Real Life Survival: One Family's Experience with Disaster when the Floods Came
First I want to say that this isn't a commentary on paranoia, it's just an account of realism. There are many disaster-related incidents that can happen at any time, at any moment, that have nothing to do with Zombies or EMPs.
Realistic disaster scenarios could include everything from a derailed train of nasty chemicals, a toxic spill in your sewer, a factory in your area has a fire or explosion spewing deadly fumes, an overturned tractor trailer fire between you and your kid’s school, or a hundred other unexpected man-made disasters. There's also the possibility of infrastructure failing. This would include things like water main breaks, contamination, power outages or even gas leaks.
This doesn't even cover a potential geopolitical or societal crisis, protest riots, civil unrest, flash mobs, etc. Aside from the man-made scenarios, there are also natural disasters, including fires, earthquake, tornados or even floods. Needless to say, the possibilities are endless when it comes to disasters and today I'm sharing my first-hand experience with one I never expected.
Open the Floodgates
In the mountains of Colorado, we don’t expect floods very often. In fact, we barely get rain most of the time. (This has actually led to multiple evacuations or standby evacuations due to fires for us.) We occasionally hear “Flash Flood” warnings, but those are usually considered “For those folks down there” in Lyons, Boulder and other lower elevations. Our location was at over 7,200 feet in elevation.
During the first week of September 2013, the Front Range mountain communities of Colorado had been experiencing a drought. That is, until about the 9th when it started raining. A lot. The situation intensified on September 11th and 12th.
The U.S. Drought Monitor stated that "The combination of ample Gulf and Pacific tropical moisture, stalled frontal systems and upsloping conditions produced the widespread rainfall.”
On the night of September 11th, 2013 there were flash flood warnings, mostly due to the steady rain for the past 2-3 days. Before we went to bed that night, my wife asked me if we needed to be concerned about the warnings. I briefly thought about it and responded that the far bank of the creek, behind our lot, was lower than the bank on our side. So if the water rose, it would go out into the field on the far side. Needless to say, we never could have imagined what would actually happen.
At 3:00 a.m. on September 12th, we awoke to a loud brash, "KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK!" Of course surprised, I made my way from the bed to the front door.
A Fireman was at the door. While he anxiously started talking, I was startled by the fact that our house was surrounded by lots of fast moving water. What had been a 6 foot wide creek, 50 feet behind our house, was now at least 2.5 feet of rushing water as far out as 80 feet in front of our house. The entire house, lot and both of our cars were in the flow. (One of them was eventually washed completely off the driveway.)
The Fireman informed us that we had 5 or 10 minutes to gather some things while they got a 4×4 backed into the driveway over at the next door neighbor’s house. (Because they couldn't safely get it close enough to our house.) They were then going to have to escort us through some of the “lower level water flow” between the two houses, over to the next house, where we would jump into the back of the truck to be ferried across the street/river.
We'd have only what we could carry and only minutes to grab it. The fireman also instructed us to leave our house unlocked. I definitely wasn't prepared for that.
It was now time to wake everyone up and make a quick check of the situation. I looked in the garage that protrudes off the front of the house. There was already 10 inches of water inside at the garage door itself and with the slant of the floor, the water was nearing the entrance to the interior of the house. We had already lost personal property, family heirlooms and more, with the news only one minute old.
We ended up with one small backpack for each of the girls. Myself, my wife and the dog (he needed food after all) shared one backpack and I also grabbed my office bag with my laptop, which was my livelihood. Also, the dog would need to be carried as he was only 18 inches tall.
So what did we grab? Well after getting dressed, we packed the following: a change of clothes, some basic toiletries, prescriptions, phones and chargers, documents (Birth Certificates, Passports, etc.) from the fireproof box, some dog food, a handgun and some ammo. It was now time to go.
We waded through the pushing water, arms full and rain still pouring in the morning darkness. Only 10 minutes ago we were dreaming in our beds. We climbed up into the back of the truck and they dropped us right on the other side of the water. There we were, standing in the rain, looking back at the house and the new 200 foot wide river that now contained all of the other houses up and down the flow of Fish Creek.
