Finding hope amidst the mud

A few weeks ago, Doug and I climbed an eight-pitch rock formation in Rocky Mountain National Park called Spearhead. It was a great adventure and my first big backcountry rock climb since surgery. All went well but as we summited we noticed some huge thunderheads building above us. We descended and got safely back to camp just as the lightning, hail and rain began. We packed out our soggy gear and hiked the six miles back to the trailhead in a light rain. Little did we know at the time, those sprinkles were the start of a weather system that would last five days and flood parts of the Front Range of Colorado. Sections of the roads we traveled on that evening would be completely wiped out, and homes and businesses that we passed by would be damaged or destroyed.

Storm clouds start building rapidly as we summit Spearhead.
Storm clouds start building rapidly as we summit Spearhead.
Hiking out in the rain with Spearhead in the background. Little did we know that this weather system would last five days and cause disastrous floods on the Front Range.
We hike out in the rain with Spearhead in the background. Little did we know that this weather system would last five days and cause disastrous floods on the Front Range.

Doug and I walked around our own neighborhood during the time of heaviest precipitation and watched small creek beds fill and and overflow their banks and turn into swift rivers. Our immediate area was spared the worst of the rains and did not sustain any damage except for some flooded trails and parks. As we watched the disaster unfold only 20 miles to the north and learned of the immense destruction there, we wondered what we could do to help. We put our names on a volunteer list for a large organization, but were told that it would be a month before needs would be completely assessed and our applications processed.

Our area got a lot of rain, but the only damage was to nearby trails and parks. The flood waters cover our neighborhood ball diamond and bike path in this photo which was taken as the water started to recede. The actual creek (in the upper right corner of the picture) is usually small and only a couple inches deep.
Our area got a lot of rain, but the only damage was to nearby trails and parks. The flood waters cover our neighborhood ball diamond and bike path in this photo which was taken as the water started to recede. The actual creek (just out of view in the upper right corner of the picture) is usually eight feet wide and only a couple inches deep.

A week after the flood Doug and I made a trip up to Boulder, one of the severely impacted towns, to go to a premiere of a climbing film. It was crazy to see how much flood recovery had already happened. Major roads had been cleared, a lot of businesses had reopened and things looked normal on the surface. However, before the presentation, a group of local climbers got up on stage and talked about all the work that still needed to be done. Right after the flood, these individuals saw that their neighbors were in need and simply showed up with shovels and buckets to dig out impacted homes. Soon they had a name: The Mudslingers. The newly formed community-based volunteer group invited everyone to join in and help make a difference. It was easy—all you had to do was show up at their makeshift office in downtown Boulder and they would assign you to a project.

Word of the Mudslingers spread quickly and soon it became a large group made up of people of all different backgrounds—not just climbers. When we were finally available to volunteer this past weekend, we were afraid that there wouldn’t be that many projects left to help with. After all, it had already been three weeks since the flood.

Of course I thought about my ostomy. Would the lifting be too heavy? What would I do with my full pouches out at a flood site with no restrooms for miles?  I hadn’t let my ostomy stop me from anything before and I sure wasn’t going to let it hinder me from volunteering. I would wear my hernia prevention belt and ask for help if a task involved heavy lifting. Certainly I could shovel dirt and that was what was most needed. As far as dealing with my waste, I would just do the same thing I did on a mountain: find a somewhat private spot, swap out a closed-end pouch and pack it out.

We showed up at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday and there were about 20 people gathering on the sidewalk outside the office. After signing liability waivers, we jumped in a car with a couple other volunteers and began driving 30 minutes to the site. On the way there, it was hard to even tell there had been a flood. It was a gorgeous day and cows were grazing in farm fields as we passed. Bicyclists were out in droves enjoying the beautiful weather. I kept watching for flood damage, but I couldn’t really see anything save for some puddles in the fields and some grass that looked like it had been matted down by water. I was starting to wonder what kind of work we would be doing. It seemed like the area wasn’t that heavily impacted. I would soon discover that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

When we got within 10 minutes from our destination, I started to see some low-lying areas where it looked like a lot of mud had been cleaned up from yards and piled up. However, it wasn’t until we came face to face with a “road closed” sign that I had the first inkling of the sheer destruction I was about to witness. The house we would be working on was just beyond this sign, so we drove around it. As we turned into the driveway, we noticed that the main road extended only another 50 feet before ending in an abrupt cliff. It had been completely washed out by the flood. “Road gone” may have been more appropriate wording for the sign.

The road 50 feet from the driveway of our work site had been completely washed away.
The road 50 feet from the driveway of our work site had been completely washed away.
Across the river a flood moved a garage and filled it with debris.
Across the river the flood moved a garage and filled it with debris.

When we got to the property, I stepped out of the car and looked around in disbelief. The damage was so much worse than I had imagined and my mind had a hard time making sense of the disorder before me. There was a children’s slide up in the branches of a cottonwood and a huge construction dumpster tipped on its side and pushed up against a tree like an empty cardboard box. Across the river an RV sat marooned in silt while a garage had been completely moved off its foundation and stuffed with branches from the force of the water. Jumbled tree limbs, house parts and other random items formed debris piles everywhere. On the property, there were enormous mounds of destroyed belongings: muddy shoes, mattresses, appliances, luggage, packages of unopened chips, a child’s toy, and a crushed TV were just a few of the objects I saw stacked up. Some of the items belonged to the person who lived in the house but many of the things had traveled there from miles upstream. The house had already been dug out by an earlier group of volunteers, but there was still two to three feet of wet silt covering the floor of a barn and a large portion of the yard.

