Boulder flood 2013: Facts

Deaths: 4

People unaccounted for: 0

Homes destroyed: 345

Homes damaged: 557

Commercial properties damaged: 33

Commercial properties destroyed: 3

Total properties assessed: 5,592

People evacuated by air: 1,102

People evacuated by road: 707

Miles of county roads damaged: Approximately 150

Cost to replace damaged county roads: $100 million to $150 million

Source: Boulder County Office of Emergency Management


Boulder flood 2013: Rain by day

Mon., Sept. 9: 0.25 inches

Tues, Sept. 10: 1.02 inches

Weds., Sept. 11: 1.92 inches

Thurs., Sept. 12: 9.08 inches

Fri., Sept. 13: 2.44 inches

Sat., Sept. 14: 0.01 inches

Sun., Sept. 15: 1.94 inches

Mon., Sept. 16: 0.49 inches

Eight-day total: 17.15 inches

Source: Meteorologist Matt Kelsch


Flood-related resources:

Boulder County road closures

How to help victims of the flood

How to file a claim with FEMA


Complete coverage:

Camera's full reporting on flood

The talk on the street the first full weekend of September was about the heat. Boulder tied a record for the date with 93 degrees that Sunday.

At Folsom Field the night of Sept. 7, as the University of Colorado football team claimed its first home win in two years, many Buffs fans wore shorts, light shirts and flip-flops, and not much else.

The experts said the late-summer bake was going to ease. They talked about a cold front in the forecast for Monday, Sept. 9, likely to break the September simmer. And forecasters were looking at an unusually high level of moisture in the atmosphere. Some much-needed rain was on the horizon.

Monday dawned as one more beautiful late-summer day. But clouds began to build over the foothills by midday.

Late in the afternoon, the rain started coming down.

There was no way to know the region was in the first hours of what experts would ultimately call a 1,000-year rain and a 100-year flood.

The rain continued across the county throughout the day Tuesday, prompting Erie to close a section of the Coal Creek Trail near Parkdale Circle at midday because of standing water. Little did Erie Parks Division Manager Gary Hegner know at the time that the trail wouldn't be reopening for weeks, if not months.

"Everybody knew there was a lot of rain falling, but not to the extent of what we ended up getting," he said. "I don't think anyone could have anticipated quite the severity of what was about to happen."

Four Mile Fire Chief Bret Gibson said he and his crew of volunteer firefighters kept an eye on the falling rain late Tuesday, especially because the 13 square miles of rugged terrain his district covers is still scarred by the 2010 Fourmile Fire and susceptible to runoff and flooding. But it wasn't until Wednesday morning that Gibson realized what was shaping up outside his window was no ordinary storm.

"Monday and Tuesday, our concern levels weren't that high," he said. "By Wednesday morning, we knew we had achieved ground saturation."

Wednesday, Sept. 11: News flash: 'Storm to boost annual moisture'

"Storm gives Boulder chance at average annual moisture total" was the headline greeting Camera readers in Wednesday's morning edition.

That was after 1.27 inches of rain had fallen between 5 p.m. Monday and 5 p.m. Tuesday. Boulder's total for the year was now at 14.26 inches. "We're doing OK" for annual rainfall, said National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Kalina.

This chart, produced by CIRES, plots the 2013 storm’s daily rainfall against the daily creek flow at Boulder Creek and North 75
This chart, produced by CIRES, plots the 2013 storm's daily rainfall against the daily creek flow at Boulder Creek and North 75th Street (Picasa)

Few had noticed two days before, the NWS had issued a flash-flood watch over the middle of the day for the Hyde Park burn area to the north in Larimer County -- the first of many associated with the historic storm now underway. Forecasters saw a low-pressure system parked over the Utah Basin, fed by a southerly flow of tropical moisture, flanked by a high-pressure ridge to the northeast and upslope conditions that would keep rain in the forecast.

"The incredible expansion and activity on Wednesday is the missing element that didn't show up ahead of time," said Bob Glancy, warning coordination meteorologist for the NWS.

"So, we were reacting to that with warnings on Wednesday. We were thinking on the order of 2 to 3 inches of rain, causing flooding. We weren't thinking on the order of 8 inches of rain, causing flooding."

Earlier that day, a group of 78 fifth-graders from Louisville's Fireside Elementary School -- along with three teachers, a student teacher and 10 parents -- headed up to Cal-Wood Education Center near Jamestown. They anticipated three vigorous days of hiking and games and science-based environmental education -- and being safely back in their beds at home Friday night.

But throughout the day, it would rain. Children and adults alike were getting soaked.

