It wasn’t until I was standing there, ankle-deep in sand, holding a child’s sandal, that I realized how lucky we all were. After the worn sandal, it was a mangled clump of wood and nails that still slightly resembled someone’s staircase that brought me to tears. In the weeks that followed the massive flooding of the St. Vrain River in the small town of Lyons, Colorado, more items would be discovered. A grand piano, covered in silt and tree debris, sitting silently in the remnants of a horse pasture. A car, crunched from both ends, frozen in time outside of the empty shell of a house. Water-stained family photos mixed in with broken pieces of bridges and roads, all washed up along the newly-formed banks of the once peaceful river.
I was six when I first became a resident of the town of Lyons. I was old enough to appreciate the three acres of land that my family had purchased just outside of town, and young enough to not feel stifled by the town’s two stoplights and the somewhat secluded lives of its 2,000-ish residents. The friends I made on my first day of first grade at Lyons Elementary School became lifelong friends. We enjoyed small town life until high school graduation commenced and we were launched, all fifty-two of us, feet-first into the real world—occasionally dropping back into our hometown to visit family and friends, and reminisce about the old times.
And then it happened. When the walls of the water came crashing through the canyons above town on September 12, 2013, it brought heartbreak and sorrow to a town typically sought after by tourists and outdoor adventurers for it’s welcoming but challenging landscape and historically charming atmosphere. On that dreary fall day, the St. Vrain River, which typically flows at 1,200 cfs (cubic feet per second) during the yearly spring runoff, leapt up to a roaring 26,100 cfs. Flow rates of 8,800 cubic feet per second categorizes a 100-year flood, making the disaster in Lyons a 300+ year event that understandably, nobody saw coming. The water ripped through town, dispersing trees—roots and all—along with downed electrical poles, pieces of decimated homes, and other debris throughout destroyed neighborhoods and disheveled parks. Nearly every bit of the town’s infrastructure was destroyed, beginning with electric, gas, and communication lines, followed by the town’s waste water plant, and solidifying the severe destruction by washing away large chunks of all roads leading into and out of town. 2,000 residents were evacuated. In total, 211 homes were damaged. Schools in town were relocated for three months, and all businesses were closed for at least seven weeks until the roads leading to and from Lyons and the town’s infrastructure could be repaired. Overall, Lyons experienced an estimated $50 million dollars in damages—a number still resonating today.
For a small town that relies mostly on recreation tourism, the $3.5 million dollar loss in sales that occurred in the few months following the flood was more than staggering. Small retail shops and restaurants were no longer able to welcome the bikers, and hikers, and Rocky Mountain National Park visitors that flock to the town during the warmer months. The Planet Bluegrass grounds that host two of Colorado’s most popular music festivals, and two of the town’s largest tourist attractions, RockyGrass and the Rocky Mtn. Folks Festival, were buried under a few feet of water, leaving an after-math so visually devastating that many were unsure that the festivals would continue the following year. The town parks that draw hundreds of people in during annual events like Oskar Blues’ Burning CAN and the Lyons Outdoor Games became unrecognizable. The flood left a 400-foot gash through the middle of town, and on the two-year anniversary of one of the area’s worst natural disasters, many of the scars left behind in the landscape, and the people, have still yet to heal.
But like all scars, healing comes one day at a time. And you’ll be hard-pressed to find a scrappier group of folks than those that hail from/live in a small town. If you’re in the Lyons area during the month of September, be sure to pay the town a visit. Buy a bottle of newly-released, flood-surviving whisky from Spirit Hound Distillers. Attend the Viva Lyons Beer Dinner at the Lyons Fork on September 10, featuring food pairings with beers from Lyons-born Oskar Blues Brewery and Berthoud-based City Star Brewing. Stop into one of the quaint antique shops that mark nearly every street in downtown. Grab a cup of coffee at the Barking Dog Cafe or the Stone Cup. Bring your bike or your hiking shoes and explore the manicured trails and soak in the natural palette of colors. And don’t forget your manners and your smile. Sometimes they’re all it takes to add one more stitch to a healing wound.