It was hard to comprehend the degree of damage at the site.
It was hard to comprehend the degree of damage at the site.
Huge debris piles were left behind by the flood. It was hard to comprehend that this spot was once a tiny 4-inch deep creek.
Huge debris piles were left behind. The creek that flowed here before the flood was only a few inches deep.

After looking around for a few minutes, we were briefed on the project. Our main objective in the morning would be to clear large debris out of the mud in the yard so that a tractor could come through and scoop up the remaining dirt. There was such an overwhelming amount of deposited silt that it was hard to know where to take the first scoop. We all just started to dig in. Soon we were finding all sorts of things including a bike, golf clubs, a dog crate, fishing poles, a propeller and even a toilet. The most frustrating thing was that a huge number of window frames had washed down from somewhere up stream and were layered in the silt like sheets of paper. We would dig out one only to find another right underneath. We got so excited when we were able to remove one with the panes still intact, but most were broken and trying to remove all the glass from the mud was impossible. Digging through the mud, it was hard not to get emotional. I knew that every object we found contained a story of someone who had been impacted by the disaster.

Clearing out yet another window frame. We found two more layered under this one. It often felt like we were on an archeological dig.
Clearing out yet another window frame. We found two more layered under this one.
The mud was so deep!
The mud was so deep!
We found many unexpected things in the silt, but this one was a biggest surprise. I did find it humorous that I so often had to search for a toilet with ulcerative colitis and here there was one in the mud!
We discovered many unexpected things in the silt, but this one was the biggest surprise. I found it humorous that I so often had to search for a toilet with ulcerative colitis and here was one in the mud!
Doug chains up a lawn mower so that it can be pulled from the mud.
Doug chains up a lawn mower so that it can be pulled from the mud.

By lunch we had made some amazing progress. As we sat down to eat, the homeowner, tenant and a neighbor that was also helping with the cleanup came over and told us stories about the flood and its aftermath. The 70-something homeowner now lived in town but rented out the property. She had bought the place in the 1970s and talked about the home’s rich history and all the memories of the time she had lived there. Due to the fact that the home was on a creek that was usually a small trickle, she did not have flood insurance. The homeowner had talked about wanting to give up once she saw the damage because it had been so overwhelming.

The renter who lived in the house had been keeping a close eye on the rising creek only to have a drainage ditch behind the house unexpectedly overflow and quickly inundate the house. He evacuated before things got really bad and thought he would come back to some wet carpeting the next day. Instead he found his house full of deep mud with all his belongings on the first floor and in the barn destroyed. This had been his home for 10 years and he talked about how it was the only place his grandchildren had ever known. It was clear that all the individuals loved this place and that their loss was huge. I couldn’t have imagined going through what they had, and my heart ached for them.

After lunch the crew divided into two teams. One went to dig out the three feet of mud in the barn. The rest of us donned masks and headed into the house to remove insulation and drywall. An earlier group of volunteers had already taken the walls out up to the high water mark soon after the flood, but it was determined that the rest of the drywall up to the ceiling should be taken out. As I was ripping out the walls with the rest of the team, I got really sad. Just a few weeks ago, these were cozy rooms full of someone’s treasured belongings.

Doug tackles the mud in the barn.
Doug tackles the mud in the barn. We were very happy that we invested in rubber boots for the job!

As we finished up in the house, I noticed that the walls along the staircase to the second floor were intact and covered with framed family photos. I held my hand in front of my eyes so that I could block out the area we had gutted and just focus on that one little space untouched by the flood. The comfort and tranquility of the upper stairwell stood out against the piles of broken drywall, dirt and bare studs that had become the barren first floor. I closed my eyes and pictured the lower level becoming a comfy home again. I imagined colorful walls and rugs, artwork on the fridge, comfy furniture and laughter filling the now empty space. Though it would take some time to get there, I knew those things would be a reality thanks to all those who had volunteered.

The stairway to the second floor provided a glimpse of what the house was like in the past and what it would again in the future.
The stairway to the second floor provided a glimpse of what the house was like before the flood and what it would become again in the future.

The day came to a close and I wasn’t the only one full of hope. At the end of the day the man who lived in the house smiled as he talked with me about the how the house would be even better than before once repaired. Walking back to the car, tears welled up when I overheard the homeowner talking on the phone about how overjoyed she was at all the progress that had been made during the day. I looked around and things still seemed so daunting. However, in her eyes the improvement was huge—the property she loved was starting to be recognizable again. As we all got in our cars to leave, she invited us to return to see the place once it was rebuilt.

I know from going through serous illness and ostomy surgery how important it is to have hope. I also know that sometimes it gets lost and you need others to help you find it. In this case hope was well hidden in many feet of thick mud and was particularly hard to locate. Still, it had no chance of remaining concealed with 20 hearty, shovel-wielding volunteers working tirelessly at the site. With each piece of drywall torn out and each bucket of dirt removed, hope was unearthed and the despair of these individuals began to turn into optimism. Words can’t describe how amazing it felt to be there for someone in need and to be part of that transformation.

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