"I didn't realize how much was really coming down," said Shannon Burgert, a fifth-grade teacher at Fireside. "There was nothing to indicate that maybe we shouldn't go up there or anything like that."

Soon, she said, "We were all borrowing gear. My boots fell apart."

Apart from the uncharacteristic downpour, Wednesday seemed at first like just another rainy day down in Boulder. The initial two postings that day on the city of Boulder's Facebook page congratulated CU for ranking 36th on a list of public universities. Another invited residents to design their own transit system tool.

Then came this city posting: "Holy rain Batman! As a result, trails in the Marshall Mesa, Flatirons Vista and Doudy Draw areas south of #Boulder are closed due to muddy conditions."

But the first serious sign things could tilt out of control came from Erie at 6:07 p.m. An officer had responded to a call of standing water on Vista Parkway and a manhole cover that had popped from its moorings.

 

A bridge collapse on a business access road at Highway 287 and Dillon Road in Lafayette causes three cars to fall in the creek on Sept. 13. (Cliff Grassmick / Daily Camera)

Not long after that bulletin, two patrol officers checking out flooding in the Grandview neighborhood got stuck and had to call for help. At 6:25 p.m., a transformer caught fire near Erie High School, and power lines were reported down on Erie Parkway. Water on some streets was surging to 3 feet in depth.

"Things started rapidly evolving and rapidly going south on this," Erie Police Chief Marco Vasquez said. "It went from, 'We got some rain going on' to, 'This is turning into a pretty serious event.'"

Longmont was seeing much of the same and was forced to shut down the St. Vrain Greenway at 8 p.m., fearing isolated flooding.

Earlier, the city's public works director, Dale Rademacher, had walked that greenway with City Manager Harold Dominguez.

"Dale said, 'You know, they're predicting four to six inches with this.' And we both went, 'This could be an issue,'" Dominguez told the Longmont Times-Call.

Back in Boulder, the tone on the city's Facebook page would shift with the next posting: "Street flooding is occurring in parts of the City of Boulder. Motorists are urged to avoid driving through flooded areas."

Sam Sussman owns Eight Days a Week Imaging at 840 Pearl St. with his wife, Cheryl. They are no strangers to the sometimes-vicious whims of nature. Their family's home on Sugarloaf Mountain was incinerated to its foundation in the Fourmile Fire. They now live in Eldorado Springs.

"Cheryl went up to a friend's house in Nederland Wednesday night, and she assured me she was going to leave there at 8:30," Sam Sussman said. "She didn't leave until a little after 9, and narrowly made it down the canyon.

"I said, 'Do you girls ever listen to the (expletive) news?'

"She said, 'No.'"

Meanwhile, after two-plus days of steady rain, CU officials could see they were looking at a rapidly deteriorating situation. Louise Vale, vice chancellor for administration, said emergency staff members were called in at 8 p.m.

"I was talking with communications, I was talking with the police department and the facilities management crew about how bad it was, what were they were seeing, and were they going to be able to keep up," she said.

The university sent out its first campuswide text alert at 8:42 p.m., advising of a flash-flood warning in effect for the next two hours, and telling recipients to move to upper levels or higher ground on foot -- as well as to avoid driving or crossing Boulder Creek.

There were widespread reports of students playing "slip and slide" on Farrand Field and tubing in tunnels on campus.

At 9:20 p.m., a flash-flood warning was in effect for Boulder and parts of Boulder County until 10:45 p.m., with continuing rain expected.

The city of Boulder, at 10:01 p.m., activated flood sirens near Boulder Creek, urging anyone near the waterway to seek higher ground immediately. Don't try to cross the creek by any means, people were told.

It was shortly after 10 p.m. that CU launched its first wave of evacuations, with door-to-door notices by family housing managers and campus police at Faculty-Staff Court, Athens Court and the first floors of Newton Court and Marine Street. A total of 381 were forced to temporarily relocate.

"We already had a plan in place for people living there, which has been practiced -- they know where they live and they are very much aware of the (flood) potential," Vale said. "I can't imagine any of those people would say they wouldn't leave."

 

From left, Dan Feldheim, Scott Hoffenberg and John Smart pass sandbags as residents reinforce the dam on Seventh Street on University Hill in Boulder on Sept. 15, 2013. (Paul Aiken / Daily Camera)

Boulder police officers now saw street flooding in the areas of 17th and 18th streets on University Hill, Baseline Road and Foothills Parkway, 28th Street underpasses, Ninth Street and Alpine Avenue, Manhattan Drive and Baseline. Rain was pounding the Fourmile Fire burn area.

