This is a guest post about the aftermath of the extraordinary rainfall and flooding in Boulder, Colorado, by Elizabeth “Bets” McNie, a researcher at the Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado. It’s a damn good piece of writing. I recommend it to you very highly.
The Day After and ‘Keeping Boulder Weird’
by Elizabeth McNie
Sept 13 – 14, 2013
In what seems like an eternity for the high desert, the sun came out this morning, bright against a robin’s-egg sky. Like many of my neighbors, I venture out for the first time in days to walk my dog, and simply bear witness to the destructive power of our ‘Biblical’ rainfall as described by the National Weather Service.
For weeks, twice each day, I walked my dog in this neighborhood but today we walk down unfamiliar streets in what is now a new neighborhood. Where once there were yards, now there are creeks, brown and roiling, spilling into new rivers with names like Sumac, Iris, Violet, their delicate names incongruent with the violence of the flood that now rages down these streets. Swales have become lakes where one elementary school now sits, a one-story atoll in a turbulent sea, branches and debris swirling around bike racks, halls and classrooms now choked with water. As a river pours into one end of the school, a salvage crew at the other end – standing knee deep in water – has already begun repairs, manning large blowers, pumping dry air into the building through bulging tunnels of white plastic.
I walk past dozens of people, more than I’ve ever seen on any of my previous walks. They look like tourists, taking in the new landscape for the first time. A few have large cameras hanging around their neck. Couples walk hand in hand. Entire families. Am I seeing my own face as I look into theirs? Pale skin, like the grey storm clouds that smothered our city, eyes squinting even behind sunglasses, lips drawn tight. Greeting each person as I pass by feels odd, perfunctory, words carefully rationed. There is only so much I can say before repetition sets in, revealing the cognitive dissonance between what I see and what I think possible. ‘You made it OK?’ ‘Got lucky.’ ‘Could’ve been worse.’ ‘Just the basement.’ ‘I’m sorry for your … loss’. Is that what this is, loss? Other words aren’t rationed: Fuck. Holy shit. Jesus. Oh my God.
As we walk on I discover the loss, entire family histories stacked on lawns in sodden cardboard boxes, bloated with photos and trinkets, drowned in the deluge. I don’t linger long, drawn by the empty roads now closed to traffic, to the new topography that lay ahead. I have to keep walking. I need to make sense of what I see.
When other tourists ask how I fared I stumble, unsure how to explain my situation in a language of rationed words. I could tell them what happened at my friend’s house where I am staying… minor leaking from the roof, flooding into basement window wells averted – just in time – by digging trenches to draw water away from the house and back into the street, all done under the illumination of a Subaru’s headlights.
Or I could explain how my own home for over two years is actually a school bus I converted, and how I am sorting out where to move it to next, where to live. I am still self-conscious about telling people I live in a skoolie, so I would have to explain that it’s not just some patchouli-scented crash pad, but my home, built with eco-friendly and energy efficient material. Today it sits parked in a lot next to South Boulder Creek along a strip of Arapaho Road that has been closed due to flooding. I have no idea about the condition of my bus, but I hope its high clearance will be enough to keep the interior dry, intact.
Either response requires too many words. It’s too early for stories, we’re not ready for that. I settle with, ‘Fine. It’s all good.’ For now.
It’s the arbitrariness of the damage that confuses and unsettles. The gentle slope of a driveway angled inches in the wrong direction, a storm sewer clogged by debris, landscaping designed to showcase the house but that also funnels water into patios, living rooms and basements. It’s a house that stands yards away from a drainage ditch that’s dry most of the year, until the past few days when it proves insufficient to fulfill its only purpose. Some houses are untouched, gardens filled with flowers, children’s toys scattered innocently in the yard.
