Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Natural Disaster

3 weeks ago, I returned home from my pre-sunrise run laughing as I told my family how wet it was. I don’t run with a headlamp so tend to run on main roads when I go out early in the morning. However, that morning my route included a short stretch of pedestrian pathway devoid of streetlights and nothing but distant traffic and muscle memory guiding me through the thick darkness. I run that part of the path often, but usually in at least partial light. Realizing my mistake too late, my imagination started to stray as I pictured wild animals lurking. I swore if I got through that stretch of path without disturbing a coyote I would be more careful from then on. Just as my fear climaxed, it was converted into surprise and then morphed into frustration as I felt my feet splash in a puddle deep enough to soak my shoes, socks and the bottom half of my calves.

Not knowing how big the puddle was I forged ahead whispering, “Shit. Shit. Shit….” with each slopping footfall. I couldn’t go around it and didn’t want to turn back so took the next thirty paces on my tiptoes in the hopes I could keep my shoes somewhat dry. A futile attempt.  Luckily, I was able to find the humor in it by the end of my run and marveled at the size of my puddle as I retold the story to my family.

The rest of the day, everyone I came into contact with shared my disbelief over the amount of rain we were getting. Boulder is known for dry, sunny, beautiful weather and because of the wildfires we witnessed last year, a bout of rain always brings a collective sigh of relief. It’s no secret we live on a flood plain but we worry more often about things being too dry, not too wet. 

By the time I put the kids to bed that night, a lake had formed in our backyard and a river was flowing by our front door. 


From the comfort of my 2nd floor bedroom, I listened to flood sirens and nursed a stiff drink while Owen clung tight to my chest. Zoe, asleep on the floor next to us in a sleeping bag, had barely registered the sirens at all.  When they started, I was downstairs settling in for an evening of Greys Anatomy and thought I was imagining things.  When I realized it was the real thing, it took me a few moments to move.  To be honest, I really didn't want to turn off my show.  It didn't take me long to remember the insistent tone of the protocol we've heard each flood season since we moved here: "If you hear the sirens, GO UP", and so I did.

My first stop was the kid’s room because Owen is terrified of the sirens.  The city tests them once a month and whenever they do, the poor little guy runs for the nearest warm body in order to snuggle and cry.  That night, when I opened the door to their room, I found them huddled together on Zoe's bed, Owen whimpering, Zoe quietly soothing her little brother, half asleep herself.  I ushered them into my room.  Climbing into bed with Owen, I felt grateful to have thought to bring my drink up with me.  This was going to be a long night.

I didn't sleep much. Checking my phone every two minutes for updates on Facebook and emails from coworkers, I worried about friends in harm’s way and wanted to be sure to stay on alert.  I work as a resident manager in CU's Family Housing and although I would not have been permitted to leave my house, felt I should be available in case anyone had questions or felt afraid.  It was frightening, but for the most part I was concerned for those I knew to be in much more precarious situations than we were.  Our apartment is only 1/4 mile from Boulder Creek but I knew from the flood training we go through for my job every year that we were very safe.

The next few days were a roller coaster.  The rain slowed down and let up here and there but there was always more on the horizon, threatening.  We stuck close to home and stayed in contact with those friends who were evacuated or on the brink.  The nights were particularly terrifying because the threat of flash flood was at its highest when the city was already swimming in darkness.  On the second night, I was texting a friend who was reaching her breaking point, taking shelter on the second floor of her near creek-side building with her young family. She had just said "I just want my precious babes to be safe and out of this mess" when I noticed an alert from the city saying there was a 30 foot wall of water coming down the creek carrying cars and other debris. The wall was expected to hit at midnight and it was 11:52pm.  Midnight came and went and we could only assume the wall had been absorbed by the creek.  This was the way it was around here for 4 days. 

After the rain stopped and the emergency officially passed came an awful awakening.  While we felt great relief knowing our city was safe, we began to open our eyes and focus our attention on surrounding communities and roadways.  The reality of the tremendous loss and scope of damage became almost too much for me to comprehend.  Part of me wanted to go on with life feeling grateful for coming out of it all unscathed.  I didn't have the right to feel sad.  The moment I made the decision to go with that outlook, another part of me felt guilty for going about my day as if the whole thing was no big deal.  I spent a good 5 days going back and forth between those parts of me and in the meantime, my priorities were washed clear off the table. 

Other than my family, I couldn't sort out what was important.  I continued to run because I felt I should stick to my training, but found zero joy or fulfillment in it.  As the days passed I watched the city dry and could feel myself getting back into a regular daily rhythm only to be reminded, by army trucks and helicopters passing through and flying over us, of the very real struggles going on in neighboring towns. I felt paralyzed by guilt and sadness.  Normally when I'm feeling this way I write my way out of it,  but I couldn't seem to do that either. I witnessed grass-roots groups form, helping people shovel mud out of their basements before mold had a chance to set in.  Heroic people who dropped everything to help those in need while I sat on my computer and felt sad.  I told myself I couldn't help because I have kids to take care of, but wondered if I was relieved to have the excuse.  More guilt piled on.

Finally I reminded myself of Raising Little Heroes.  The purpose of the group is to show our kids that we don't have to feel helpless in times like this.  There is always something you can do, and every little bit helps.  Here was an opportunity to get our kids involved in helping our community in the wake of a huge natural disaster and to teach them that things can be scary sometimes, but then they can be beautiful.  I got together with RLH board members and we decided to organize a food drive.  After our meeting, I began to feel my energy returning.  I knew our food drive wouldn't generate enough goods to help very many people but just knowing it would help some was all I needed to find my momentum again. 

It's returning slowly but it's returning.  I still have a lot of guilt.  I've wanted to write this for a few weeks but haven't been able to bring myself to.  I feel pretty selfish and silly, having all of these emotions even though we were completely safe the whole time and our daily life hasn't changed at all.  The emotions are there though, and I think they are for a lot of people who witness disasters first hand like we did.  We live in a world where people can fly planes into buildings full of people, where tornadoes can mow down entire towns in mere minutes, where a person can decide to open fire on a school full of children and where a meandering creek can suddenly resemble a freight train, barreling through communities, showing no mercy.  I think it's important to talk about how scary that is.  Not to dwell on it, but to talk about it.  If no other reason but to add to the strong community we are a part of.  It's what holds us all together, for better or worse.

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