"The thing that was somewhat of a surprise to everyone was the set-up of the really, really, really, heavy, heavy, heavy, rain over the foothills," said Glancy, of the National Weather Service. "Some areas were getting close to their annual rainfall in a three-day period. This was so far out of the ordinary.

"This was an extremely rare event."

At 10:30 p.m., the National Weather Service updated the flash-flood warning, extending it to 12:45 a.m. Thursday.

Wiyanna Nelson and Wesley Quinlan, both 19, were driving with two friends back to the city down Linden Drive from a birthday party in the hills northwest of Boulder shortly after 11 p.m. Raging water and mud surged around their Subaru.

Stuck, three of the car's occupants -- Nelson and Quinlan, as well as Nathan Jennings -- got out to seek help, while the fourth friend, Emily Briggs, stayed in the car. Nelson and Quinlan were overcome by the raging creek outside and killed as they were swept away. Briggs, who had stayed in the car, survived, as did Jennings.

The situation was worsening in other parts of Boulder County, as well.

Just before midnight, Longmont public works director Rademacher called Dominguez, the city manager, alerting him to the building danger of flooding in the city.

Dominguez had been watching coverage of the weather on television. Soon after Rademacher called him, Dominguez brought emergency manager Dan Eamon into the conversation with a conference call. The decision was made to activate the city's emergency operations center.

"What we didn't know (at the time), or fully appreciate, was the depth of this thing," Rademacher told the Times-Call.

In Lyons, former Longmont Times-Call photographer Greg Lindstrom was monitoring the area of the St. Vrain River bridge at U.S. 36.

"You could hear debris in the water slamming into and rubbing against the bridge," Lindstrom said. "For the next hour, it kept raining very hard, and you could see the water continue to rise. I remember being pretty worried about getting stuck where we were." Just before midnight, a heavy mudslide in Fourmile Canyon rendered the road impassable at Colo. 119 and Gold Hill. There were several inches of water on the roadway.

Across the foothills to the south, Gibson, the Four Mile Fire chief, was getting increasingly worried. Rain measurements had reached three-quarters of an inch per half-hour.

In Jamestown, Little James Creek was quickly swelling into a rushing river five times its normal width and many times its normal speed.

From the mountains to the city streets, the words of Boulder City Manager Jane Brautigam best summarized the deteriorating situation:

"It was all hands on deck."

 

Greg Leon looks over an overturned car in Pinebrook Hills on Sept. 13, 2013. (Paul Aiken / Daily Camera)

Thursday, Sept. 12: Quickly going from bad to worse

Little James Creek began ripping buildings from their foundations and sending roofs plunging into basements.

One of those buildings belonged to Joseph Howlett, 72, former owner of the Jamestown Mercantile. Howlett was believed to be crushed to death early Thursday when his home collapsed on him after it was pummeled by rushing waters for hours. His body was finally pulled from the rubble six days later.

In north Boulder early Thursday, Alli Jones cursed to herself as she stood at the top of her stairs looking down to the first floor of her home on 17th Street across from Crest View Elementary.

Water was flooding her first floor. Earlier, Jones had heard the emergency bulletins. Her first plan had been -- denial. She had retreated to the second floor to do some work. But by 1 a.m., she figured she'd better take a look downstairs.

"I thought, 'What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to turn the power off? Am I supposed to leave the lights on?' I thought, 'If I stand in the water, will I get electrocuted?'"

Soon, she was outside, aided by a family friend, digging trenches around the house. The dark was animated by dozens of teenagers and their parents, some equipped with headlamps, sandbagging, digging, rushing in a frenzy to stem the same floodwaters that were wreaking havoc on their neighborhood school.

In Longmont, just after 1 a.m., police began knocking on doors at the Royal Mobile Home Park near the St. Vrain River, warning people to get out.

"That one was probably the one we were most concerned about," said Longmont emergency manager Dan Eamon. In the foothills, emergency workers set up roadblocks in Fourmile Canyon, sent out notifications to residents and began communicating with Office of Emergency Management personnel in Boulder about what they were seeing around them.

"Because anything that falls in the mountains ends up in the city," Gibson said.

In the city, Boulder Creek was, by 1:13 a.m., roaring at a rate of 3,104 cubic feet per second, according to Boulder police Chief Mark Beckner. Two days before, it had been flowing at a leisurely 54 cfs.

At 1:40 a.m., CU officials issued a text alert ordering faculty and staff residents living in university housing near Boulder Creek to evacuate. Soon, CU and the Boulder Valley School District would both announce they were closing down.

