Colorado Springs has been under a flash flood watch for much of this week. That’s because even a little bit of rain can lead to a fatal flash flood over the Waldo Canyon burn scar. As CPR's Lesley McClurg reports, one family's story reveals how a small storm can lead to a disastrous event.
Then Ryan Warner talks to flood expert Carol Ekarius. She’s the executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, and she’s helping residents in and around Colorado Springs get ready for monsoon season.
Transcript of Lesley's story follows:
The Waldo Canyon fire swept up a hillside near Kim Weiman’s home.
Kim Weiman: “Soon as we got to the end of our driveway you could see the smoke and the flames just billowing. They were coming right up the valley and it was coming fast.”
Weiman takes care of her mom, Jan Pettit. Their house is up a steep narrow canyon called Sand Gulch. It's about twenty minutes west of Colorado Springs near the small town of Cascade. Only a few hours after the flames ignited, their community was evacuated. But, before they left, they said a prayer for the fire to head in the other direction.
Weiman: “Lord, we pray for very windy angels in Sand Gulch. And that’s the only reason that I can say our house didn’t go.”
Weiman says they weren’t quite so lucky a few weeks later when it started raining.
Weiman: “It was a day when it would rain and then kind of let up. And then it would rain heavy again.”
Around an inch and half of rain fell over about three hours. That's not a particularly large volume of water. But, as it rolled over the burn scar, it picked up speed, awakening a huge flash flood. Weiman’s cell phone squawked loudly with a flood alert warning. She opened her window from her downstairs apartment to look up valley.
Weiman: “I got ready to just kinda watch water come down the gullies. And, oh my gosh. It happened! Just big black water up the valley, above the tree line. Just black, black, black. Above the tree line. Mom says it had eyes and teeth and claws, ya know? That’s how it felt.”
Weiman slammed the window closed, rolled up a rug and jammed it against her front door. She ran upstairs to check on her mom.
Weiman: “And looked out her window as the wave came and it was literally was from side to side of that valley.”
The wave carried trees, rocks and boulders.
Weiman: “And here comes the four-place horse trailer just floating on the water going down.”
It was heading right for their house. But, then the water diverted off of Weiman’s large four-door silver pick-up. Weiman watched water skirt within a foot and a half from the back of the house.
Weiman: “Everything on my patio was gone. All our sandbags were gone. We had about fifty or more sandbags. My grill, all of my patio furniture. We had put big boulders, at least three foot by three foot -- were gone.”
The rain continued. It led to four smaller floods throughout the day. A huge lake began to rise below Weiman’s house where a culvert had backed up. It was several feet deep and about as wide as five cars.
Weiman: “I was waiting for it to just keep coming back, further and further towards the house. Go over the road, go over the highway, but it finally seeped through.”
Their private road had washed away, leaving Weiman and her mom stranded.
Weiman, “We couldn’t have driven out. It was clear gone to the mountain. Totally gone.”
Fortunately, the next day a friend came by and dug them out. But it took ten hours and five dump-truck loads of road base to recreate a driveable path.
For Weiman, this was only the beginning. The community was evacuated five more times throughout the summer for possible flooding.
Weiman: “We’re scared to death now. Mom’s house is number three on the danger list. Even if it rains for two or three days I can’t imagine what will come down that valley.”
Today Weiman always has a bag packed by the front door. And if the forecast calls for rain, they leave preemptively.
Weiman: “You know it’s hard to live like that. Every single day you don’t know what’s gonna to happen. And if it even starts to rain, if it’s just sprinkling you’re like, ‘is a flood going to come?’ You don’t know. You just don’t know.”
The stress of rebuilding has taken a toll on Weiman’s mom. Jan Pettit is 75 years old.
Weiman: “After the fire, I could notice some dementia starting. After the flood, you could notice more. And it seemed like everytime we evacuated a little bit more. And throughout this winter it has gotten much worse. And then she got sick January, February, March. I was afraid I was going to lose her.”
Plus, they’ve spent 20,000 dollars building a protective wall around their home and cleaning up the mess.
They had bought flood insurance after the fire, but there was a waiting period. It didn’t kick in until two days after the flood.
Weiman: “Ya know... it’s a lot. So, I’m leaving for the summer right now. But, I can’t take it.”
Weiman wishes her mom would leave too. But Pettit refuses. So, Weiman has put together a team of nurses, friends and neighbors to look in on her mom while she takes time away. She’s flying to Alaska for the summer to spend time with her grandkids. And to avoid the summer monsoons.
Weiman: “I’m really afraid for our whole area because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen the water. I’ve seen the damage. Mother nature.”
For Colorado Public Radio, I’m Lesley McClurg.