My wife and I are long-term property owners and summer residents in Estes Park, Colorado. In many ways, Estes is a second home to us. My parents built a summer cottage in 1957 which is still in our family. We come each summer to relax do maintenance on the house and hike extensively. My wife and I met while undergraduates at Colorado State University where I graduated in 1970 and we were married at the Chapel On The Rock / St. Malo just outside Estes Park in 1972. Now we live in Vermont - home of the "Green Mountains" - so we must be "mountain folk". Ironically, we were in Estes Park in 2011 when Hurricane Irene devastated Vermont's rivers, mountains and roads in a fashion similar to the 2013 Colorado Front Range flood. Here is our story of how we battled the "powers that be" to escape Estes Park.
Monday, September 9, 2013
Three days before we plan to drive back to Vermont, we do last minute shopping in Boulder.
Tuesday, September 10
Cabin clean up and prep to leave on Thursday. It rains all day and rain has been a nearly constant presence. Pre-departure days are typically spent washing bedding, cleaning floors, calling neighbors to see if they will take the food from our refrigerator when we load and depart. It is worrisome to everyone that it is raining so hard and would not let up. We prefer to dry our laundry on the clothesline but, this time, no chance.
We are "old hands" with mountain rain and flooding at our cabin but this was successfully stopped a few years ago. Rain has been such an adversary over the years that I can't help myself and check the drainage - all was fine. I look up at the rolling clouds, smile to myself and say, "Is that all you got? Bring it on!"
Wednesday, September 11
Today's agenda: closing down the cabin and loading the trailer. We re-pack the things we're taking home in our trailer - sewing machine, computer, printer, books, work material, clothes and so forth. These are all boxed and ready to be loaded in the trailer with the suitcases.
The outdoor furniture gets stacked and tarped for winter to withstand the snow and high winds. We also clean the kitchen and bathrooms which takes quite a bit of time.
Loading the trailer and putting it onto the hitch is one of those points of commitment - a loaded trailer weighs more than my wife and I can lift together. The only way to get the trailer off the hitch now would be to unpack it. I'm starting to get happy to leave and grudgingly grumble about loading the trailer in the rain as I know when we get down onto the Great Plains in Nebraska, the 100+ degree heat will make the inner trailer space a steamy oven and melt cardboard boxes.
The thunder is now almost announcing itself as if to get our attention.` There's a lot of water on the road at the bottom of our driveway. We go down into our neighborhood to take a look at the roads which are hard-packed sand. Immediately at the bottom of our drive, we see the water coming down the roadway has overflowed the roadside ditch and chewed a trench almost one foot wide and 3 - 4 feet deep straight down into the middle of the road in front of our driveway.
Then, our attention is drawn to an even greater road collapse that had already happened at the only crossroads in our neighborhood. The old culvert has become blocked by debris and the water rushes along side the culvert, rapidly eating into the sandy earth around it. This eats a trench 4 to 5 feet wide about 8 - 10 feet deep and the entire roadway through the intersection is gone.
My wife and I discuss how this might very quickly become a real threat to whether or not we will get out with our trailer. We decided to move the trailer from our cabin down our rather steep drive and park on our neighbor's drive at the bottom of the hill in case the road threatened to become impassable.
Now we are really beginning to feel anxious about how things are going - it feels almost as if this storm is a "being" like Hurricane Irene was a being, but this storm is slow moving, cunning and powerful. The indigo clouds are hunkering down on Estes valley like a Pit Bull in a dog fight who squats on and crushes its opponent. Thunder is growling deeply, but we are still hopeful we can leave first thing in the morning.
Thursday, September 12
This is the day we are supposed to start the three-day journey back to the Green Mountains. Our son called early from Vermont and asks us if we had heard about the flood. "What flood?" we reply. He tells us that BOTH Hwy 34 and 36 have collapsed and he asks us how we are going to get home? We don't know.
We are one of only a few of our neighbors whose internet is still functioning so we begin searching for local news.
We confirmed that Highway 34 and 36 are both impassable and that the roads in our neighborhood are also deteoriating as well. So far, no one is providing any information about how tourists or others such as ourselves should escape the flood. We speak with a neighbor walking his dog who says that we could "always go over Trail Ridge Road" if we need to." That seems rather drastic to us at the moment.
We decide to go out and see downtown and check damage levels. We live on Riverside Drive and find access to downtown blocked. We go up by the Medical Center to get to the golf course toward downtown. We discover Elkhorn has turned into a flowing river and that the golf course is underwater. We retreat and go all the way back Riverside to Mary's Lake Road to go out Spur 66. We note the tragedy of motels and houses that are now underwater. We go out to Dunraven's hoping for a final meal before we departed but find they were closed. We return to find Sundeck Restaurant open and they still have food. They also have television which gives us some news about the catastrophe.
The owner says he was up until 3 a.m. sandbagging. We say we are hoping to leave as soon as possible and if he has staff who are stranded and can't get out, that our cabin could be used. He takes our phone number and we go home.
We wonder which route all the other tourists will take out?
When we get home, we call a friend whose wife was supposed to have cancer surgery and we offer our cabin to them. He has as set of keys and can let himself in.
The low, dark clouds and continued rain is very threatening and we realize that the being of the storm may have captured us in Estes.
Friday, September 13
We spend this day making plans about what to do. We hear from neighbors that tourists who have been removed from their hotels have been put into evacuation centers in various parts in town. There is talk about National Guard coming into air lift people out. The family immediately behind us makes their way to Safeway to purchase $500 worth of food and water for themselves and their three children. Our closest market has only a few bottles of drinking water - many shelves are empty.
