LYONS, Colo. (CBS4) – In early September of last year, historic rains started falling across Colorado. By the time the downpours stopped, devastating flooding had damaged property across almost 2,000 miles, washed out hundreds of miles or roads and damaged dozens of bridges. Nine people died in the flooding.
The first victim came in Lyons on the night of Sept. 11 as the waters rose in the small Boulder County community. Eventually the flooding left the town completely cut off.
But inside the town were a group of leaders who were prepared.
In the case of Fire Chief J.J. Hoffman, the possibility of a massive flood had worried him since he took the post. He grew up in Lyons and knew just how vulnerable it was to flooding that usually occurs in the spring.
On Sept. 11, what he saw on the rivers had him worried.
“We had been watching the river because of the the previous few days of rainfall,” Hoffman said.
He took a look at the rain gauges in the river and saw the water rising quickly. “It made us a little nervous, knowing it was continuously dumping rain that night.”
Hoffman was not alone in his worries. Kevin Parker is a sergeant with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office. He had once been stationed in Lyons and was well aware of the potential for disaster. About 240 square miles of terrain drains right into Lyons.
Both men credit Dan Barbour, another Boulder County deputy who also worked in Lyons, with raising the alarm years earlier.
“Dan had made a model of this drainage out of cookie dough and Playdough and took it a town meeting to show the need for sirens,” Parker recalled.
It took a bit of convincing but the town bought those emergency sirens. They were activated in the early hours of Sept. 12 as the rescuers in the field realized just how dangerous the situation had become.
Hoffman had headed out with his team on a swift water rescue, a call Parker heard when he arrived in Lyons.
“I heard the fire department out on a rescue call on the North St. Vrain (River) so I went up there with Chief Hoffman,” Parker said. “At that point the water was already coming over the road so I came back to town to start organizing things while he stayed there.
“We never got out of town from there.”
The fire chief and deputy worked hand in hand, using the town’s flood plan map to get people out of areas they knew would soon be cut off.
For Connie and Neil Sullivan, one of the biggest challenges in the flooding was getting Neil back into town. They own the St. Vrain Market, one of the few grocery stores for miles.
Neil was in Texas for business, Connie is one of the town trustees. She started receiving phone calls from other trustees about the rising waters while she was home alone with their young children.
At a little after midnight, she got the call that the sirens would be sounded. Evacuees were brought to an elementary school.
Then came a call for help; the evacuees and rescuers need supplies.
“We had a big shipment come in Monday,” Connie said. “But I can’t go, I’m home alone with the kids.”
Connie asked to have someone pick up the key to the market.
That “someone” was Parker. “I picked up the key from her and her exact words were ‘Take whatever you need and we’ll figure it out later on.”
That first night volunteers and firefighters started grabbing supplies like water out of the St. Vrain Market.
One of those volunteers actually worked at the market and noticed the flood waters had actually reached the store.
For Neil, the day turned into a nightmare. It had already been raining when he left and Connie kept him informed by text.
“The last text I remember after hours of communication with her was ‘Get home now,’ ” he said.
He changed his flight and headed home the next morning. A text was waiting when he landed at Denver International Airport.
Don’t bother trying to get in, we’re isolated and the roads are shut off.
But it would take more than closed roads to keep Neil out of Lyons.
He drove on Highway 66 until he hit the National Guard roadblock.
Then he headed out on foot, hitting the high trails he often ran on weekends.
After making contact with Connie and the kids to make sure they were okay, he headed to the market.
“Water was coming in from a number of places,” he said. He mobilized his friends to make sure the groceries and supplies reached the people who needed them before the water ruined them.
Perishables like cold cuts and sandwich meats went not only to evacuees but the first responders.
“That’s what fed our emergency responders for the next couple of days,” Parker said.
“Things to keep them fortified,” Neil said. “They were working the hardest so we wanted to make sure that a lot of the food we had available was going to the people that in many ways, the town was depending on the most.”
The St. Vrain Market retrieved about 80 percent of its stock.
But the Sullivans were not alone in opening their business doors to help.
“Also the local hardware store,” Hoffman said. “We were running out of shovels and lamps. We needed material for flagging and batteries.
And the Sullivans’ generosity was paid back as just how much damage the market suffered became apparent.
“There was a wave of volunteers, people who were staying in the town who were walking down the street with shovels,” Neil said. “The front of the market was blocked by close to 3 feet of silt and mud, so we had a lot of people who were helping.”
That spirit of helping made the difference in Lyons while the community realized it was time to leave.
“”The sun would come out,” said Connie. “People would go and look around but I think it took a little time for people to accept the fact we were going to be leaving Lyons for a while.
“When we left we really had no idea when we would be coming back. There was a lot to do in those first few days and it was really minute to minute as to how we would get out. People were asking questions ‘Can we drive out? Can we take our our vehicles? And where are we going to go?’ ”
And for those who stayed during the days Lyons was isolated, it was a matter of working together.
“I think that community involvement was really key,” Parker said. “We preached that every day we were stuck in town to the people in town and the community that we’re here all stuck together and we need the community to help us take care of everybody else.”
“The community did come together. Not just businesses but citizens. Local contractors, people with backhoes, loaders, average citizens walking down the street,” Hoffman said. “They helped save people’s lives. They’re all heroes.”