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Started: 2013-09-14 12:21:40

Submitted: 2013-09-14 15:12:40

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator weathers a 100-year-flood in Boulder

On Monday, the weather changed from the hot-with-afternoon-thunderstorms pattern common in mid-summer in Colorado to a fall-like rain-all-day pattern. Mid-day Monday was warm and sunny, but in the afternoon the clouds rolled in and the rain started. It was early September, and I figured we were in for a change at some point, but I was hoping to get a few weeks to keep climbing after the end of the summer monsoon before fall began in earnest. (What really happened, according to the weather sources I read, was that a summer monsoon flow, bringing moisture east from the Pacific, got caught between a couple of cold fronts that trapped the system over Boulder County for a couple of days.)

For the first few days of rain, Kiesa was excited by the change in weather: she's from the Pacific Northwest and doesn't like hot temperatures (above about 65°F). It rained all day Tuesday and Wednesday, and on Wednesday evening we got a babysitter to take care of Calvin while we went out to eat for my thirty-third birthday. We ate at Moongate in downtown Boulder, then walked up Pearl Street Mall in the pouring rain for some light shopping. The rain was coming down so hard that water was running over the brick paving down the middle of the pedestrian mall. Kiesa quickly regretted not wearing waterproof shoes; I thought she'd know better given her geographic origin. (My shoes kept my feet perfectly dry, though my pants were drenched.) The street was practically deserted, but I wasn't going to let a little rain get in the way. We stopped at GoLite, and after drying off from our block, I found a gray plaid long-sleeved button-down shirt nearly identical in appearance to the blue plaid long-sleeved button-down shirt I was wearing. (I recently realized that size medium shirts fit me much better than the size large shirts in my closet, most of them purchased when I was a larger size in the last decade, so in the past few months I've embarked on a mission to replace my wardrobe. When I mentioned at dinner that I wanted to shop for clothing on my birthday Kiesa was worried she'd slipped into an alternate universe.)

We headed to the Boulder Bookstore, where I finally broke down and bought a guidebook for Beijing and Shanghai and Kiesa picked up an arm-full of classic juvenile chapterbooks for Calvin. We headed home through the deluge (Kiesa squelching as she walked) through the water running down the middle of the street.

The rain kept up all night long. At least twice during the night we were awoken by weather warnings delivered directly to our phones. (I know enough about the Earthquake and Tsunami Warning System on LTE to be dangerous; this looked like the rough analog for CDMA.) The flash flood warnings gave way to flood warnings as the rain continued. When my alarm woke me up Thursday morning I saw that Boulder was in the midst of a major flood, more rain was expected, and the county sheriff was asking everyone to stay off the roads.

Then Kiesa came up from the basement to tell me that our basement was flooded. Our neighborhood is on an outcropping of a minor hill, so there's really no way water could accumulate at our house except rain that fell onto the house itself. With something like twelve inches of water falling on Boulder in twenty-four hours, though, that was more than enough to overwhelm our house's drainage system. To make matters worse, our house had only an open sump to collect water without a pump to remove it; water was pouring out of the open sump into rest of the partially-finished basement.

I grabbed a bucket and started bailing the sump, dumping the water in the nearby toilet, while Kiesa moved stuff out of the tiny unfinished basement storage room. We removed the sopping-wet rug on the concrete floor and evaluated the rest of the basement. Parts of the carpet in the main room in the basement were wet, while other parts seemed ok. We moved all of the furniture out of the basement, including a large storage cabinet that we'd just assembled in situ a week prior as part of Kiesa's ambitious project to repaint the basement from an ugly tan-brown to a more-attractive sky blue. (She completed the project late last week, just in time for one set of guests who left two days before the flood.) I called in flooded to work, answered a couple of e-mails, and left Kiesa pulling water out of the carpet with our carpet cleaner.

I could get some work done with my personal laptop, but I really wanted my work-issued laptop, which was still sitting on my desk at work (and rejecting my remote desktop connections). (I live a mile from work, and I don't have to cross any bodies of water larger than an irrigation canal, so I could probably swim to work if I had to.) By the time I decided to bike to work to pick up my laptop and return home, the rain had picked up from a drizzle to a downpour, but I headed into the rain. The roads in Gunbarrel were fairly clear, though I could see gravel and dirt at the side of the road where it had been carried by water overnight, especially in the low spot on Lookout Road immediately west of my subdivision's access road where water always accumulates at the slightest provocation. A short stretch of Spine Road was blocked off just south of Lookout Road for no obvious reason. I grabbed my laptop, talked to a few coworkers, and returned home -- totally drenched from my short excursion.

