Photographers' Blog

Living through a disaster

September 30, 2013

Golden, Colorado

By Rick Wilking

In a career as long as mine, spread across several continents, I have covered many, many natural disasters. If you have read my blog posts lately that seems to be all I write about. But this time is different. This time, I am a victim of a disaster.

The first week of September was unusually wet for the Front Range of Colorado, but not shockingly so. In fact, we were enjoying how green it was with wildflowers still in bloom instead of fretting about wildfires as we normally would be this time of year. But on the fateful day of 9/11 the rains picked up. I was away from my mountain property most of the day and when I came home noticed new waterfalls on the rocks I had never seen before. Still, I didn’t think much of it and just listened to the rain pound the house all night long.

Early on the 12th, while still dark, my wife got a call from her hospital asking if she would be able to make it in as they were hearing some roads were closed due to flooding. I turned on the TV and it looked like the highway to our driveway might be closed. I decided to wait until first light to take a look. I drove down our mile long driveway a short distance and soon realized it was heavily damaged and impassable by vehicle with a major washout where the road used to be.

So, I made the 30 minute hike through the forest down and was shocked to see the little creek at the bottom was now a 50’ wide river cutting us off from the highway. My shed containing my snowmobile, mountain bike, motorcycle were all gone, swept away.

I managed to find a shallower spot to wade through the water and get up on the road and began to take some pictures for the wire. I also shot some short video clips.

The first picture I shot was of my neighbors car perched on what was left of his driveway with a waterfall flowing under it. The picture received wide usage around the world and the video was picked up by the Weather Channel and used globally as well.

That car later fell into the river the next day and was found perched on rocks almost a mile away.

I called the desk editors and said you’ll soon be hearing about major flood damage in Colorado but unfortunately other than the few pictures I sent in I wouldn’t be able to do anything more in the near term as I was cut off from the road. My colleague Mark Leffingwell was out in his normal stomping grounds of Boulder and came up with many fine story telling images that first day.

On the next day, Friday the 13th, I again ventured out to see what had taken place overnight and was shocked that things were worse, much worse. Overnight, water had gotten trapped behind debris pile dams that eventually broke lose creating the “walls of water” you hear about tearing things up. Another look at our road showed complete destruction – it was a raging river now, water tumbling over three-foot boulders. The main highway had been undermined and ripped out in several places and buckled in others.

I was still cut off and couldn’t get out to cover the story. My rain gauge said we had gotten about 20” of rain in the two days. The average precipitation (rain and melted snow) for Boulder is 20 inches in a full year. The next day I had the idea to travel cross country over a little-used dirt road out the back way of my place. I had heard so much about the little town of Jamestown that had been wiped out in the mountains not too far from where I live and I managed to get in there and document that (see separate blog entry).

Once I saw Jamestown I knew that I had fared much, much better than most. Whole houses were swept away there and I had lost so little in comparison.

On the 16th the local fire department showed up at my place, using my back road on ATV’s trying to rescue some trapped people next to my property. I guided them in but we couldn’t get there across the creek. To make matters worse one of the workers flipped his ATV over onto himself on my trail to the highway. Several of us managed to pull him out quickly but he suffered a badly injured arm and wrist for his trouble.

In the following days I flew over the flooded areas to the east which covered hundreds of square miles of crop land and oil and gas fields. I saw a city neighborhood in Longmont a long way from a river that had been inundated with walls of mud destroying the contents of houses. I saw a trailer park that floated the homes into giant heaps of wreckage.

I counted my blessings as I have so many times covering disasters. A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) inspector who looked at my damage said “You can always find someone who is worse off than you are.” FEMA was right of course and when shooting the wreckage of the next disaster I will have a very different feeling about the people that lived there. I am now one of them, and I will understand much better what they are going through than I ever have before. When they say “It’s just stuff, at least my family is okay,” I will have lived the same feeling myself. It won’t make it any easier to document the tragedy but it will make it easier to cope and carry on, as they say.

I have a long way to go to recover – as I write this our highway is still closed and will be for months. My road and bridge may also take months or even years to rebuild I am told.

I found my snowmobile but it’s trashed, likewise the mountain bike and the motorcycle is still missing. Still, its all “just stuff” and we’ll be okay. At least there hasn’t been a hurricane to cover this year… yet. Wilma (2005), Opal (1995) and Floyd (1987) were all in October. And of course Sandy, just last year, was in late October too.

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