Down another block, every house is ravaged by floodwaters that still flow down freshly carved channels. I can see the desperate work of homeowners, how they tried to keep the waters at bay in their hastily constructed berms made of tables, cushions, snowboards, plastic bags of organic fertilizer stacked and pushed tight together. I also see defeat, in mud that flowed like lava over and around the berms, turning hope into despair. Carpeting, rolled and sagging in one yard, chairs and mattresses stacked high in the next. One man stabs a shovel into ankle-deep mud, then slowly empties it a couple of feet away. Yards of coffee-colored mud surround and separate the man from his house, his Sisyphean task revealed in his bowed head and hunched shoulders.
And then on to the next block, that looks unbothered and indifferent to the week’s deluge.
We keep walking, my dog and I, dazed. Even the other dogs we meet seem stressed, jerking at the ends of their leashes, snapping, barking. Only the runners, out en masse as soon as the rain ceased, seem un-fazed, focused, staring straight ahead as they sprint down the empty roads, checking times on their Ironman watches.
I find familiar landmarks. A Ford pickup, lifted, tethered to a high-clearance trailer that had recently returned from Burning Man. Last week its cargo was still stacked high, enough to build a small encampment in the pop-up city. Today, I see thin teardrops of faded alkaline dust dried against the deep navy blue of the truck. Even this deluge was no match for the dust from the Black Rock Desert. I walk by another house, where a statue of a dog made from scrap metal stands, still frozen in the middle of a joyful frolic. Ahead a young man rides out of his garage, navigating around a pile of debris. His bike is colorful, handle-bars extending wide, ribbons snaking back and forth between spokes, a furry tail attached to the back of the seat. It is a perfect cruiser for the Thursday-night rides downtown.
‘Keep Boulder Weird’, they say. I always thought it was about just these kinds of things, not to mention the seasonal influx of stoned street urchins and the endless array of physical/spiritual/mental health coaches. Everyone knows at least a few, right? But today I realize that Boulder’s weirdness is not so much about being odd or unusual or taking self-expression to higher level. It’s about what drives that expression, the perseverance and self-confidence, about committing to something even when the masses say it can’t or shouldn’t be done. It’s about looking to the future but respecting the past.
I begin to see hope for Boulder in its recovery from this disaster because it is weird, it believes in itself, constantly pushing against boundaries of tradition and cultural conservatism. It’s why Boulder spent millions to purchase open space and preserve it from the developer’s bulldozer. It’s in the miles of bike paths, and in the university that built sustainability into its culture before it was fashionable. It’s in its extraordinary stable of entrepreneurs, high-teach savants, artists, laborers, mothers, athletes, craftsmen, families, baristas and college students…
I don’t comprehend the scope of this disaster that is still unfolding. I know that roads have been ripped from canyons, houses scoured off of hillsides, and hundreds are still unaccounted for. In the weeks to come we will share our stories and hear first-hand accounts of the horrors experienced by survivors who had to claw their way to higher ground to escape the flood, and from so many friends and neighbors who are dealing with at least some damage from the storm. We can’t undo this devastation nor is it something we can cure. It’s more like a chronic disease, something that has to be managed, in the background, as life returns to a new normal.
Sometimes I find living in Boulder incredibly annoying, too homogeneous, pretentious. But today I’m soothed knowing that its Boulder’s weirdness that will get us through this tragedy, guiding our re-invention as we contemplate how to better manage flood plains, how to leverage our social capital as a community and have the courage to take risks, creating new opportunities. It’s what will give us the strength to move forward, to tackle big problems in novel ways, and move beyond this wreckage with confidence, hope and the belief that we will succeed.
As we turn back home I see new storm clouds approaching from the south, plump with millions of gallons of water ferried north from Mexico, ready to spill their cargo against the Front Range, perhaps tonight, or maybe, tomorrow. Before me, decorative mulch lay scattered about the sidewalk and street, a neighbor’s landscaping swept clean by the rain. And then I see them, in the yard, standing tall, two pink flamingos, their strong, steely legs still firmly planted in the waterlogged soil. One bird is bent over, as if looking for food and the other gazes toward the south, looking confident and serene, ready for whatever comes next.