“Our neighborhood had become a pond in 10 minutes”

The heavy downpours that unleashed the Colorado floods of 2013 started Sep. 11, but Jessicca Shaffer didn’t notice anything unusual until the next morning. The 5th grade teacher at Longmont Estates Elementary received a call that school was cancelled.

“I was baffled. Why would school be cancelled?” Jessicca wondered. “It was raining a little bit, but I didn’t quite understand. I thought, ‘Great, I get to unpack,’ because we had moved in five days before.”

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View from the Shaffer house the day after the flood, Sep. 13.

By noon, Jessicca heard other parts of town were flooding, but her neighborhood in west Longmont near Airport Road was not in the evacuation zone. She and her neighbors were not told to leave, which made the spectacle appearing before them all the more confusing and unbelievable.

“The water started coming up the road, and it was just like in the movies. We could see the water moving. The power had just gone out, and my neighbor yelled to the kids, ‘Go pack a bag – we’re going to go now.’”

Jessicca immediately followed her neighbor’s lead.

“My kids were frightened, and I came running inside and said, ‘Pack a bag, we have to go.’ I told my husband and he said ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘The water is coming now.’”

Within minutes, Jessicca and her family were driving away from their new home with pets and the most basic essentials: some clothes, toiletries, and phones with chargers. The grille of their car was covered in water as they sloshed forward, and they soon picked up a neighbor’s family whose car had stalled out in the water. They only had to drive up a hill away from their long circle of homes to find dry land.

“Our neighborhood had become a pond in 10 minutes,” Jessicca said.

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Jessicca points to the water mark on her fence left by the height of the flood.

The Shaffers stayed that night at their prior residence which they had not yet sold, then with her mother for the next several days. During that time, Jessicca and her husband Brandon were allowed to visit the neighborhood and survey the damage. Not only was the water still there – the water was still moving.

“You could see the water flowing, little rapids, and Brandon stopped and said, ‘That’s the river. That’s not standing water. That’s not water that’s been here. That’s the river,’” Jessicca said. “We called the mayor and said, ‘The river is in our yard, and we can’t come home until the river is moved.’”

The St. Vrain River, more than a mile away, had jumped it banks and was flowing through their neighborhood. The mayor explained the Army Corps of Engineers was working on moving the river as soon as possible. “And that blew my mind – the river, really? We have to move the river?”

The St. Vrain Valley School District cancelled school for a week. At Jessicca’s school, about 40 families were affected by the floods, and each was assigned a point person from the school who would remain in contact and see what was needed. The community was receiving donations of cleaning supplies, gift cards and other helpful items, and the point person delivered them to the family.

“My point person was my principal,” Jessicca said. “She would text me and ask, ‘Are you okay? How are you doing? What do you need today?’ So the school was amazing.”

First look into the basement.

First look into the basement.

The Shaffers returned after six days, not sure what they’d find in the home they had lived in for less than a week.

“We had just bought this beautiful house we were so excited about, and I kept thinking, ‘It’s a little bit higher, maybe it will be okay.'”

The first floor was unscathed and Jessicca felt fortunate that everything was dry. And then they opened the door to the basement.

“And all we could see were three steps. They were all white carpet, and then it was just all brown from there, from the mud and the water.”

The fully-furnished basement, with a guest room, walk-in closet, full bathroom, oak bar and office were fully consumed in a tank of water seven feet deep. Jessicca couldn’t remember exactly what was in the basement, using the space below to hold things while figuring how to arrange the new house.

“So we didn’t lose as much as might have if we had lived here longer,” Jessicca said, looking on the bright side. “My neighbors have been here 25 years – they lost 25 years’ worth of stuff in their basement. So we were fortunate in that regard.”

Jessicca then received the first of many generous offers to get their lives back to normal. A stranger came by and offered to pump the water out of the basement.

“And we said okay because we don’t know what we’re doing. We have no idea. And then when I would talk to people, none of us knew what we were doing,” Jessicca said. “We never had to deal with this before. This is new for everyone.”

Jessicca in her ruined basement - the water crashed through the window.

Jessicca in her ruined basement – the water crashed through the window.

On Sep. 18, with the water pumped out and school still postponed, Jessicca estimates 75% of the school staff showed up at her house, “just clamoring to help” clean out her basement.

“All the teachers weren’t working, and so everybody came here. If we had too many people, I sent them to my neighbor’s house, or to another family down the road that needed help. We had so many volunteers. They ripped out all the carpet and all the drywall, and took all of our personal things out to the front yard.

“We had quite a few new teachers at our school this year and they were here,” Jessicca continued. “They don’t even know me, and they came to help. One of them brought me 18 rolls of toilet paper because she didn’t know what else to do, and I said, ‘Great, I’ll take it.’”

Outside of her school, Jessicca said support from fellow members of the St. Vrain Valley Education Association and the Colorado Education Association “was amazing.” Members kept showing up to carry buckets of muck out of her basement, or to buy anything the family needed – from D-size batteries to replacements of the family board games lost in the basement.

“Everybody has just been wonderful,” Jessicca added.

Longmont Estates Elementary reopened Sep 19, and Jessicca was back in class to support her students, three of whom were evacuated from their homes.

“It was really important for me to go back into the classroom to make sure that they knew I was okay and we were going to be able to move forward after this. But also, especially for the kids who had evacuated and who had a lot of damage to their homes too, I wanted to just give them a hug.” Jessicca said. “It was important to know where they were in their personal lives outside of school to make sure I was being attentive to their needs.”

A new hot water heater is about all the assistance the Shaffers received in replacements costs.

A new hot water heater is about all the assistance the Shaffers received in replacements costs.

Since the flood, the Shaffers are planning how to rebuild the basement, the fence and the yard. A claim to FEMA paid for a hot water heater, but they weren’t covered by flood insurance and will pay most costs out-of-pocket.

“We never thought that the river would be able to get here,” Jessicca explained. She was not amused by a CD she found in her yard while cleaning the debris. Its title: Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Despite the losses and setbacks, Jessicca said the experience brought out the best in everyone and enjoys that her fellow teachers are now closer together, knowing each other better than before. She says the same bond is shared with the students.

“We all have this huge thing in common. It’s not a great thing, but we have this huge thing in common. My daughter was saying that she’s part of history now,” Jessicca said. “Years from now we’re going to be talking about ‘The Flood’. Not a flood, but ‘The Flood,’ and it’s just going to be around for a long, long time.”

Members in Colorado and across the country have asked how to help. At CEA, we have set up the CEA Disaster Relief Fund, a specific fund for the benefit of CEA members who have been impacted by the September 2013 floods. Find out more at www.coloradoea.org/cea-disaster-relief-fund.

 

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