they learned from Katrina is to let people bring pets – many folks had an attitude of “I won’t leave without my pet”, and they were able to make that a non-issue. I will let JWR know in a year whether I would have used FEMA in the aftermath again.

Families with children were easy to evacuate, older folks were harder. The older folks would not have fared well had they stayed. One had a suspected heart attack, and there was no way to get help to him. Don’t be too attached to your home in a genuine disaster.

About 20 people remain in Jamestown.    Some of these have a good chance of over-wintering, and they are all deep preppers whose homes were not in the flood plain.   They are all in the 55 year and up age group, for some reason.  These are the folks who own backhoes and excavators, and there are 6 of them. They will get the rebuilding contracts. Another four are more granola oriented, and they  have experience from Peace Corps living in Third World countries, and they’ve lived off-grid lives of simplicity for years. They will get the house maintenance (winterize and watch my house during diaspora) contracts. One of the cannabis grow ops was well set up, and that family will thrive, barring crop failure. The others are drunks and young hippies, who appear self-reliant, but just happened to luck out.  I expect a cull of these folks.

I’ll check back in a year and let you know my experience with FEMA and more.

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