Dispatch from Twiggley Island: an essay
Neighbors band together to survive after the Colorado floods.
The St. Vrain River is technically a creek. Its south and north branches begin in the canyons above Lyons, Colo., and usually meet, politely, on the plains well south of town. From there, they ramble down to the South Platte River in a civilized fashion.
But last month, after two days of pounding rain, the South St. Vrain carved a path through the front of my house even as the North St. Vrain snuck up on it from behind. The rivers united in the alley between my house and my neighbor's, inundating bridges, roads, cars and entire trailer parks with a torrent that looked more like the Congo than a creek. My ducks, splashing ecstatically in the backyard, were soon the only happy residents in town.
The rivers were no longer civilized, but the people of Lyons were. When the South St. Vrain went ballistic at 2 a.m., our neighbor knocked to tell us that people were evacuating. "I couldn't leave without you guys," he said. He was new to the neighborhood, and I'd only met him twice. Within minutes, our phone was ringing with offers of places to stay. We scrambled four blocks uphill to the house of our friends Dave and Alison, who were smart enough to build on high ground. (Although their emergency preparedness kit included just one bottle of white wine. Well, nobody's perfect.)
That first night felt like a pajama party. Nine-year-old Cassidy busted out a bowl of Life cereal while her brother, Jaiden, hopped around in front of the television wearing a black robe dotted with skulls. Images of rising creeks and torrential rain in other Colorado counties flashed across the screen; over footage of university students jumping and playing in Boulder Creek, the newscaster dryly intoned, "This behavior is not advisable." We finally went back to bed at 4 a.m., believing the world would be normal again in the morning. Instead, we woke to find that the St. Vrain had rearranged our town, marooning us on six isolated islands.
We called ours "Twiggley Island," after the picture book Miss Twiggley's Tree, by Dorothea Warren Fox. It's about a woman who lives in a tree. Everyone thinks she's odd until there's a flood; then the whole town takes refuge in her tree house, and she becomes a hero. Miss Twiggley's Tree became required reading, as we lost power and more and more people sought refuge with us. One neighbor arrived wearing only a muumuu, unable to retrieve any other clothes. Her 2-year-old cat, Ruby, freaked out and refused to eat or drink; she had to have water dripped into her mouth every hour. Laurie had lived in Lyons for almost 40 years and never seen anything like this. "I had a brand-new shower that I was going to install in my outbuilding. It was sitting on the porch and it just floated away."
Another neighbor showed up with a cooler of bottled milk, delivered from the Longmont Dairy just two days earlier. The situation wasn't critical, we decided, until the half-and-half ran out.
Isolated and out of touch on Twiggley Island, we didn't know that many of our friends and neighbors were struggling just to survive. We didn't know that a dear friend's father had died in the flood. We didn't know that many of us had already lost our homes for good. All we knew was that we needed to conserve water and save food before it spoiled. We needed to stockpile camping gear, headlamps, and water purifiers. Someone had half a cow that had to be eaten before it went bad; Twiggley Islanders adhered to the Paleo diet. We planned to stick it out together as long as necessary. But after three days, everyone was told to leave. We were a liability to rescue efforts higher up the canyon, and with our water treatment plant damaged, E-coli or other health risks posed a real possibility.
As I watched my Lyons friends and neighbors evacuate Twiggley Island -- one car at a time, over the only usable bridge -- I felt incapable of describing what I was seeing. I had always clung to words, using them like life rafts to float around the bends. But that metaphor no longer worked for me.
Two men walked past, each holding a deer head with antlers, reminding me of Tim O'Brien's book, The Things They Carried. I watched each car slowly pull up -- loaded down with pillows and cat carriers, blankets and chickens -- then make the one-way trip over the bridge. "You cannot come back," a Lyons volunteer firefighter warned each driver, reminding everyone to register with FEMA.
Tom Yulsman, my friend, a journalist and blogger for Discover, called after we'd evacuated and asked me to describe what we'd been through, from start to finish. Since we don't know how long it will take for Lyons to recover, the story is far from finished. For those who have lost everything, I doubt that it ever will be. Still, I did my best to describe the indescribable, using those little life rafts that no longer felt very reliable.
"The water was rushing through my house like a river," I told Tom. Then I stopped. We both laughed at my less than eloquent description. "That proves it," I said then. "I have officially run out of words."
Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock is a public-radio reporter who has lived in Lyons for three years.