An evacuation order in the North St. Vrain Canyon in Lyons forced residents from their homes about 2:30 a.m. Among those doing so were Gerald Boland and his wife, Cheron, who set out for a friend's home in Hygiene.

Gerald Boland, 80, never got there.

At some point, Boland turned his car around, stopping at Lyons Elementary. He had taught there for 30 years. The school was now an evacuation shelter. He was one of the first to arrive, turning on the lights for the stream of evacuees who soon would be arriving.

It's not known when he left the school, but he was not spotted again. Boland's badly battered truck would be discovered about 200 yards downstream from his home, and his body was finally recovered a week later in the St. Vrain River bed.

 

Birdie Reznickek, right, passes wood from a ruined basement to Kate McCarthy, left, 11, as they work to clean up the flood damage in McCarthy's home on Qualla Drive in Boulder on Sept. 14, 2013. (Mark Leffingwell / Daily Camera)

About the time that the Bolands evacuated from their home, Longmont activated its Emergency Operations Center.

"What we didn't know (at the time), or fully appreciate, was the depth of this thing," said public works director Rademacher.

The center was up and running by 2:30 a.m. Daylight brought a brief respite in the rainfall in Fourmile Canyon, enough for Gibson and his crew to take stock of the damage wrought to roads and infrastructure overnight.

"We had significant road cuts, we had very high streamflows, and access to the canyon was threatened or completely cut off," he said.

Gibson put out a call to Longmont search-and-rescue crews for some help in making contact with residents, some of whom were trapped behind walls of mud or isolated by gutted roads.

It was to no avail.

"When we called on them, they were already deployed for search-and-rescue operations in Hygiene and Lyons," he said.

About 5 a.m., Sheriff Joe Pelle asked that people stay off the roads in Boulder County that day: Many intersections were impassable, and crews needed access without traffic to respond to urgent calls.

And the rain wouldn't stop. A firefighter trapped in a tree in Lefthand Canyon -- where he spent much of the day, barely surviving -- reported a 15- to 20-foot "wall of water" surging through the canyon.

Up at the Cal-Wood Center near Jamestown, Burgert, the fifth-grade teacher, woke at 5:45 a.m. Going to the shower, she heard camp Executive Director Rafael Salgado on a two-way radio.

"I heard him saying, 'We need to figure out how to notify the principal and the school district,' and I didn't hear much else after that," she said. "I thought, 'Somebody's hurt.' The blood rushed out of me. I was actually relieved to find out what the reason was, because I had no idea what the situation was" down in the city.

The situation virtually everywhere was quickly going from bad to worse.

Leyla Jacobs ventured from her Jamestown home Thursday morning and headed toward town with her son when they saw that Little James Creek was now a turgid river.

"My 17-year-old son said, 'This is like Armageddon,'" she said. "We saw propane tanks that were just shooting down the river."

In Hygiene, a widening St. Vrain River hit the town and mixed with the water in the ponds at Pella Crossing, causing massive flooding along 75th Street. Picking up water from gravel ponds between Hygiene and Longmont, flooding was now headed straight for the neighborhoods east of Airport Road between Ninth and Mountain View avenues.

To the west, Lyons was completely isolated by floodwaters.

"I knew a dam had breached above Lyons," said Lindstrom, the photographer in that town. "I remember being kind of freaked out."

 

Two women smile and laugh after being rescued by a helicopter crew with the 2-4 GSAB 4th Infantry Division based in Ft. Carson near Jamestown on Sept. 17, 2013. (Mark Leffingwell / Daily Camera)

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said at a media briefing: "This is not your ordinary day. It is not your ordinary disaster." And, he cautioned, "This event is not over. It's far from over. It's continuing to build."

"I was advising people the initial peak was going to hit the city at 8 in the morning," Longmont's Rademacher said.

But 8 a.m. came and the water in his city, too, was still rising.

The NWS forecast, issued for Denver/Boulder at 9:41 a.m. Thursday, underscored Pelle's words.

It read, in part, "NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DENVER/BOULDER CO ... 941 AM MDT THU SEP 12 2013/ UPDATE/MAJOR FLOODING/FLASH FLOODING EVENT UNDERWAY AT THIS TIME WITH BIBLICAL RAINFALL AMOUNTS REPORTED IN MANY AREAS IN/NEAR THE FOOTHILLS -- THINGS ARE NOT LOOKING GOOD."

"I've been here since 1989, and this was the most significant widespread heavy precipitation I have seen," said meteorologist Glancy.

