Boulder flooded last week. Whilst at first, the wailing sirens and notices of evacuation all seemed very american drama queen for this Englishman used to the rain, in the end it turned out to have a pretty devastating effect on the surrounding area.
After getting back into Colorado in August, I enjoyed an unusually temperate climate – the thunderstorms were frequent and the clouds covered the glaring sun more often than expected. I wasn’t surprised when the sun finally started blaring like usual, and the mercury stayed above 37C for over a week. I remember wearing a coat to work on the first day the weather broke – enjoying the smell of drizzling rain on wet roads, and the surprise at the gentle stream of Devonshire like rain coming down. Normally Colorado storms burn out within an hour or so, but this weather felt like it would continue. I recollected the many English days of sitting inside with a warm cup of tea, and the perverse reassurance that the rain would continue indefinitely. On first thought, endless rain might seem depressing, but really it’s just a new reality that is adapted to instantly, and enjoyed equally with the sun. I love the hydrating feeling; the rain collecting in your eyebrows, then pouring across your face in streams as you pedal along soaked roads.
When the water started flowing down our street, I wasn’t particularly concerned; the house sits back and above the road on the porch, and the gentle running of our new river didn’t seem to effect us. It did make me look at Boulder in a different way though – the lack of drains on the roads, the ground level windows facing uphill, and sunken entryways just waiting for water to pour in. Images of underground car-parks waist deep in water, and basements filling so directly they looked designed to be storage tanks. Boulder wasn’t designed for this rain. It was designed for thunderstorms. The bike paths running east to west through the city did their job perfectly – collecting the huge quantities of water from the mountains and channelling them down these purpose built run offs. But then things started to go wrong. The normal abatement of the water failed to happen, and trees started falling. The ground, completely devoid of soil, can’t hold much water normally; the sand started running off the bare rocks just as quick as the water. Looking up and west into the hills showed scars of rock falling town-wards, with only houses and streets to drift towards. Eventually the drainages had had enough; the rocks piled up, trees got caught, and dams stronger than anything humans could build blocked the creeks. The overflow sent cascades down streets and through houses which never thought their foundations would be subject to such a deluge. Gardens fell under the torrent, their nutritious soil now swept towards Kansas.
The first day after a full night of rain seemed like the end. Incredulous residents could not believe the rain would continue. The small break in the weather gave hope, and people ventured out to partake in gawking and gandering at the places who survived less well than themselves. But it kept raining. No longer a persistent, if heavy, drizzle. It was now a thunderstorm that got stuck on a hill. The rain fell in sheets for hours – inch upon inch of moisture like I’d only ever seen in the darkest of Devonshire Januaries. My parents called: “But it’s only 10 inches of rain” they said – nothing extra-ordinary for the fair coastal hills of England. But for Colorado, the Mountains had collected their venom and poured a years worth of precipitation downwards in just a few days.
Whilst we sat Marooned in our house, helpless to save the neighbours whose property was barely a few feet lower, The reality of the destruction in the Mountains to the west was difficult to comprehend. No photos had emerged from the submerged and destroyed canyons – just salacious rumours of walls of water. By the time we ventured from our small area of destruction out into the open, the town varied from razed piles of muddy debris, to untouched rows of houses, whose gardens looked sprightly in the humid air. The destruction wasn’t complete, but selective and comprehensive on where it targeted.
A week later, with overwhelming media coverage depicting houses torn from foundations, it seems surreal to be sitting at work with a normal routine ahead. Some people have nothing left, including life, whilst the vast majority talk about the flood with the air of a TV show that everyone watched. Conspicuous in it’s absence from the commentary of the deluge is how the weather came to be, and what that weather did elsewhere. The tropical storms that sat over Mexico, and pushed the moisture towards us, caused far more damage. Hundreds of lives deleted, and total communities rinsed from the cartographers paper. With just a handful of lives lost in Colorado, it seems no-one wants to admit that it could have been so much worse. That it was so much worse for other people. To acknowledge that would take the drama from our situation; it would prevent us revelling in the stories that people want to tell for as long as anyone will listen.
The only footnote I have is the effect to me; the lack of roads and trails for riding has such a huge effect on my life that it’s a reality check. Pining for singletrack and winding mountainous roads that are no longer accessable is a testament to how good life really is. I’ll be missing riding along golden-leaved country roads and winding down singletrack in the crisp autumn air. But maybe that’s a good thing. Perhaps the absence of riding those areas will be the thing that actually keeps the true devastation fresh in my mind. It could have been a lot worse.