Heroes of the Colorado floods: Tales of bravery by neighbors and strangers

As rescue operations continue in Colorado, evacuees and others say they are stunned and humbled by selfless acts by legions of people. The aid ranges from dramatic rescues in flooded streets to potluck dinners to feed a waterlogged community.

Joe Amon/AP/Denver Post
Two women are hoisted into a Blackhawk helicopter as they are rescued near Jamestown, Colo., on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013 during a helicopter search of the area devastated by flooding in the state.

In one Boulder, Colo., neighborhood, 40 friends, neighbors, and strangers worked together for three days to keep a house from flooding. In the mountain community of Pinewood Springs, Colo., residents kept one another’s spirits up – and kept one another fed – by donating food and organizing nightly potlucks during the five days before the helicopters came to evacuate them. 

In the midst of destruction and loss stemming from the Colorado floods, stories of heroism and community abound. Everyone has a tale to tell, from the neighbor who swam across flooded roads to help a family in Lyons get out, to the Boulder residents who worked together at 2 in the morning to rescue a woman stranded in her car that had been washed away by a flash flood.

Residents organized, going door to door to assess people’s needs and sending people who had less damage to help those with more.

While official evacuation centers aren’t ready to take donations or volunteers, grass-roots efforts are springing up – via social media, listservs, and informal networks – to match people who can help with donations, housing space, or physical labor to families who are desperate for assistance. A group calling itself the “Boulder Mud Slingers” organized rapidly, sending volunteers to places where manpower was needed.

“It’s kind of inspiring, and makes you realize how much you do have. If you didn’t have a community like that, what would you do?” says Heidi Bogetveit, who took shelter in a friend's house along with her husband, their two children, and six other people, when her Boulder ranch home flooded.

Later, those same friends organized two dozen extended family and friends to help haul all the ruined possessions out of Ms. Bogetveit’s home, as well as out of her parents’ flooded house next door.

“You saw random people you didn’t know throwing away everything that you owned, but I took a step back and looked around and I was amazed at how many people were there that I knew, and didn’t know, and I found it inspiring,” says Bogetveit, who says she doesn’t know how she would have tackled the project without the help. 

When the first floods hit and certain roads were cut off, some neighbors took on the role of first responder: In the wee hours of Thursday morning, Nate and Randi Foster noticed lights at the end of their driveway on the western edge of Boulder, and realized a car was stuck in the floodwaters – with an elderly woman inside.

The car was on its side, “sitting on a rock in a tree” in the midst of what had become a fast-moving river, says Nate Foster. Along with the woman's husband and one other neighbor, the Fosters spent several hours outside, gathering rope and waiting until they saw an opportunity for Nate to work his way over to the car and help the woman and her cat escape through the hatchback.

The Fosters’ own home and property flooded badly, and over the next several days dozens of neighbors pitched in to move rocks and build barriers that the couple believes ultimately saved their driveway from being completely eroded. One man used his backhoe to drop off a load of wood to help out.

“A lot of people have become makeshift dam builders in Boulder,” jokes Nate. “Every single person we know has offered to help,” adds Randi. “We have been so thankful for the community we’re in.”

In some of the small mountain communities that were cut off when roads disappeared, many residents relied on one another not only for necessities, but also for camaraderie and emotional support.

“In general, the community stayed in high spirits,” says Larry Shaw, who was evacuated from Pinewood Springs, about 20 miles north of Boulder, by Chinook helicopter on Monday after five days' isolation, without power. “Instead of asking, ‘why me?’ it was, ‘what can I do for you?’ ”

A store in Pinewood Springs with a functioning grill became a community hub where residents brought all their perishable food and held huge potlucks. People cooked pies in the functioning gas oven at a restaurant across the street. A few residents with generators turned them on for several hours and invited everyone over to watch the news or even a football game. “Everyone had a place to come, and not sit alone in the house, and have a sense of community,” says Mr. Shaw. “It was really beautiful.”

In the midst of the flooding – which displaced about 11,000 – countless people worked together to help threatened homes.

Stephanie Waddell of Boulder credits the dozens of people who worked outside her ranch house for three days – filling sandbags, dredging the ditch that was overflowing alongside her yard, and building barriers – with saving her home. Some were good friends, some were mere acquaintances, and many were total strangers who heard that her family needed help via social media or local listservs. People showed up with shovels, sandbags, pre-made peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, drinks, and good humor.

“We would not have been able to do it on our own,” Ms. Waddell says. “It was incredibly humbling, the number of people who came by.”

The first night of the flooding, Waddell saw a man being swept down a flooded street and called 911. Rescuers came quickly and, using ropes and lifejackets, were able to save him. Five days later he came by, bruised but fine, to thank her and other neighbors. “It put a human face on it for me,” says Waddell. “That was someone who could have died.”

In the end, Waddell, like many people in flooded areas, says that even in the midst of destruction, the degree to which people helped each other was inspiring.

“This is community like I’ve never experienced,” says Waddell, who moved to Boulder from Chicago three years ago. “I think that’s a testament to Boulder, and to this area in general. I used to always watch natural disasters happen, and thought, why would anyone choose to stay there after that? Now I totally get it. This community is so amazing that I will stay. Probably in this house.”

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