“I want to get back into the classroom so I have control of something”

The students tell stories of the flood to Doug and Amy Stahl they call heartbreaking.

Lyons, Colo. in recovery - Bohn Park

Lyons, Colo. in recovery – Bohn Park

Two families living in canyon homes near Lyons, Colo., had their homes and cars washed away the night of Wednesday, Sep. 11, 2013. They made an eight-hour hike up and over rocky terrain, “doing human chains to get over stuff that was blown out,” said Doug, a 3rd grade teacher at Lyons Elementary School. “The boy is eight, has a 6-year-old brother, and it was weeks before they were able to get back home and see what they had left.”

Doug proudly notes his student hiked out with his school work and planner.

“Another kid, when they noticed they had water in their house and decided to leave, got the whole family loaded in the truck,” recalled Amy Stahl, Doug’s wife and a 5th grade teacher at Lyons Elementary. “The truck went nose-down in a sink hole, right there into the river.”

Doug picked up the story. “They couldn’t get the doors open and it wasn’t safe to get the kids out. They called 911 and waited 30 or 45 minutes.”

“The whole time they were thinking they were going to get washed away,” Amy said of the family, eventually rescued by a city utility worker. “There are many of our students who just experienced that fear. It wasn’t that property was going to get damaged. It was true fear for their lives.”

The Stahl family is back in Lyons, taking a walk among damaged roads and structures.

The Stahl family is back in Lyons, taking a walk among damaged roads and structures.

The stories weren’t shared at Lyons Elementary. When school finally resumed Sep. 25, the Stahls, both members of the St. Vrain Valley Education Association, were teaching their students at a makeshift school they call the Longmont Campus. The building holds Lyons’ elementary, middle and high schools, about a 20-minute drive from town. Meals and supplies poured in from other schools, along with stacks of supportive letters and postcards. The school even received encouragement from Newtown, Conn., site of last year’s tragic school shooting.

Despite the unfamiliar surroundings, the Stahls were eager to get the kids talking and return some kind of normalcy and routine to their lives.

“In the first few days back, I had a kid who wasn’t displaced. He just felt the effects from everyone else and just sat there and cried,” Amy said. “He was a little embarrassed, said he had water coming out of his eyes and he didn’t know why.

“The students really felt for one another,” she continued. “The first time it rained, that fear came back. These kids are just dealing with fear all the time.”

“Then for us, I want to get back into the classroom so I have control of something. That was the first time I felt in control of anything,” Doug said.

Stahl4

A Lyons church lost its field

The Stahls quickly lost control of their lives too on the evening of Sep. 11. While their home wasn’t damaged, they quickly found nature had imposed house arrest upon them and their neighbors. The St. Vrain River overflowed and washed out all roads leading in and out of Lyons by Thursday morning, isolating the town from all others.

“The city was divided into six sections that were inaccessible to each other. The river just split it all up,” said Amy. “We couldn’t go anywhere for a while because all our access was wiped out, so we were stuck.”

To complicate matters, Doug’s parents were visiting for the day when the storm arrived. His 96-year-old father can’t walk and only had a day’s medications. Then rumors started swirling that Button Rock Dam, the big dam above town, was going to break.

“If that had gone, there would have been a 20-foot wall of water coming through. With my dad unable to walk, where were we going to go?” Doug contemplated hiking the large hill near his house, perhaps pulling his dad up in a wagon. “The power went out midnight Thursday and I was just lying in bed, freaking.”

“And knowing there was nowhere to go,” Amy added.

The dam did it’s job and prevented a bigger rush of water from sweeping Lyons away completely. The Stahls were evacuated late Saturday afternoon, loading whatever they could into their car, knowing they wouldn’t be able to return to their home for a very long time.

“Some of our students had to be helicoptered out, so their whole family took one bag. Everybody was scrambling,” Amy said.

Doug, Amy and Macy Stahl

Doug, Amy and Macy Stahl

Doug, Amy, their three-year-old daughter Macy and the family dog relocated to the guest house of a family they knew through school. Doug and Amy had taught their kids. The same family took in another teacher and her two kids. The three teachers and three kids lived about three miles from their own houses for the next six weeks. And they started teaching at their new school.

“The first thing you do is deal with logistics, and our district came through. They put a whole school together,” said Amy. “They wanted to keep us together and they were able to put that together in under two weeks – a place for us to go that was fully functional with desks, most of the curriculum, computers, wireless networks, fire alarms, evacuation routes for fire drills. They put it together, it was shocking.”

“It was amazing how fast it all pulled together,” Doug agreed, saying the building looked like an empty warehouse at first. “But when we opened the doors a week later, the district had the entire custodial staff moving things, painting things. You walk in and it’s a school. The amazing part is it’s the Lyons town school. The elementary school is on the ground floor, the middle school is on the second floor and the high school is up top. We’re all together.”

Stahl5

Lyons’ roads are a work in progress

Not everyone was together. Doug had 29 students before the flood, but averaged 18 for many weeks afterward. Some of the kids home-schooled, others enrolled in different schools, others moved.

“I try not to take it personally,” Doug said with a smile.

“We’re trying to figure out where all of our kids are – if they’re coming back, if they’re okay, and what do they need,” Amy explained. “There are kids now home-schooled who are going to come back. This is a temporary thing, it’s just too hard to get to school right now. We have to make sure they’re not getting too far behind, that they have access to the curriculum so they can be working on it.”

The Stahls say it’s taken a while for teachers and their students to get into a rhythm, but they’ve found it. The school day is 40 minutes shorter, and time is made for students to celebrate and relax to get through these abnormal times. The teachers credit their principal, superintendent and district with supporting educators and student learning through it all.

“We didn’t need to ask the union to step in and help us with an issue, because people just took care of us,” said Amy.

“I’m glad we haven’t noticed any problems,” observed Doug. “This could have been a time where it got very contentious with the principal or the district, the superintendent, but they just pulled together.”

The Stahls walk on the broken street they used to be their way in and out of the neighborhood.

The Stahls walk along the broken road that used to be the route to drive in and out of their neighborhood.

Lyons is pulling together too as the Stahls and other residents return to their homes.

“The town itself has really bonded and we’re looking out for each other,” said Doug. “The Halloween parade was the first town event since the flood and it was just this joyous occasion of friends seeing friends and neighbors seeing neighbors. We hadn’t seen each other for six weeks. It’s bringing everybody together and I hope we come back stronger.

“It’s going to be difficult,” he continued. “I feel bad for the local businesses that have really taken a hit, some of the families that don’t know if they’ll be able to rebuild yet, but I’m glad that we’re in a small, tight-knit community.”

Amy said teachers and families have always been close in Lyons. They’ve had families and students over for dinner, and have been invited to many birthday parties. It’s not unusual to get a knock on the door from a student looking for extra help on homework.

“This time it’s different because some of our students need help with housing or clothes,” said Amy. “We were all in the same boat this time. We still have that same sense of camaraderie and family. They’re not just our students, they’re our kids.”

Lyons Elementary School, which was used during the flood as an evacuation center, then as the temporary city hall, is scheduled to reopen for classes Dec 2.

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