Looking at the line of volunteers who are slogging out to the junk heap at the curb, Longmont homeowner Glenn Wright says, “This is overwhelming. This makes me start to cry. It’s way more than my tenants and I could do.”
Wright has been visited by several groups of volunteers. Today’s are from Boulder Flood Relief, an impromptu organization that sprung to life less than a week ago in the wake of Colorado’s devastating floods. County officials estimate that more than 7,200 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed in Larimer and Boulder counties, the hardest-hit areas.
Standing on the stairs to the basement, Wright points to a line about two inches below his kitchen floor. “This is where the water came to. About an inch below the basement ceiling.” He looks around the basement, now stripped of its wallboard and furnishings and quickly losing its smelly, squishy carpeting at the volunteers’ hands.“This is pristine compared to what it was,” he says. “This empty space was a storage room. We don’t need a storage room anymore. There’s nothing to store.”
Wright, 57, a CPA who occupies the house at 1208 Columbia with two tenants, is surprisingly cheerful for a man watching his belongings accumulate in the gutter, piled more than five feet high.
“I was a little depressed this morning,” he admits. “Kids from the high school came and helped yesterday, but the volunteers who were going to come this morning didn’t show. I was so glad when you showed up.”
I’m tagging along with the Boulder Flood Volunteers today. I drove down from my home in Carbondale, near Aspen, a three-a-half hour drive. My car is filled with tools, “muck boots” and my ugliest clothes.
Like me, volunteer Linda Angiono showed up after responding to a message that Boulder Flood Relief posted on Facebook. While pulling ruined gypsum board off the ceiling, she says, “I got tired of reading all these messages on official websites saying that volunteers weren’t needed. I went to Craigslist and found plenty of people who needed help, and that’s how I found Boulder Flood Relief. This is my second day volunteering for them.”
Boulder Flood Relief was started by veterans of the Occupy movement. It’s organized in ways vetted by the Occupy group that helped victims of Hurricane Sandy. The core group is working out of donated headquarters on Walnut Street in Boulder and has gathered more than 400 volunteers. As of September 19th, they have begun reaching out to nearby communities, including washed-out Lyons, Colorado.
The tech-savvy group is directly linking helpers to victims largely by using Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and other internet tools.
Courtnee McIlwee, who is pulling up ruined carpet, just moved to Boulder from Kansas City, Missouri, to enroll in an environmental studies program. She says, “I put out the intention to volunteer yesterday. Then Upworthy posted a link about a guy playing piano in a flooded house. Under that was a link for Boulder Flood Relief. I saw it and thought, ‘I’m supposed to do this’.”
The room that the two women are emptying belongs to Anthony, a tenant who moved into Wright’s home on September 1. When the swollen St. Vrain River began to pour into his room, he had to flee, taking just enough time to grab his cat and his clothes.
“That was on September 12,” says Wright. “The country had 9/11, and now in Colorado, we have 9/12. We won’t forget this.” On 9/12, Wright had to rescue his own cat by wading through waist-deep water with the animal on his shoulder.
Even though the household never got an evacuation order, Wright recalls, “It was pretty obvious when we had to leave.” The City of Longmont did issue an evacuation phone call – akin to a reverse 911 call – but Wright’s phone service had gone dead. The phone never rang.
The flood waters were so swift that they overturned a refrigerator, swept it out of Wright’s garage and marooned it by the side of the house.
When the waters began to recede, Wright’s tenants joined volunteers working to bail muddy water out of the house. “There’s got to be a special place in heaven for those two guys. They have jobs, and they are helping as much as they can,” says Wright.
“Yesterday was Anthony’s 21st birthday,” he adds. “He spent it carrying buckets of mud. “
The two tenants are currently staying nearby with Wright’s son, while other friends cat-sit.
Currently, Wright’s house has no phone or internet service. The gas is off and
electricity works in only spots. Wright’s cell phone won’t work either, possibly because the flood destroyed local relay towers.
That lack of communication services complicates the recovery process. To apply to FEMA, homeowners need show their vital records and insurance policies – a process made doubly difficult when communications have been severed and the necessary papers have been swept away or destroyed by the flood. Many of Wright’s business papers are sitting in his garage, glued together with mud.
Now that the sun is out, they are rapidly hardening into bricks.
“This is going to go on for days and days,” says Wright. “I’m grateful for all the volunteers, because cleaning out this house was an overwhelming amount of work. They got everything ready so I can get the professionals in to pressure wash the place, replace the furnace and rebuild the walls.”
James Maxwell, a spokesman for Boulder Flood Relief, comments, “We have to act now, when they’re not inundated with mold. We can go in, remove the damage before it has a chance to start. That’s very important.”
Those needing assistance or wanting to volunteer may visit the organization’s website – http://boulderfloodrelief.org.