My anxiety begins howling.
I get on the Internet and make dozens upon dozens of searches in order to try to determine a route by which we can safely leave. Tweets from news and governmental agencies began to paint a very desperate picture along the front range. All the towns and political units who can are Tweeting. Everybody has "facts" and horror stories. This pretty much shocks us and confuses us about exactly what to do - "information overload" or "analysis paralysis" as it is called.
I speak with my eldest son who was once a building trades man in the Four Corners region and described the road collapse in our neighborhood. He says that in the "sand states", where many roads are constructed primarily of packed sand, after this amount of soil saturation it is not uncommon for roads to begin collapsing. This is not a comforting piece of information.
We decide, primarily based on the great Colorado State Highway Department websites which show roads that are open and close, that it should be possible for us to leave in the morning and travel the Peak to Peak Highway down to Denver in order to than catch Interstate 70 going north towards Nebraska.
My wife calls our neighbor who confirmed this as a good route. He says that they would take our remaining refrigerator items, and if we were going to leave early, DO NOT knock on the door to say goodbye.
Saturday, September 14
I am up before dawn checking to see if our planned exit route is still viable. Good news -- according to the CoTrip site (used by truckers), our plan still holds. We eat a breakfast of cold cereal and fruit and at dawn begin carrying our overnight suitcases and food coolers down the hill to our car. We make more trips in the rain down to the car and back up the hill again than we want.
We drive up Mary's Lake Road to Highway 7 and then travel until we are stopped by the National Guard which has blocked the road with a chamo Jeep with a big whip antenna. We are in line behind 10 cars who speak with the Guardsman and turn around one-by-one. When it's our turn, I roll down the window and the 20-something National Guard soldier with the velcro cloth badge which reads, "Wolfe", smiles with big teeth and asks us where did we wish to go? We say we hope to take the Peak to Peak Highway down to Denver.
He smiles politely but tells us that they have just gotten word that portions of the Peak to Peak Highway have just collapsed. The information that my eldest son had given us about road collapses now seemed very fateful. My wife and I look at each other and are suddenly grateful that we had not come earlier because perhaps we might have been in the roadway collapse!
I ask the Guardsman if we could go up through Rocky Mountain National Park and across Trail Ridge Road? He says, "Oh no," he says with a smirk, "YOU can't go that route! It's CLOSED, too!"
With crisp traffic control gestures, the two Guardsmen turn the whole line of 15 to 20 vehicles around one at a time and send us all back toward Estes. As we were driving, my wife and I decide that, "Just for the heck of it, because we don't have anything to lose, let's drive over to Rocky Mountain National Park and see what they say at the entrance."
As we approach the entrance of the National Park there are a few other cars and even some vehicles towing large campers in front of us. We pulled to the entrance kiosk and asked the Ranger whether or not it was possible for us to go west over Trail Ridge Road? He said, "Yes. Of course." We tell him that we have just been turned away by the National Guard down on Highway 7 and a Guardsman told us that Trail Ridge Road through the National Park was closed. He said, "There's a lot of bad information out there."
My naive presumption was that the National Guard would be in communication with the National Park Service during such a catastrophe about whether or not the road west through the National Park was open. Apparently these two "big dog" players DO NOT talk to one another. And, the Colorado National Guard have their own priorities which are command, control and evacuation. If you want to escape, you're on your own.
With tremendous relief and gratitude, we travel safely west over the Continental Divide. There is not a great deal of traffic traveling with us – no line of evacuees. There is no sign of flood or rain damage, either! We stop for lunch and talked with a woman at the Visitors' Information Center and tell her that we are thinking about going south to Denver to hit Highway 70 then go back up towards Nebraska. She warns us that with the Front Range flooding, Denver was chaotic, that in fact there may be parts of Highway 70 which may be closed. She recommends instead we go north into Wyoming and hit Interstate 80 and go east.
Taking her advice, we travel north, almost able to savor the beauty of Northwest Colorado as we make our way up Co. 125 from Grandby to Walden and on to the Wyoming state line. Once in Wyoming, interestingly, it rained all the way to Nebraska and beyond, like the being of that storm was still crouching on the Front Range behind us. We did not stop except for gasoline until we arrived in Omaha about midnight to spend the night with relatives.
Sunday, September 15
Rocky Mountain National Park is closed by the federal government budget shut down. No stranded tourists in Estes Park, Colorado escape via the western route through Trail Ridge Road as we had just done.
Colorado National Guard continue their assignment and control the Front Range situation, evacuated citizens and animals as required, and provided excellent and necessary services.
A storm of Tweets, blog posts and web information pour into the cyber-world like a storm information.
As we stated previously, we were in Estes in 2011, when Hurricane Irene devastated Vermont in a fashion similar to this 2013 Front Range flood. We were heartened to learn that immediately after this Colorado storm, Vermont's governor and several key state officals came to Colorado to share their storm recovery experiences, both technical and social. I was in hope they were en-route west as we had made our way east. In 2011, Vermont originated a "Vermont Strong" campaign which helped Vermonters as individuals and communities support one another. This was the inspiration for the "Colorado Strong" and "Front Range Strong" programs.
Mountain Folk Strong - It's great what "mountain folk" can - and must do - to support one another deal with extremely large, and frequently destructive "powers that be" - natural, supernatural, cyber and political.
(c) Copyright 2014 Jean W. Yeager
All Rights Reserved
First published 8/22/2014, "Three Simple Questions" blog, http://www.threesimplequestions.blogspot.com