Driving south from Denver, headed to the mountains for some quality time with Rocky Mountain fossils and a campsite, the radio news interrupted my freewheeling reveries. A giant wave of mud had smashed through Manitou Springs, burying part of downtown, killing a driver on the main highway, and destroying dozens of cars and several buildings. The national news gave just a sketch, so I pulled over and got the local paper: grim news of a “massive and deadly flash flood,” caused by rain over a mountainside burn scar. The scar was left by the Waldo Canyon fire that burned 18,000 acres of land in 2012, stripping the mountains of vegetation and leaving dangerously unstable soil behind.
The paper mentioned a need for volunteers, so I put my plans on hold for a day and made a small diversion into Manitou. After signing up with a coordinator I spent several hours shoveling mud out of a basement. The flood water line was about six feet off the ground and ground level was another six feet above the creek: the flash flood was huge, almost unimaginable given the tiny rivulet – three feet across, a few inches deep — that ran in the creek bed when I was there. In the basement, ankle-deep black mud covered everything. Dozens of local residents and a motley group of volunteers dug and carried out the slurry, one five gallon bucket at a time. By day’s end, the basement was clear of ooze, if not clean. Outside, piles of mud and smashed debris were piled next to the road.
Not visible, but far worse than the physical damage, was the human cost: a life lost, homes destroyed, businesses losing both infrastructure and sales at the busiest time of year in this tourist-driven economy. And the weight of knowing that this is not the end: the burn scar remains. The Denver Post reports that this flash flood was the third of the year and ten more years remain before the scar will stop spilling soil into the canyon. All this compounds the pre-existing high flood risk in a town where many of the historic buildings are built along the creek. Local, state and federal agencies are working hard to build upstream mitigation ponds and barriers. This latest flood will spur further action, with funds more readily available now that the area is an official “disaster emergency”.
Two days later, on my return journey, I drove back into town and bought some breakfast. Bucket-carrying is one way to lend a hand; supporting local businesses is another. These are small actions, I know, not at all commensurate with the magnitude of what happened. And crushingly small when we reflect that fires and floods are projected to surge worldwide in the next decades. As I was shoveling mud, unbidden memories and images came roiling up. The smell of dead animals and endless miles of devastation in southern Mississippi after Katrina, tales told by Haitian friends of awful mudslides in their hometowns, images of New York subways inundated after Sandy. Bucket and breakfasts seem mighty, mighty small.