The Fireman told us that the church about a half mile away would be opening as a Red Cross emergency shelter and then he returned back to his crew to attend to the next evacuation. No transportation was offered. I was able to talk another Fireman into driving us up the hill to the church in his own truck.
When the Fireman dropped us off at the church, soon to be a shelter, we were the first to arrive. (I think we may actually have been the first evacuation.) They'd just started the coffee and I could smell it, but we didn’t even make it inside the door. As soon as they saw we had a dog, they informed us that pets weren't allowed inside and that at some point there would be an emergency pet shelter set up at the fairgrounds about 2 miles away. At this point, the event was about 20-25 minutes old and we were again standing out in the rain with our stuff.
So who do you call at 3:30AM to take your family and dog? Well, I called a guy from church. I gave him a quick summary of the situation and he got there right away. Later, I thought back to this call and realized how fortunate it was that my cell phone was working at this time. Later on, it wouldn't be. We ended up back at his house to dry up and sleep for a few hours.
Heading into Town
Heading back later that morning, it was still raining. My friend drove me back to the house to see things in the light and find out what was happening elsewhere. When we got as near to our house as we could, we saw that all the houses that were anywhere in the vicinity of Fish Creek were now fixtures in a very fast moving river. The two cars in my driveway looked like they might leave at any moment and the water was pushing against them halfway up the doors at times.
There was no possibility of getting to our house and once I'd seen it, I started to look around. One of the larger houses that had been on the other side of the creek, about 100 yards down, had been ripped in half and there was no sign of the other half.
Wherever a street had crossed the creek (one crossing was about 150 feet upstream from our house) the water was eroding entire sections of asphalt and the base below it. This is part of the reason the water had gone so wide at our location, as the water was forced sideways at intervals.
You could clearly see that the street crossing wouldn't last long and that the pavement in our cul-de-sac was shifting. On the other side of this new river, were other neighborhoods. I would later find out that these were already completely cut off from access and were already trapped.
As my friend and I drove further “down stream,” there were already a number of places where the other roads that crossed Fish Creek were completely washed out and massive amounts of nearby earth were missing. There was also lots of debris moving in the water. We got down to the dam below the lake and water was gushing at such incredible volume and velocity.
The issue was that too much water above the dam risked a catastrophic build up, but too much down the narrow canyon would be horrifying to those living below (the Big Thompson had been devastated by flooding before.) It could hold back no longer and the rain was still collecting in the mountains. What falls at the high elevations takes hours to get to town, building quantity and speed as it comes.
In the following few days there were recurring flash floods as volume from the mountains would surge and regress. A huge mudslide took out part of a retreat camp south of town.
We turned back towards town and drove up the center of Main Street. Behind the buildings was the Big Thompson River, already running out of its banks in a number of places. The Post Office parking lot was a lake, but that did happen a bit nearly every year with warm water run off. Water on the west side of town was very high, but didn't seem catastrophic, yet. About half an hour after we got back to the house, we heard the reports that Downtown, where we'd just driven, was now entirely flooded from another flash flood.
It rained for 3 more days and infrastructure began to break down very quickly. Estes Park Colorado has three “Year Round” roads to access the rest of the world and a forth, Trail Ridge Road, which goes over the Continental Divide but it's only seasonal and not open at all to commercial traffic (i.e. no trucks.)
Two of the three main roads were completely destroyed and the third was impassable for the first 2 ½ days. Even then, it was only open for limited traffic, passing in shifts through skinny one lane damaged areas. Some neighborhoods on the other side of the flow were completely cut off from town, let alone the access roads.
Communications depended on where you were. Cell phones all eventually failed due to damaged towers. For awhile some folks even had internet, until the fiber optic cable severed. Some folks still had land lines, while some folks had absolutely nothing. Power was non-existent in areas and intermittent in others.
The most helpful and dependable comms were those used by HAM Radio Operators. They provided contact with the EOCs (Emergency Operations Centers), Health & Welfare communications, comms for the Red Cross and Medical Center and helped coordinate evacuations for two camp locations.
Even the little department store FRS radios were better than nothing. I had a personal friend, who was in one of the cut off sections of town, who was able to get a health & welfare communication out and eventually to relatives in Texas, because of a young girl on her FRS.
