Sunday, September 15, 2013

Boulder Flood

This post is to share my personal story of the Boulder Flooding event with you.  The flood ended up covering much more than Boulder, but this is simply my perspective of the event.  Scroll to the bottom for links to meteorology articles on the flood.

After a Labor Day trip to New York City, I returned to Colorado to find highs in the upper 90's and sweltering heat, not that the east coast was cool either.  I spent Sunday at Rocky Flats Lounge watching the first Packer game of the season in what felt like a sweaty, stinky sauna.  The week started horribly for me, with two broken RTD buses in one day, and a spider bite that caused my leg to swell, and rain that started on Monday.  I welcomed it originally as a break from the heat.  Tuesday I walked to the bus home in street flooding in Denver and returned home soaked to the bone.  I complained to friends about some sort of bad luck streak.  Little did I know, things would get much worse, and that in the end I would be one of the lucky ones. 

Wednesday 9/11/13 
I live on a ridge in South Boulder but am a meteorology professor in downtown Denver.  Wednesday night I got back to Boulder around 8:00pm and had to stop at the pharmacy to get advice and supplies to deal with a spider bite I had gotten the night before.  Dr. Hancock, the entomologist in the biology department down the hall had assured me that it wasn't necrotic, so I was just treating swelling.  The pharmacist set me up with some benadryl and calamine lotion.  I grabbed some food, and left the King Soopers store at the corner of Table Mesa and Broadway around 8:15pm.  As I approached the doors to the parking lot, rain was coming down harder than I have ever seen.  It reminded me of something you might see in the tropics.  The parking lot was full of water.  The umbrella helped keep my head dry, but that was about it.  The parking lot was 3-4" deep with water and as I got into the car and approached Table Mesa, a river of water was running down the right lane towards Broadway.  The southwest corner of Broadway and Table Mesa was like a small pond, but my Subaru Outback made it through and I carefully headed up the hill to my house in the pouring rain. 

I returned to find that a beam that runs through my condo had water seeping along it and dripping onto the ground.  I set up a bucket and some towels and went online to follow the flash flooding situation that was unfolding while I ate my dinner and took my Benadryl.  Twitter, the Boulder Sheriff scanner, and local friends on Facebook who are also meteorologists were my best resources. 

Jamestown, Fourmile, and Lyons news were very, very concerning to me.  

I finally went to bed at 3:30am after realizing I needed to be functional on Thursday.  The whole night before and after I went to bed consisted of CU alert text messages as well as Emergency Alerts. It was not a good sleep.

Thursday morning, 6:30am on 9/12/13
My mom called at 6:30 (she forgets sometimes that we live in different time zones).  I explained to her that people were cut off by mudslides, that Boulder was probably ruined, and I was very upset.  I went to work on Thursday after considering staying home.  A fellow professor texted that he made it in from my neighborhood and I followed shortly behind him on the bus in full rain gear.  I had two classes and decided it was best to leave Denver afterwards ASAP or get stranded there for the weekend and not be able to protect my property in Boulder.  Cherry creek looked crazy.

Cherry Creek, Speer near Larimer, Denver
I took the 2:30 bus home and this is when things got real for me.

The rain was really coming down.  I opened my garage door and a river of water poured out.  It had been pushing on the door.  The back of the garage is about 4 feet underground, and is very, very poorly constructed.  There is a hole in the corner and the river of water draining down from the mountains was finding its way into this hole and into my garage.  Water in my garage is not new.  Every time it rains we get a few inches of rain in the back and I own a shop vac that I use to suck it up.  Honestly, my HOA is too poorly run to fix the problem, despite my five years of nagging them about it.  I am only a renter, so nothing gets done.  Thanks, HOA.  This was the first time the entire garage was inundated, and that the water was actually flowing through the garage.  This video was taken late Thursday afternoon by my condo, car, and garage, which is the open one on the right near the end.  Things got worse than this, but rather than thinking to capture it with video, I Facetimed with my parents to show them and have no record of it.  

While I was dealing with my garage, I took a walk around the neighborhood.  My condo neighborhood consists of several buildings with eight units each.  Four units at ground level and four on the second/third floors.  90% of the ground units are actually garden level units about 3-6 feet below the level of the grass.  You enter their homes by taking 3-4 stairs down into their porch area where their front door and patio door open to a porch area.  In our backyard is a drainage area and across the street are the mountains (Green Mountain, South Boulder Peak, Bear Peak, location of the "Flagstaff Fire" of 2012).  My condo is a ground unit that is above ground on a little hill and is east-facing. The neighborhood contains a mix of professionals, retirees, second homes/vacation homes and vacant units that have been on the market for ages. 

