The pinnacle event of the “10 Year Anniversary of the Flood” Week was on Sunday, September 10, 2023, in Sandstone Park. About a dozen speakers gave their version of the flood and what they did or are doing to relieve the problem, each filling in their part of the puzzle that made up the event.
Current Mayor Hollie Rogin was the first speaker, and she announced that Sunday was called Grit, Grace and Gratitude Day officially. The town has gone through four mayors since the flood: Julie Van Domelen, 2009-2014 = John O’Brien, 2014-2016 = Connie Sullivan, 2016-2020 = Nicholas Angelo, elected April, 2020. However, during that time, it has had only one Town Administrator: Victoria Simonsen. She has been the thread through all of this, educating each new Town Board of Trustees, as well as the local commissions and boards. The Board of trustees back then was: Sandy Banta, Dan Greenberg, LaVern Johnson, Connie Sullivan, Kirk Udovich, and Dawn Weller.
Julie Van Domelen was Lyons’ mayor at the time; the last year of her third term. She spoke about her experiences, commenting on the loss of one citizen, Gerald Boland. Speaker Emma Hall later went into detail about Boland’s strong contribution to the community’s students, both as teacher and coach. And, she invited people to the tree planting ceremony, after the program, in his honor. (There was a previous tree planting ceremony at the 5th anniversary, as well as a sandstone bench and large plaque done in his honor in front of the elementary school).
Town Administrator Victoria Simsonsen was the MC of the ceremony in Sandstone Park, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. (it ran over time). She was thorough in her statement recalling the early days of the flood, and a few times held back tears. She talked about how the town was split into six islands by the river waters. “Ten years ago today I stood here, …and I delivered the news to our community that the flood had ravaged the canyons above us and nearly a third of our community had been split into several islands. Unless you could climb the foothills, there was no way in or out. …The emergency evacuation shelter had been set up at the school …Each morning at 9 a.m. we would update the community members… Similar updates were carried to the islands.”
“The electricity was out, wastewater plant inoperable, and water lines compromised. …I tried to be stoic. We broke the news that people should start to make plans to stay elsewhere for a while. …The National Guard would assist with leaving. …I reassured everyone …I made a commitment to myself and our community that I would see this recovery to the end.” She had been on the job only two years, and was handed the biggest responsibility that the Town had ever experienced. I can recall, even back then, saying how lucky the Town was that they had hired her at such a momentous time in history; and, she agreed with me this week that it was “meant to be,” with her at the right place, with the right skills, at the right time. She handled the emergency and recovery with strength, and intelligence, and persistence.
The confluence area where the the North and South St. Vrain Creeks combined into one St. Vrain River was the hardest hit (between Meadow Park and Bohn Park). A large part of it can never be built on, so some areas have been reborn as garden areas, such as the Rocky Mt Botanical Gardens, and the Lyons Community Farm Project. I heard that out of the homeowners who dealt with FEMA and buyout talks, there were 28 deed buy outs and 25 homes raised/elevated; and that the town budget went from about $1 million a year to approximately $75 million for recovery (thru FEMA, grants, and much more).
BUILT BACK BETTER
Those homes that were rebuilt were cleaned out through the help of MANY volunteer groups, including the newly formed Lyons Volunteers (still active today). And the houses had to be raised, anywhere from 2, 3, or 4 feet, depending on where they were in the flood plain.
The phrase “Build Back Better” was used here in Lyons in 2013! We got it from a place out East that had been recently flooded. Sen. Hickenlooper, who was governor at the time, said the governor of Vermont called him two days after the flood. He said you can’t just build the town back up, but you need to tell them that you will make it better.
The town is done with its list of Projects. The 4th Street Pedestrian bridge was the final one, although some say the Martin affordable houses are the final ones, even though the town is not building them. There is no trace of the flood damaged homes and grounds, although you might see some empty lots. The town now has two parks renovated that towns ten times the size would be proud to have.