The sewer lines were washed out and everything the water touched was contaminated. No flushing of toilets was allowed for 2000 homes for over 2 months. (From the middle of September to the end of November when temporary sewer lines were completed.) During this time, the town deposited Porta Johns sporadically through neighborhoods. This allows you to get to know your neighbors on a whole new level. Also, remember that Estes Park is a mountain town at 7,200 feet in elevation; it can get very cold.
We also have some other unique obstacles, including elk, bears, coyotes and mountain lions. Elk roam freely in the mountains and through our town. In the fall months, elk are in their mating season (rut) and the large and often aggressive males gather a harem of females to claim. The results were large herds of elk roaming the town, now considered a disaster area.
So imagine you wake early in the morning to nature’s call and bundle yourself up (because it’s 15 degrees) to make the trek to the neighborhood Porta John, only to discover that it's surrounded by dozens of elk, including two scuffling 1,000 pound males sporting 4-foot racks. Now imagine your wife needs to make that 2 a.m. trip to the potty; enter the value of the bucket toilet. These and any other supplies had to be procured from out of town and due to the one remaining route out, it took 4-5 hours one-way to acquire.
The Big Picture
So what really happened in the big picture? According to Wikipedia, at least 8 deaths, 2 missing and presumed dead (a miraculously low number, considering the event), 11,000 evacuated, 1,750+ rescued by air and ground, 30 state highway bridges destroyed and an additional 20 seriously damaged, miles of freight and passenger rail lines washed out, many miles of roads, 19,000 homes damaged, 1,500+ homes and 200+ businesses destroyed.
This is all just one example of one family's experience. What I've written here today really only speaks to a very short period of what was a very long event. The Fish Creek area still isn't fully recovered from the flood and it was just one of many areas hit. Towns like Glen Haven, Jamestown and others were almost completely wiped out.
I never complain about the flood, as we were blessed a hundred times. Many people lost everything, including some losing their lives. When these disasters strike around our county, they'll only be a story for a few days because of the never ending news cycles, but the recovery often takes years. Some things are lost forever. The best help for the town in the months and years that followed was from the local churches and groups like Reach Global.
Before the flood I thought I was fairly light and mobile. I wasn't. At least not to the degree I should have been. However, I'm resolved to make continual improvements. Everyone, including the dog, needs to have a bug-out bag. There need to be some other considerations as well. Most importantly, we are safe, but I know there's more that needs to change in our house.
Things to Consider
Thank goodness the fresh water lines weren't severed on top of everything else. That would've changed things exponentially. What part of your water purification system deals with potential viruses, petroleum products, fertilizers, pesticides or all the other possible flood water contaminants besides the 99.9% bacteria?
Had the one access road not been repaired enough for slight traffic and the Governor not gotten special permission for convoys of supplies to be brought over Trail Ridge Road, our town would have quickly ran out of fuel, food, supplies, etc. If anyone in your family has medication that they depend on, you should be storing and rotating those as much as possible. Research the shelf-life of them and any possible hazards. You may not always have consistent access to a pharmacy.
We had boxes on shelves in the garage, but the water was already above the bottom shelf. Books are heavy, so you put them on the bottom shelf and they're the first to go in a flood. Also, don't keep your nifty emergency water purifier on the floor or bottom shelf. (Ask me how I know this.)
The fireman had instructed us to leave our house unlocked. Think about that. The way your house/belongings are when you go to bed, would you be comfortable leaving them only as secure as they usually are?
We were dropped off in the rain, but then got a ride to a temporary shelter. Who would you call? Do you have numbers written down if your phone didn’t work or was damaged? Could you take in four people and a dog? Preparedness means you can help others too.
I could go on and on. Others had much more hazardous situations than us and I’m sure they would have more/different thoughts. I just thought I'd share mine. The moral of all of this is that we are most susceptible to that which we least expect.
Jeff Carpenter is a husband and father of three who seeks to take responsibility for the well being of his family, daily and especially in the event of crisis. Having experienced the Colorado Flood of 2013, as well as numerous "Standby" evacuation alerts due to wildfires, he's developed a mindset towards preparedness by looking at the practicalities of "What would you actually have to do next? And after that?" He has no claims to being an "Expert" but is more of a staunch realist.