On my first walk around, I found several units whose gutters were draining about 6 inches from the edge of the foundation.  Yet another example of the fabulous work of our HOA, right?  I went in my garage and found some long pieces of metal and placed them strategically for two neighbors who were closest to a developing river in our backyard.  I was able to extend the gutters about 4 feet each so the water was no longer contributing to the puddles in their low porch areas.

I noticed a woman who had just gotten back from the store, perhaps in superior, and had eight bags of mulch that she was planning to use as sand bags.  I followed her to her unit and realized she was flooding.  Her neighbors set up the mulch bags against her patio door while I grabbed my shop vac from the garage and had her start sucking water up from her living room floor, then dumping the water in her bathtub.  I started bailing water from her porch, which is a tiled surface with a hole where a sump pump existed, but was no longer working.  The water was at worst 6" deep and against her patio door, and at best, just at the level of the tile at the top of the hole.  I bailed water from the hole using a 3 gallon bucket and walked each bucket-full up her stairs and across the sidewalk to the drainage ditch where I dumped it into standing water.  I probably did this for an hour.  I was wearing a baseball cap to keep water out of my face, my rain jacket, yoga pants, and croc galoshes with wool socks.  I quickly became soaked to the bone despite my gear, my spider bite taunting me under my boots.  The woman, who is probably my age, had a fabulous condo with wood floors and a beautiful kitchen.  She was panicked and just kept doing what she could do.  I left for a bit.

I walked by her neighbors who had more water in their porch.  They had about 6" of water against their patio door and it was pouring into their condo.  They had three people bailing water and getting nowhere.  Another woman in the same building had given up.  None of them had working sump pumps.

I went home and called my dad who is a pipeline engineer and just a really smart guy.  Several years ago our home town had a flash flood and he famously saved my cousin's basement that lacked a drain plug by taking a nerf football and stuffing it in the hole.  I explained the situation this woman was in.  I could not keep up with bailing water.  The sump pump was broken, I didn't know what was in that hole.  He had several ideas and warnings.  #1  Water was coming into the porch areas via the drain that conceivable lead to the drainage area behind our condos.  Could we plug the drain?  #2  Sump pumps were likely broken because they had been working too hard for too long.  #3  We could try to stop water from pumping into the condos by setting up a tarp and trying to get it as tight as possible across the patio door using a 2X4 and #4  The minute you find yourself standing in a puddle of water using an electronic device, you are at risk of death.  Be careful.  I hung up with my dad and ran to the garage for supplies.

I found zero things that could plug the drain.  I found a tarp and a 2X4 and took that to the bailers whose patio window had water against it.  It didn't help.  I talked to the woman about her drain and we had no drain plug.  We couldn't keep it from coming up.  She had unplugged the sump pump for a bit and when she plugged it back in, it started working again.  I left her and went home again.

The waterfall by the stairs in the video above is coming from a newly-formed creek that had formed behind my condo building.  I found the closest person to this intense flooding and offered them a pump I had in my garage.  They decided they didn't need it yet, but told me about two older men who were in deep trouble closer to the main road.  I walked over and found them with a foot of water in their deep porch and offered the pump.  Yes, they wanted it.  We got all of the hoses connected and couldn't get the pump to work.  Their pump was already broken.  Could we try a siphon?   We tried.  It didn't work, the porch was too deep.  I bailed water for them to try to catch them up from the distraction of the pump while one of the men was on the phone begging his ex wife to bring him sand bags.  I eventually went home in the darkness.  It was probably 9:00.  They were in big trouble, but there was nothing more I could do.

I showered quickly, starting to wonder what was in the water I had been standing in for the last 5 hours with my spider wound on my leg exposed.  I never ate dinner.  Before I got on the 2:30 bus, my colleague and I split up to find food and water to bring home, then met on the bus fully stocked for the unknown.  My "lunch" was still sitting on my coffee table uneaten.  I took a few bites, but it was apparent that adrenaline could get me further, while usually I suffer from sensitive blood sugar levels.

I found my bed covered in water from the leakage from the beam.  It was sandy and brown water, very gross.  I'll probably have to throw away my feather-topper.  I stripped the bed and moved the bed to the other side of the small room where it still sits.  I set up more buckets and towels.  I found some clean sheets and prepared my bed for some much needed sleep, then went to catch up on the news.

Lots of confusing information.  Bear Creek is down the hill from my house, right next to my grocery store.  The wall of water was supposed to hit at midnight. 
I went to graduate school at CU, so I get their emergency alert text messages.  Messages started to pour in about a wall of water (this is probably the third time they warned us of this) coming down Boulder Creek to hit at midnight and evacuations at the mouth of the canyon began.  Channel 7 had a reporter on the Broadway bridge, so I tuned in to see him get wiped out by this "tsunami."  Boulder is known nationwide as one of the most highly educated populations in the world.  Let's just say that the educated among us did not show their faces on camera that night and it was the not-so-bright who, upon receiving a text that a wall of debris was coming down Boulder canyon, walked down to the creek to "Check it out, man."  Luckily, the surge discussed above dissipated and flattened out by the time it came to the creek, as much as I would have loved to see those idiots learn their lesson to heed the warnings of officials, I'm glad that life and property was safe. 

