When Disaster Strikes — The 100-Year Boulder Flood

I was sitting at the table, pencilling out fluid dynamics equations as rain pattered down outside. It was the third day of rain. In the other room, my roommate Jamie* was washing dishes when the sirens started.

She stepped into the living room and opened our door to figure out what was going on. The voice of a woman yelled over the speakers, “Evacuate! Evacuate! Evacuate.”

We looked around at our apartment, wondering what to grab before leaving. I swooped up my backpack, laptop, and homework (nerd alert!) and we scrambled to pack overnight bags with a change of clothing and our toothbrushes.

We had just moved in a month ago, picking a spot on north campus next to Boulder Creek. It was in walking distance for all of us, the rent was $500 a month each (a steal for Boulder!), and I was pleased to have my own room and bathroom after sharing a dorm for the last two years. The only downside to the apartment we picked was that it was a basement apartment, but that meant lower rent.

The other downside to being in a basement apartment that we hadn’t anticipated was that if the area flooded, our place would be the first to fill up with water.

The sirens continued as we loaded our bags into Herbert, my 1992 Mitsubishi Expo, a squat black ultra mini-van I had borrowed from my parents while living off campus. My roommate ran back to check on our neighbors across the yard, known for the plumes of pot smoke that would fog up their sliding glass windows. They somehow had not heard the sirens shrieking in the night. After knocking on some more doors, we got back in the car to evacuate the area.

Jamie gave me directions to one of her friend’s houses. Her friend let us inside, where a bunch of people were watching the news in the living room.

“Welcome in,” Jamie’s friend said. “We have some snacks and a few other people coming. We don’t have much space but we could put you up on the floor for the time being. We’re in a safe zone– although the creek does run right by. I think we should be fine though!” I was taken aback. She lived next to another creek? It didn’t seem like much of a safety improvement.

A text blinked on my phone.


I didn’t know anyone in the house and anxiety rose in me just thinking of being right next to a creek. Outside, the water in the road had risen higher, splashing against Herbert’s tires. I didn’t trust the car to drive as the news showed cars floating down city streets. A friend texted me to let me know he could pick me up in his truck if I needed it and I took him up on his offer. He lived on the other side of campus, far away from any rising water and up on the 8th floor of his building.

Bridge Collapes from Flooding
A bridge collapsed in Lafayette, causing three cars to fall in the creek on Sept. 13, 2013 (Cliff Grassmick / Daily Camera)

I stayed there for two nights while classes were cancelled. Over the next couple of days, we learned that this was a 1,000 year rain, meaning the chances of such a downpour was 1 in 1000 on a given day. The chances of a flash flood was 1 in 100, dubbing it the ‘100-year flood’. More than 12 inches of rain fell in just the first couple of days, causing rivers to swell, dams to overflow, and roads to flood.

During the day, people piled up sandbags and attempted to redirect the flood away from our units. We jumped in line, and I found a picture later on the Daily Camera of people in action:

Residents reinforce the dam on Seventh Street on University Hill in Boulder on Sept. 15, 2013. (Paul Aiken / Daily Camera)

By the time it was safe to go back to our apartment, the water had shattered the neighbor’s sliding door and had poured into my bedroom window. We wore knee-high rain boots to slosh through and salvage what we could. 

flood level at apartment.jpg
The flood-level on our couch

Our apartment had filled up with about a foot of water, as determined by the flood-line of our couch. After seeing photos in the newspaper of students wading through waist-high water, I was grateful it wasn’t worse.

However, every single piece of furniture had to be trashed. Flooding meant sewage in the streets, which made most things unsalvageable. We dumped the contents of our fridge, which had all gone bad when the power went out.

I packed up every single possession that hadn’t been destroyed in the flood into Herbert’s trunk and surveyed the damage. Brown water still streamed through lawns, down streets, and through our apartment complex. Other people were packing up like me as landlords surveyed the damage. A Wall Street Journal reporter walked up to me to ask about what happened, my hand poised to close the trunk of the car.

I told her the story, and she nodded along, writing in a little notebook.

“So you lost everything?” She asked.

“Well no, I managed to save all of this,” I waved to the trunk of my car.

“But that’s it?”

It occurred to me that to other people, it didn’t look like I had that many things left. However, all of my most valuable possessions managed to fit, squeezed into that trunk.

1277225_10152713579584041_817547132_o (2).jpg
The trunk of my car full of every possession I had.

We wrapped up the interview and I reflected on the drive about the conversation. 

With sewage water seeping into the walls of our apartment, it made me grateful that I didn’t have more to lose. Newspapers posted photos of cars overturned, houses collapsed, and people stranded. In terms of my own possessions, Herbert survived, and aside from my bed, mattress, and desk, I was able to salvage most of my important things (like my textbooks, those things aren’t cheap!)

I had options—friends who could put me up, family that baked extra large casseroles, and a school that cancelled classes. But without those extra safety nets, I would have been in serious trouble. Whenever people talk about needing an emergency fund, I think about the flood.

It could have been much worse for us. What if the flood had ravaged the entire city, not just those who unwisely rented a basement apartment on a floodplain? What if I had lived far away from family and had a job at an unforgiving workplace?