Just before 11 a.m., CU extended the closure of the Boulder campus through Friday, calling the weather in a text alert "unpredictable." Saturday's home football game versus Fresno State now was in jeopardy. It would be the first game cancellation since 9/11, the second since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Sussman, at his shop at Ninth and Pearl streets, recalled that about 11 a.m., "Someone at the St. Julien Hotel said, 'We're evacuating the spa, and there was a wall of water coming down Boulder Canyon.' We listened to the rumor and sent all the employees home -- and then we realized, we'd sent everybody home on a rumor."

A large surge of water was reported by the Office of Emergency Management at 11:30 a.m. at Logan Mill in Fourmile Creek, exploding from 100 cubic feet per second to 1,000 cfs. Residents downstream were advised to climb to higher ground. Evacuation centers began opening for Boulder, Longmont, Jamestown, Lyons and Nederland.

Gurpreet Gill, a three-year resident of Salina, a town at the junction of Fourmile Canyon and Gold Run Road, had spent the early hours of Thursday placing sandbags around her home and listening to boulders crashing down the creek. By afternoon, her only escape from her property was about to get swept away.

"My bridge had washed out, and my shed had fallen in," she said.

Gill moved her car closer to her home once water had reached the top of the tires and then went to a friend's house to discuss what to do next.

"We sat there watching this massive wall of water coming down," she said. "We saw a car, we saw a boat, we saw a propane tank."

Gill decided to move to higher ground -- her next-door neighbors' house -- where she monitored rising water levels using her car as a giant measuring stick.

The Camera tweeted word at 3:23 p.m. from the U.S. Geological Survey that the storm now qualified as what most refer to as a 100-year flood, although that agency no longer uses that terminology. That determination was based on a creek flow of 4,500 cfs Thursday morning on Boulder Creek at North 75th Street.

 

Brighton Fire Rescue firefighter Clint Mader searches for a possible drowning victim during the heavy flooding on Sept. 12, 2013, in Boulder. (Jeremy Papasso / Daily Camera)

Flooding issues by now had caused so many problems at the Longmont wastewater treatment plant that it was shut down and evacuated.

At the NWS data collection point near the National Institute of Standards and Technology, as of 6 p.m. it showed a staggering 9.08 inches of rain had fallen since 6 p.m. Wednesday. It was the highest one-day total on record for Boulder, swamping the previous record of 4.80 inches on July 31, 1919.

Boulder police found themselves no longer able to respond to burglar alarms, harassment calls, traffic accidents and the other routine calls that typically make up the day.

"We got information that Four Mile Creek was flooding north Boulder, Boulder Creek was flooding central Boulder, and that Gregory Canyon was flooding parts of the Hill," Beckner said.

"We were scratching our heads over that one, because we had never planned for flooding that high up on the Hill."

Also, the chief said, "We were finding the flooding was worse than the data would indicate. What we were getting in the streets didn't match what the charts told us should be happening."

The water surging down from the high country was a big problem. But it wasn't the whole problem.

"What we had always trained on and practiced on and talked about, was, 'What if a cell sets up over Fourmile, or Boulder Creek, and dumps 6 inches of rain in an hour? Here's what to expect,'" Beckner said. "But the scenario we had was that the whole region was getting dumped on."

As the night wore on, a Colorado Department of Transportation staffer tried to head up Boulder Canyon but was unable to get anywhere. The second reported mudslide of the night, near the mouth of the canyon, blocked any westward progress.

Police were getting reports that floodwater was redirecting out of Boulder Creek. Now, it was rushing down Canyon Boulevard.

"We had a river on the north side of the creek. It looked like rapids were running across Central Park," Beckner said.

Arapahoe Road at 55th Street was under water. So was Foothills Highway at Baseline, and Table Mesa Drive, too. Police could no longer man every compromised intersection, and many had to be abandoned in order to handle the truly urgent calls.

"We just had to depend on the barricades and cones to do the job, and hoped people had the common sense not to drive through the water," Beckner said.

At 10:15 p.m., an emergency announcement was broadcast downtown that the section of the city from the mouth of Boulder Canyon east to Broadway, and from Marine Street north to Pearl Street, was now being ordered to evacuate. Some residents would hear it clearly, others would hear it as unintelligible garble.

Beckner later said he didn't know how many people actually did evacuate -- and would likely never know.

"What are you going to do?" asked the chief. "We called for an evacuation, but mandatory? You're not going to arrest people who don't leave. We were telling people to evacuate. But if you don't listen to us, at least we told you."

Boulder police average 318 calls for service each day. On Thursday, there were 532. The department on a typical day receives 546 phone calls. On Thursday, there were 2,955.