Gov. Jared Polis said, “In many ways, the legacy of the 2013 food wasn’t the flood, it’s the remarkable recovery.” He pointed out that people were here today not just to recognize the remarkable recovery, but those many people who had to leave the town and find housing elsewhere.
Sen. John Hickenlooper, who was governor at the time of the flood, spoke about the early months in getting people back and roads opened. You could tell that he felt emotionally involved in its recovery. When the federal government was too slow in sending money, he arranged to take some out of the state funds to give to Lyons. He said it was a time where a person’s politics didn’t matter.
US Senator Michael Bennett and Congressman Joe Neguse also spoke. They spoke of how Lyons was a nationwide example of how community can unify and help each other. And, at the same time, it would be hard for outsiders to understand the severity of the flood. Boulder County Commissioner Marta Loachamin spoke on behalf of minorities and disadvantaged.
Joe Pelle, Boulder County’s retired sheriff, said with emotion that the flood was one of the most life-changing and career-shaping events he has experienced. The way the residents came together impressed and heartened him. “Lives were literally put on the line, and lives were literally saved” by the lone first responders (deputies, sheriffs, fire district). They didn’t get to go home for days, until the roads were reopened, and once that happened, I had to order some of them to go home. I called Life Bridge (church) and I said I need a big shelter… Red Cross can’t come, we need to do it on our own… within hours they were open… and they provided shelter and food and resources to over 3,000 people, including the National Guard who later came.”
Barney Dreisdadt represented the volunteers. He was one of the founding members of Lyons Volunteers, along with Ed Kean who organized the groups. He said their mission was to quickly gather supplies, organize teams of local and out of town volunteers, and assign jobs. “The first thing we did was go and talk with the homeowners who were shell-shocked, and taking shovels and digging out the muck, clearing out river rock from around the property.” He said after the flood “we were flooded with help from all over the world.” He said it would probably take too much time to mention all the nonprofits and federal groups that came in to help, and many dozen locals who dug in. A few years later, the Lyons Volunteers group went under the wing of LEAF, and is still active today. (See separate ARTICLE on “Volunteers”)
Other government officials who spoke were Liz DiPaolo, FEMA, Kevin Klein, DHSEM (Colorado), and Rick Garcia, DOLA.
Both Lyons schools were shut down. The South St. Vrain School District (SSVSD) superintendent, Dr. Don Haddad, spoke about how they handled children being unable to go to Lyons schools, and redirected them to Longmont schools. Afterwards, a parent commented to me that it had a calming affect on his traumatized children, to be able to quickly go to a new school in the District. (The students did not have the long-range negative effects that partially affected the kids who stayed home and were home-schooled via the internet during the COVID pandemic.)
Mid-way thru the program, Victoria said to the audience that you know that if this is a program in Lyons, then you know that we will have musical intermissions. Three local Lyons musicians joined Diane Dandenau who sang her song “Higher Ground,” which she had written just after the flood; including Shauna Lee, and David and Enion Pelta Tiller (who lost everything in the flood). Also, Brent Boland, son of flood victim Gerald Boland, sang “The Last Lesson,” referring to his dad’s lessons, right up to the end days. And, Simone Paterno read the poem “Our Flood.” All were lovingly received by the attendees.
THE DAY’S EVENTS
After the Remembrance Ceremony, people split up to view the exhibits around town… at the museum, town hall, library, and visitor center. The drop in temperature and/or the threat of rain may have deterred people from fully taking advantage of the one-day exhibits and golf car tour, as it was a steady, but light attendance. Those who did attend spoke highly of what they saw and experienced. I think Summit (affordable homes) picked a home to open up that – on purpose – had the most wonderful views of nature and mountains. The golf car tours showed the large expanse of town space that had been affected, as well as the current attractiveness of the sites. The wild weed-overgrown plot north of Bohn Park was perhaps the final piece that was groomed and is now Confluence Circle, with several large boulders for sitting on, placed in a circle.
NOTE: See also ARTICLE on Community Picnic and Candlelight Vigil.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY KATHLEEN SPRING, Copyright 2023. (contact the newspaper or photographer for permission to use)