As the floodwaters in Colorado recede and people have begun to rebuild their lives, one Aiken resident who was there when the waters began rising is recalling the ordeal that has killed seven people so far.
Caroline Mulstay went to Loveland, Colo., at the beginning of August for six weeks for an equine therapy course.
“The last week I was there, which was last week, it was just nonstop rain the whole week,” she said on Thursday. “It was kind of on and off, but every day we had a good downpour.”
The St. Vrain River on Sept. 12 destroyed homes, trailer parks and bridges around the Boulder area. Mulstay, 25, remembers sitting in class that afternoon.
“We knew some of the roads were being closed or watched carefully,” she said. “We all kind of looked at each other and said, 'Maybe we need to go check on our property.' A couple of us were staying right along the (Big Thompson) river.”
When they went to their cabin, law enforcement had already closed that road and were conducting evacuations, according to Mulstay.
“They let us through to go gather our stuff,” she said. “As we were leaving our cabin, two sheriffs came by and said, 'It's a mandatory evacuation. The bridge is about to be flooded over, so everybody has to get out.'”
Mulstay left to stay with a friend in nearby Fort Collins. She described the scene while leaving as “scary.” A dam in Estes Park, which is upriver from Loveland created extra concern for Loveland residents.
“They had to let a lot of water go through the dam, or that would have been broken,” she said. “… We saw the waters rushing. We'd heard that a few bodies had been washed up, and people had died. We also heard they were really concerned about the dam in Estes. That's when I really was like, 'This is a big deal. This is a tragedy.'”
Mulstay said the rainfall, on top of the Big Thompson River and the excess water released from the dam created catastrophic conditions.
“When they let that water go, it just decimated everything below us,” she said.
The water was 10 to 15 feet deep in some areas, she said. The river that was normally about 20 feet across was now about 75 feet across.
The ranch where Mulstay and other students were staying suffered significant damage. Some employees had to hike over a mountain to get out of town, but all the employees and horses were safe, she said.
“I was amazed,” she said of the sights. “The amount of water that came through and how fast it was coming – it was like something out of a movie. I could not believe it.”
Mulstay stayed with a friend and went to the half-day of class the next day. She was concerned about making her flight home out of Denver and decided to leave that day.
Normally, the drive south to Denver took about 45 minutes, Mulstay said. This time it took about 2.5 hours.
“It was a lot of trial and error getting out of there,” Mulstay said of navigating through closed or flooded roadways.
“There were so many roads closed, and the officers at the roadblocks couldn't give anybody any answers about what roads were open,” she said. “There were so many people trying to get everywhere, people trying to turn around in places that made it harder for everyone else to move.”
Mulstay made it to Denver with help from her boyfriend, who was looking up directions and talking her through it on the phone, she said. She also completed the equine therapy course, which wouldn't have been possible if the flooding occurred any earlier.
According to the Associated Press, more than 1,000 people were in Red Cross shelters at the height of the disaster. That number was down to about 250 people on Saturday. Additionally, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is increasing aid to flood-ravaged areas, and has already distributed $12.3 million in aid.
Crews are continuing work to clear and reopen roadways.
Mulstay said the ranch she was staying at has established a fund to rebuild the damaged buildings and pasture.
“This was the worst that most of them had ever seen,” she said. “I knew I had no control over the whole situation, and I had to tell myself there's nothing I can do about it. As long as I'm safe, that's the only thing I can control.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.