We Were Buried in a Mudslide! | Reader's Digest

“We Were Buried in a Mudslide!”

Michelle Grainger, Steve Le Goff, and their neighbors survived two days of raging floodwaters. It was what came next that almost killed them.

By Nick Heil
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine April 2014

colorado flood coupleJeremy Papasso/Boulder Daily Camera

But Steve and Michelle hunkered down. They’d endured flooding in the canyon before and expected to ride out this storm as well. It was one thing to prepare to leave and quite another to abandon your property and possessions.

They were worried, however, about their neighbors. Across the street, Russell Brockway, an 87-year-old fellow with a pacemaker, was staying put in his 300-square-foot cabin. Kay Cook and Doug Burger, retired English professors in their 70s who lived just up the road, were doing the same.

Eric Stevens, 48, and Michelle Wieber, 50, and their teenage sons, Colton and Caleb, lived next door. They had spent years restoring their 1875 log cabin, one of Salina’s original homes, and wouldn’t leave it easily.

The creek continued to rise. By early afternoon, Steve and Michelle’s sandbag barricade was underwater. The rising tide carried thick logs and refrigerator-size boulders that clogged the culverts and bridges. The crashing sounds from outside were so loud that the couple could hardly hear over them. They went outside once to try to trek up the hill to Cook and Burger’s house but were cut off by dangerous waters.

Less than a half mile up the road, Brett Gibson, the Four Mile fire chief, sat in Salina’s small fire station, talking on the phone with the emergency operations center in Boulder. During the day, Gibson, along with the other fire chiefs around the county, had realized that this was no ordinary storm. Flooding was not unheard-of in the Colorado Front Range, but bad weather typically blew through in a few hours. This system was stubbornly parked overhead.

Around 10 p.m., Gibson took a call from the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). “This is the real s—,” the dispatcher told him. “Tonight is going to be really, really bad.”

“Most of my communication with EOC is quite formal,” Gibson said later. “So I know when they start using profanity that we have a major situation on our hands.”

Gibson immediately broadcast the fire department’s most urgent warning to the locals, many of whom were equipped with weather radios: “Climb to higher ground immediately. Imminent threat to life and property. All residents should evacuate.”

Still, Steve and Michelle stayed put. When they ventured outside the house early Thursday morning, the storm seemed to be easing. The raging creek had subsided slightly. They were relieved to find their garage intact, though nearby culverts and bridges that connected residents to the main road had been destroyed. The power was out, and the deafening noise from the creek still made communication difficult.

Steve and Michelle walked next door to the home of Eric and Michelle, and the families hatched a plan. Worst-case scenario, the six of them would take shelter in Eric and Michelle’s guesthouse, which was nestled in the woods behind, 20 feet above the main house. Neither couple believed that the flood would swell to that height.

Satisfied with the plan, Steve and Michelle returned home and settled in with their dogs and cats, which they loved like family. Outside, the rain fell with steady, drenching force.

Up at the fire station, during a call with EOC at about 8:30 a.m., Gibson was informed that the weather lull was temporary. “All the data indicated that Thursday was going to be even worse,” Gibson said. The National Weather Service, which rarely veered from drab, technical information in its statements, described the rainfall as “biblical.”