I slept very well after running on 3 hours of sleep and adrenaline for 48 hours.

Friday the sun came out briefly.  9/13/13  Friday the 13th. 
I woke up on Friday and could barely move.  Bailing water is hard work!  I went for a 4 mile walk to see some damage, loosen up my muscles, and see if the road closure map was correct in indicating that I was stuck in my neighborhood.  My neighbors were busy pumping out water, cutting out carpet, and removing all flooring from the units.  I checked out the damage at Bear Creek, which runs along Table Mesa between Lehigh and Broadway.  I found lots of damage along the creek and evidence that it was running down the street on both sides during the night. 

Bear Creek:  Table Mesa and Gillespie.
Where Bear Creek crosses under(?) Lehigh to start down Table Mesa, looking north-ish.  This creek is usually tiny.   Wasn't so tiny Thursday evening. 
Photo courtesy of Jason English.  Photo looking towards the Southern Sun from Table Mesa in front of King Soopers.  This is Bear Creek.
On my walk back up the hill it started thunderstorming, but nothing too heavy.

Saturday 9/14/13
Saturday is a blur of boring isolation.  I went to my neighbor's house to get back my shop vac.  Her house was void of flooring and smelled like raw fish.  They had come in and ripped it all out for her that morning.  It was too wet under the floor to keep it in.  Her once perfect apartment was now a slab of dirty concrete and heavy duty fans.  Neighbors were also removing flooring and some had moving trucks for all of their furniture.  I sucked what was left of the water in my garage into my shop vac and poured it outside before it started raining again.

At one point I finally went to the grocery store to grab ingredients for chili.  Upon my return I lost power.  It came back on long enough for me to make my chili and get out candles and flashlights.  Around 8:00pm it was off for the night.  I sat around and watched a movie on my ipad until I was tired enough to go to sleep.  At 2:00am the power came back on and I had to go around turning everything off.  (I would continue to lose power for several months after this.)

Sunday 9/15/13
It started pouring again around 9:30am.  I got a message from a pregnant friend that she needed help getting her things out of her basement, but another group of friends was able to get to her.  We were told that South Boulder was having sewage backup in people's basements, so we shouldn't flush, do laundry, or send anything down the drain.  Later we found that while cleaning the pipes, baseball sized rocks were found inside.  I'm still obeying the no-flush rule until tomorrow.

The Packer game wasn't on TV so I started to write this blog post while I watched live channel 7 coverage of the flooding.  I lost power again and began prepping for class as long as my laptop battery would last.

Another friend called.  She lives in my neighborhood but is gone for the semester and had a friend staying at her place.  The friend was no where to be found, the power had been out all weekend, and she heard there was water in her basement.  I drove over and helped a neighbor set up a generator for her sump pump.  It was too late, really.  2" of water in her basement is enough to require a full flooring makeover and probably drywall.  I ran home, grabbed a gas can (plenty of those around considering we used to own a VW van) and ran to the gas station to fill up my gas can for the generator and dropped it off for the neighbor to refill the generator throughout the night.  I returned home to find my electricity was back on.  It was still raining. 

School is back on for Monday, despite the continuing devastation.  I guess this is where my story ends.  16"+ of rain since last Monday.  It's raining as I post this.  I'll leave you with a few links to interesting information, meteorologically. 

Boulder Canyon Mudslide video
Flooding Rains in the Front Range of Colorado, a CIMSS blog from the University of Wisconsin
Inside the Colorado Deluge, a UCAR article
Floods Wreak Havoc Along Colorado Front Range, an AGU blog
Everything that lead to Colorado's record-breaking flood and why it will only get worse,  an article by a friend of mine discussing climate change. 

A hilarious video taken near my condo on Thursday. 

Rainfall Records Smashed in Boulder from September 9th -14th

• Record rainfall for a 24 hour period for the City of Boulder 9.08" from 5PM Wednesday September 11th - 5PM Thursday September 12th. Previous record 4.80" 7/31/1919

• Record rainfall for the month of September for Boulder 17.18" Previous record 5.50" 09/30/1940

• Monthly rainfall record in Boulder 17.18" so far for September 2013. Previous record 9.60" May 1995

• New Annual precipitation Record Established for Boulder 30.14" through September 16th 2013...Previous record 29.47" 1995

• Nearly one year’s worth of rain in less than one week

My analysis of the meteorology and climatology of it all will just have to wait until I can concentrate on that type of thing.  Considering I have four classes tomorrow, I have a feeling that won't be for a while.

Until then,
stay dry.