As midnight drew close, Beckner hopped in a Boulder police Ford Explorer with Deputy Police Chief Greg Testa and Deputy Fire Chief Mike Calderazzo. Through streets filled with water and nearly devoid of traffic, they toured some of the city's more critically affected areas.

"Even having had the reports from the field, once I saw with my own eyes what was going on, I was amazed at the amount of water coming down through the western Hill neighborhoods," Beckner said. At Ninth and Arapahoe, "We sat there watching. We had waterfalls coming off people's yards, falling off people's yards, into the streets."

 

Kyle Schuler, left, carries his pregnant sister with the help of his father Kim Schuler, right, after gathering belongings from their flooded home on Upland Avenue in Boulder on Sept. 13, 2013. (Jeremy Papasso / Daily Camera)

Meanwhile in Salina, Gill had moved with neighbors Michelle Wieber and Eric Stevens and their two sons to a guesthouse a little farther up the hill from the couple's home. Another couple, Michelle Grainger and Steve Le Goff, joined them for the night.

Gill, equipped with a flashlight, kept watch on the rising water as her neighbors tried to settle down for a fitful night of sleep while Mother Nature raged outside. As she returned from a quick trip to the bathroom outside, she heard a sound unlike anything else she had heard all day.

"What could that be?" she said, as she hurried back inside.

Friday, Sept. 13: 'The mud kept sucking him down'

A wall of mud had slid down the hillside behind them, smashing through the back of the house and burying Stevens and Wieber. Wieber managed to pull herself out from the muck, but Stevens was stuck, both of his legs cemented in the mud.

It was 1 a.m.

For the next 21/2 hours, life would be "sheer hell," Gill said, as she and her three neighbors desperately tried to extract Stevens from the mud that engulfed him. They used spatulas and bowls from Gill's kitchen to try to move the mud to free him. They also used their hands, scraping their fingers raw in the process.

"The mud kept sucking him down as we were digging," Gill said. "And all the while, there's a fear the house could collapse on us."

Gill called 911 but was told there was no way anyone could get to where they were. She was finally able to get through to a neighbor on the phone. With three additional men digging at the mud pile surrounding Stevens, they got him free.

It was 3:30 a.m.

Throughout Fourmile Canyon, the infrastructure was degrading along with the conditions. Gibson, the Four Mile fire chief, said he had men stationed throughout his district, watching drainages and roads, but they were unable to make progress rescuing residents while the rain fell in by the buckets and the creek roared out of control.

"We don't float better than the average civilian," he said.

Also unable to move as well that Friday morning was Rod Mohney, who was trying to reach his girlfriend's house across Little James Creek from his rented cabin. A mudslide had draped itself across Main Street, blocking his way.

"I was 100 yards away from her, but I couldn't reach her," the 51-year-old roofer said.

Returning to his cabin about 1 a.m., Mohney realized he didn't have much time left before the water would be up to his doorstep. He packed his guns, some clothes and headed for higher ground.

Within hours, the creek had unhinged his cabin from its foundation and tipped it on its side. Mohney managed to find what little humor he could in the moment.

"I always wanted my cabin closer to the creek, but I didn't want it that close," he said.

Up the hill from Mohney at Cal-Wood, a gray dawn heralded a grave situation for the elementary schoolkids trapped there. They were told that road conditions had degraded so badly the only way out would be by helicopter -- but that it likely wouldn't happen until Saturday.

"That's when there were some tears," Burgert recalled. "But the other kids did such a beautiful job of consoling. The other kids really got it, and one of the parents really pointed out that people deal with different things in different ways, and kids really took that on and embraced it."

 

Carlos Duron, 3, plays on a cot while his mother, Vilma Maldonado, talks on the phone in Mead on Sept. 14, 2013. Both are evacuees from Longmont staying at Mead High School with the Red Cross. (Cliff Grassmick / Daily Camera)

By Friday morning, Beckner implemented a decision he'd arrived at late the previous night: Officers were assigned on 12-hour shifts. The department hadn't been forced to do that since riots rocked the Hill neighborhood in 1997.

On the campus at CU, where an emergency services policy group had been gathering three times a day to update the situation, the midday meeting -- with some of the dozen or so participants "attending" by phone because they couldn't get there -- was focused in part on the day ahead. Some 30,000 people or more were expected to show up for the football game. Playing the game with limited or no attendance, playing the game elsewhere or postponing it were all on the table, said Vale, the vice chancellor for administration.

"We always look at safety first," Vale said. "The other piece was whether we would have law enforcement at that game. We knew at that point we weren't going to be able to provide security for people coming to the game. And by Friday, we thought we couldn't really predict when it was going to stop raining."