It’s worth being prepared for unforeseen tragedies. We were only renting, and the landlord let us break our lease. While we mourned the loss of our furniture, the news revealed that 345 homes were completely destroyed, and another 557 were damaged. We evacuated safely while 8 people lost their lives to the flood.

ripped apart apartment.jpg
The fate of our basement apartment

Ultimately, the things we lost didn’t seem as important in the midst of the camaraderie of volunteers hefting sand, my phone pinging as friends offered up places to stay, and my roommates banding together to find a new place to live.

Ever since the flood, I’ve carried that principle with me: possessions can be replaced—people can’t.

Not only that, but the more I have, the more I have to lose. The more I have, the more I have to work. The more I have, the more risk I take on in my life.

The more I have, the more I have to lose.Click To Tweet

When we relocate this year, we will settle into our place for the next four years and will likely accumulate more and more things, but I hope that the important stuff will still be able to fit in our new car (R.I.P Herbert 1992-2016). Ultimately, the people we meet and experiences we have will leave more of a mark than the things that we buy.

What About You?

If you had to evacuate at a moment’s notice, what would you take with you?

Have you ever experienced a natural disaster?

Do you think it’s true that the more you own, the more risk you have?

Share in the comments below!

*Names changed for privacy


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  1. Wow. This was a great story!

    I definitely would have put my homework in the “save at all costs” category. I’m not sure what that says about me.

    I’ve never had a natural disaster destroy my stuff. I had an uncle who had his house flood and destroyed his basement and worse, and he couldn’t harvest any of his vegetables from his garden that year. It happened about 18 months before he passed away. Starting over only gets harder as you get older. Luckily he could still live in the upper floor of his house. I’m sure it will be harder to sell the house though because it has had flood damage in the past and is marked as such.

    I am at the point in my life where it would be a big effort and cost to replace all of my stuff. Although, in all respects except financial, I think I’d welcome the fresh start.

    I don’t think that owning more stuff means that you have a greater risk. I think becoming attached to your stuff means you have more risk. Like if my house got leveled tomorrow and I got an insurance reimbursement for even 75% of my house and everything in it I’d be okay with that. Are you owning your stuff or is your stuff owning you?

    1. That sounds terrible for your Uncle. It’s good he could live in the upper floor but overall what a huge pain and disappointment.

      Good point about attachment to things. If you can detach, it makes losing, breaking, or damaging your things a lot less painful overall. It’s cool that you can reflect and see that if something happened to your stuff you’d be fine with it. Over time it definitely seems like more effort and cost to replace things– I felt fortunate that I was already in college-limbo and didn’t have to deal with a huge house or lots of possessions.

    1. Yes good point. I have my photos backed up right now on hard drives but I really should get them into the cloud.

  2. The picture of the gutted apartment is amazing! That really emphasizes how major this flood was!

    To answer your questions, one would think that if someone has a lot then they would have a greater cushion and would be more relaxed. However, in reality, the more one has, the more there is to lose. This can make people more risk averse. I think that fear of something breaking down, getting taken from them, or lost creates a lot of anxiety for many people.
    As a frugal person I worry if I get a surprise bill and get upset at being ripped off but I have to remember that some things are simply the “cost of doing business” or part of the cost of living. Things are gonna happen.

    As far as what I would take with me (aside from family photos and pets) that would be my passport! Travel is very important to me 🙂

    1. It does seem that reminding yourself that sometimes those things will happen is a nicely zen way to handle it. That reminds me, I have to renew my passport soon!

  3. It’s all insured if you prepared properly, no reason to take anything. Forget the computer if you prepared properly, it’s in the cloud. Just get you and anyone living with you to safety, everything else is already covered because you prepared properly. And maybe don’t choose to live in a flood plain or on a hurricane targeted coastal area?

  4. Dang, sorry you lost so much but I’m glad you were able to save all the important stuff. My wife and I live in Oklahoma and have a file of important paperwork and an emergency bag full of clothes and stuff just in case a tornado hits. On the bright side, adventure comes to us every spring!

    Honestly besides the obvious survival stuff we already have in the bag and paperwork file, I’m not sure if we would bring anything else. We just sit in the shelter winding the weather radio if a sever storm track is on top of us. It’s only happened a handful of times over the last decade thank goodness. Home still standing. I’m sure our day will come tho.

    Oh and RIP Herbert. I get attached to my vehicles too haha.

    1. That’s smart of you to keep paperwork and an emergency bag. Good to be prepared! Yes I will always remember Herbert 🙂

  5. Spousal Unit & I moved a couple of years ago to a hurricane zone. It was also a move to a much smaller house. We have been slowly working on paring down, and plan to transition most of our books to e-books, and most of our photographs & documents to hard drives and the cloud. Although we have tried to make the house as hurricane-proof as possible, we intend to reduce our key possessions until we can take the essentials with us when we bug out and not worry about the rest. A key thing to remember if you need to bug out in a hurry is to take your medications with you. You may be able to refill/replace them from your pharmacy, but if the power is out their systems may be down. And some pharmacies (like VA) may not refill prescriptions from another pharmacy. Always take what you need to maintain your health.

    Ultimately, as you and Janis Joplin have said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” The fewer possessions we have, the more freedom we have.

    1. Definitely a good point to remember medications, thanks for mentioning! It’s always inspiring to see how much people can pare down and end up with just their key possessions. Hopefully your zone is hurricane-free for a long time, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared!

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