Lessons learned, lost on Big Thompson
August 22, 2006
Thirty years ago this summer I spent a long night along a flooding Big Thompson River in Colorado. Like all of nature’s exclamation points, this monstrous swirl was also a wondrous sight, if observed from safe distance.But my experience was also ghoulish and humbling. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and other rock stars aside, it was my first encounter with the fleeting nature of life. In all, 144 people died that night in what remains among the most deadly floods to visit the West, and I wonder still if I could have been No. 145.My role was insignificant. I had registered with the local sheriff’s department as a spare body, mostly in case of forest fires. Pay was $1.60 an hour, but it was outdoor work and my young back was strong.Then came the last Saturday in July. It was hot, and that evening a large thunderhead assembled near Rocky Mountain National Park, southwest of Fort Colleens, where I then lived. As darkness arrived, I watched the Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson at the Olympic Games. The phone rang. It was 9 p.m. Flooding had been reported between Loveland and Estes Park. Was I available?I was two blocks from the sheriff’s department, and from there it was 15 minutes to the command post a few miles from the mouth of the canyon, where the river issues from the mountains in an incredibly tight section called the Narrows. With three others, I was dispatched with ropes and a searchlight to where somebody had been reported calling for help.We found nobody, but somebody found us. He was drenched and bewildered. The man sputtered that he was returning from an evening of fishing at Horsetooth Reservoir when suddenly his car was under water. He was incredulous at this turn of circumstances. As were we all.My commander urged rapid retreat, a good call in retrospect. A creek that normally carried 250 cubic feet of water per second was surging toward 30,000 cfs. There were many heroes that night, and also many victims. I was neither.Instead, I watched from the command post as beach balls, plastic loungers and propane tanks bobbed by in the glare of the spotlight. A search-and-rescue leader returning from a helicopter trip into the canyon confided his fears to me. Nobody in those days used, or misused, the word horrific, but that’s what he had seen.At first light and in the days that followed, my young mind struggled to understand the dimensions of destruction wrought by the powerful current: bodies stripped of their clothing, then caked with mud; a house that had floated intact; another house that had remained on its foundations, its living room filled with mud. The owner confided that no rain had actually fallen at his mud-filled home.More sobering yet was the old Loveland power plant, where my family had once picnicked on excursions into the mountains. All the red bricks were gone, leaving only the steel turbines bolted into the concrete. Nearby, 20 feet up in a tree, hung a lifeless body.Finding one body, a young woman of perhaps 18, I was stunned. Twelve hours before she had been young and vital, unaware that her tomorrows would soon be gone in a crack of lightning and a rush of water. In philosophy class, I had heard arguments about how could a good, omnipotent God allow evil? Here was that issue in the classroom of life.Too, I remember the smell, both fresh and sour. In later years, I again identified that smell, though not confined to floods or death. Still, it always took me back to that Sunday morning in August 1976.While others suffered, I made out handsomely. The flood was designated a national disaster, which meant my pay was jumped to $4 an hour. With 100 hours in a week’s time, I felt flush – $400, although the money was gone soon enough.Governments felt they had also benefited from experience, and vowed to prevent, when they could, construction of cottages, cabins and other homes along the riverbanks.This summer, I returned to the Big Thompson. I found the old power plant, now a nice park, the turbines remaining but the body tree now lost among the grove of rapidly growing aspen. I looked for the store where the command post had been that night. It has been torn down, I was told. And I stood on the highway where the fisherman had once sputtered into our spotlight, and struggled to reconcile the memory with what now lay before me, no water in sight.I also learned that the county government that had purchased land along the river – to prevent building – is now seeking to sell it.Warranties on lessons from natural disasters seem to expire after 30 years. After that, the memories blur.Freelance writer Allen Best can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.