Additionally, Boulder had become increasingly isolated by a seemingly endless wave of road and highway closures.

CU police tweeted out from their account at 12:13 p.m. that the game with Fresno State was off, because of logistical challenges from the Boulder flood. The campus, too, would remain closed.

Later in the afternoon, Sussman went from his downtown Boulder business back to the home on Eldorado Springs Drive that he and his wife bought with insurance money after losing everything but their cars and the clothes on their backs in the Fourmile Fire.

"It's raining like a (expletive), and there's just a deluge of water," Sussman said. "The community ditch broke, and water is just pouring through our property. By 6, the water is up to the door."

However, he said, "There wasn't really a sense of panic. Where, with a fire, you get burned if you don't leave, the water just wasn't high enough to be panicked about."

A lot of people across the region by now were in the same situation. Not all of them, like Sussman, had quintuple bypass surgery just a few months ago.

"The neighbors (Steve Johnston, along with sons Ben and Nick) helped me, digging holes, moving big timbers, cutting fences and redirecting water to stabilize the situation. They were the cavalry, and Steve was the head of the cavalry."

Up in Salina, Gill found herself resting her aching limbs at the home she and her neighbor friends had hiked to from the mud-filled horror scene they had experienced that morning. She remembers toweling off her cat, herself, and then resting for the first time in as long as she could remember.

"I just lay down on the ground and I was filled with a sense of, 'Are you kidding me?'" she said. "'Did that just happen?'"

A few hours later, Gill was on the move again, hiking up to Melvina Hill with search-and-rescue personnel and then being driven over to Monument Hill, where she was led on to a Black Hawk helicopter and flown to Boulder Municipal Airport.

The National Guard started pulling people out of Jamestown in the afternoon.

About a half-dozen flights also lifted off out of Salina on Friday afternoon, Gibson said, with the old, the injured and the exhausted getting first seats on the choppers.

He had teams of rescuers trying to find anyone who needed help. And those they didn't find, he was poised to find the next day.

"They stayed in place so that at first light they could start operations again," Gibson said.

 

Sean McCroskey pulls his wife Meg's jacket out of the debris in the river on Sept. 19, 2013, in front of their destroyed home on Gold Run Road in Boulder County. (Jeremy Papasso / Daily Camera)

Saturday, Sept. 14: Largest U.S. airlift since Katrina

The weather broke Saturday. And while the day would turn out to be a big improvement over Friday, the chaos hadn't quite played itself out yet.

About 1 a.m., Sussman learned that residents of Eldorado Springs were under an evacuation order.

"But we looked outside and it was calm. There was no rushing water," Sussman said. "So we went back to bed."

Later that morning, the Sussmans had another experience that was quickly becoming commonplace throughout the county. They looked in their crawlspace and saw what their neighbor estimated to be 20,000 gallons of water. They did not have flood insurance.

About 9 a.m., the first Lyons-to-Longmont convoy reached the Colo. 66 barricade at 75th Street. Evacuees were shuttled to LifeBridge Christian Church.

"There was a pretty much audible sigh," said the Rev. Drew Depler. "But people are weathering it. They've been through a lot by now."

Back in Jamestown, the Cal-Wood group had been notified that the children should be readied in groups of 20 for loading onto helicopters. At 11 a.m., the first chopper appeared.

"The guy said, 'Give me 28 people.' They were early, and I had not made groups of 28. We had made groups of 20," Burgert said. "He said, 'Hurry, give us as many as you can; our fuel is precious.' ... Some of the kids got on Black Hawks with their parents, and most of us were on Chinooks. I ended going out with the last kids on the fourth group."

The skies over western Boulder County were alive on the first sunny morning in five days, as the National Guard mounted an airlift operation from Boulder Municipal Airport. Lt. Mitch Utterback believed it to be the largest undertaken on U.S. soil since Hurricane Katrina.

By the end of the day, the total evacuated from the battered mountain communities would reach more than 1,200, including some 500 who were driven out of Lyons, one of the most heavily damaged towns.

"It is the most unbelievable thing I've ever seen," said Sally Van Meter, who lives on a hill just outside downtown Lyons.

When the Cal-Wood crew started landing in waves of choppers at the city's airport, there was exultation.

"We landed and there was a line of emergency personnel, firefighter-type people, all in their gear, and they were slapping hands with the kids as they walked toward the terminal," Burgert said.

Fourmile Canyon saw great progress Saturday. Search-and-rescue crews had surveyed every structure in the area, Gibson said. They may not have reached every front door, but they had laid eyes on every home.