In the afternoon, Kiesa asked me to run the carpet cleaner over the basement carpet to (the same thing she'd been doing all day). I completed the pass of the wettest areas along the edge of the basement and started to pull the carpet back to reveal the pad underneath, so we could dry the carpet and the pad individually, when the power went out, about 18:00. I gathered flashlights and spare batteries and headed upstairs to eat supper in the fading light. After eating and cleaning the dishes, I headed back down to the basement to work on the carpet and saw that the sump was overflowing, again, pouring water onto the carpet we'd spent all afternoon drying out. The water was almost two inches deep next to the sump itself, and tapered off through the rest of the basement. I called for Kiesa's assistance and we set up a bucket brigade to bail out the sump, from the basement illuminated only by my head-lamp and LED lantern. As we bailed, the power came on, ahead of the 19:30 deadline Xcel Energy had given Kiesa when she'd called. Once we'd bailed enough water she put Calvin to bed, then returned to help me pull up the now-sopping carpet and drape it out shelves and ladders I brought down from the garage. I kept bailing out the sump, then tried to figure out an elaborate siphon to move water from the vicinity of the sump to the drain (though its usefulness would be limited by the fact that I still needed to move the water higher in order to dump it down the drain), but I couldn't get it to work so I gave up.

Basement sump with high water
Basement sump with high water

Kiesa and I set alarms to wake ourselves up every two hours during the night to check on the sump. Even though the rain continued all night, the water level in the sump continued to drop, saving us from bailing the sump in the middle of the night.

By Friday morning, our carpet and pad were still soaking wet but they at least hadn't flooded again. Elsewhere in the county the water had continued to rise, and the US Geological Survey confirmed that the flood was a 1% likelihood event, though they'd given up on the "100-year flood" nomenclature because it tended to confuse people who thought that meant it was supposed to happen exactly once every hundred years. (Boulder's last 100-year flood was in 1894, so there were those who thought we were "due" for another.) This was the Daily Camera's front page:

Daily Camera headline: 100-year flood

Both local school districts were closed again, and Longmont had been completely cut in half by the St. Vrain River. But this was nothing compared to Lyons, which had been completely inundated by the rising water and the entire town was cut off in every direction. The National Guard evacuated the town using its high-clearance vehicles, and evacuated the mountain town of Jamestown by helicopter. From my high-and-dry perch in eastern Boulder I could hear and see the helicopters as I watched the emergency briefings online and followed the #boulderflood hashtag on Twitter. (We were a trending topic for all of Thursday and Friday.) I worked from home again and managed to accomplish a few things while I wasn't engaging in vicarious disaster tourism tempered by my memory of visiting the affected places, some of them recently. My Twitter feed was overtaken by flood-related tweets, and it was jarring to see the occasional non-flood tweet from someone not in the Boulder area.

Kiesa ran the carpet cleaner over the still-sopping-wet carpet pad and managed to extract a fair amount of water out of it, then removed the pad entirely in an attempt at letting the carpet dry out without the pad. (Given her success, we should have done that the previous night.) The carpet, draped over the basement, dried slowly in the high humidity in the basement. The rain stopped in the morning, and by mid-day I saw medium-sized patches of blue sky with actual direct sunlight. After four solid days of rain it seemed like a miracle.

Basement sump with an actual sump pump
Basement sump with an actual sump pump

In the morning, Kiesa called our plumber to see about getting a sump pump installed. They put us on the list but didn't think they'd be able to get to us today, but in the afternoon they called back and said they'd be able to come by after all. (They are also located in Gunbarrel, which made it easier for them to get to us, possibly at the exclusion of some of their other customers who weren't quite so local.) The plumber who dropped by installed a sump and drained it temporarily into the sewer, and promised to return sometime next week to install the proper drain-into-the-yard pipe (including a hole drilled through the wall to let the pipe out).

Basement carpet draped for drying
Basement carpet draped for drying

Our next-door neighbor dropped by and helped solve one more mystery from the flood: Why the sump overflowed at the same time as the power went out. She had an actual pump in her sump, and it had kept the water in her sump low except when the power went out, so we were probably free-loading off her pump when the power was on.

We managed to avoid further catastrophe through Friday night and Saturday. It remains to be seen whether we can rescue the carpet in the basement, and our stuff from the basement is still strewn haphazardly in the garage, but we survived making national news with only minor damage ourselves.

Here's Kiesa's parallel account of the flood: Monthly Update.