"By the end of light Saturday, we had done a primary search of Sunshine, Fourmile and Gold Hill districts," he said.

They also had begun to get a sense of the scope of the destruction in their midst. Gibson said his crew documented numerous damaged and destroyed buildings and roads that had simply disappeared under water or a debris field.

Gold Run Road got the worst of it, he said.

"There was a canyon where the road used to be," Gibson said

Late Saturday night, Longmont's Public Works and Natural Resources Department, working with the Army Corps of Engineers, cut a ditch redirecting water that had been pouring into Longmont neighborhoods near Airport Road back into the St. Vrain River channel.

 

On Sept. 17, 2013, a rescue helicopter flies over Jamestown, which was hard hit by flood waters. The aircraft was flown by the 2-4 GSAB 4th Infantry Division based in Ft. Carson. (Mark Leffingwell / Daily Camera)

Sunday, Sept. 15: A final downpour -- and frustration

Sunday morning started out looking as foreboding as the six days preceding, with the city of Boulder again on a flash-flood watch extending to 6 p.m.

At 5:35 a.m., the Colorado Office of Emergency Management announced that late the previous night, President Barack Obama had issued a disaster declaration for Boulder County, ordering federal aid for county residents, to complement state and local recovery efforts in the area affected by severe storms, flooding, landslides and mudslides.

Within a few days, more than 7,600 county residents would be applying for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The rain returned by mid-morning Sunday, and soon it was coming down once again in sheets, grounding rescue helicopters and pushing area homeowners to the brink. Rain persisted well into the afternoon before it finally relented.

Sheriff Pelle didn't sugarcoat things as the cloud cover again dropped low over the foothills.

"The major thing we're dealing with is frustration -- frustration that we can't fly," he said. "Eighty percent of what we are trying to accomplish can only be done by air, and pilots and crews are sitting on their hands."

Gibson, the fire chief, said rescues out of Fourmile Canyon continued Sunday, but by ground rather than air.

"We were hampered by a lack of aircraft," he said. "We had to hike out more people than we wanted. We felt that come Monday, we would keep the operation going so that everyone who wanted to get out, needed to get out, got out."

Frustration prevailed for the Boulder Valley School District, with transportation and structural worries triggering the announcement that schools would remain closed Monday and Tuesday.

CU, however, made official its decision late Sunday afternoon to reopen Monday for classes and normal business operations, signaling a return to something like normalcy for the state's flagship university.

As the day wound down, so did the rainfall, stopping by late afternoon, bringing a sense of relief that, however bad it was, it shouldn't get any worse.

Long road to recovery

It would rain just a bit more Monday morning, bringing Boulder's precipitation total for the year so far to 30.14 inches, topping the city's record for an entire year, which had been 29.93 inches in 1995.

From Sept. 9 through Sept. 16, the storm dropped 17.15 inches of rain on Boulder.

With the rain's end, the long road to recovery began.

Sussman, whose family has endured both cataclysmic fire and ravaging rain in the past three years, said, "I've learned if you're gonna be in a disaster, you want to be in Boulder, Colorado, because you find out that people here are actually nice."

Miraculously, Boulder would learn that no one in the city limits was killed. In Longmont, too, no lives were lost.

Beckner was asked, if the city survived this, could it survive anything?

"I wouldn't ever say that," he said.

But countywide the damage was considerable, and in some locations staggering. Communities such as Salina, Jamestown and Lyons are projecting a comeback will takes months -- at least -- and some neighborhoods in Longmont, too, face long roads to recovery

Russ Schumacher, an assistant professor in the atmospheric science department at Colorado State University, calculated that the rain the city of Boulder experienced has a less than 1-in-1,000 chance of happening in any year. That, he acknowledged, would translate to what would commonly be termed a 1,000-year rain event.

"Based on what we know about the rainfall, and since we have all the rainfall data, essentially that is a straightforward call, to find that the chance of this amount of rain occurring in this area is probably less than one in 1,000 in any given year," Schumacher said.

Glancy, at the National Weather Service, said analysis of this storm will continue for a long time to come, but he is already comfortable saying it exceeded Boulder's flood of May 1969 -- the previous largest flood most people living here can recall.

"This is one for the record books," Glancy said. "There already has been discussion whether this was a 100- or 1,000-year event ... we know it is somewhere in excess of a 100-year flood."

Boulder County, battered and more than a little bruised, had withstood perhaps the greatest storm many of its residents will ever see -- the kind of storm they'd been warned of for decades.

Boulder Mayor Matt Appelbaum summed it up this way:

"We will learn from this. And we will be better."