Derek Franz

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August 15, 2012
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Sweetwater residents find good with the bad

The Muddy Waters Fund-raiser to help victims of the recent Sweetwater flood is all set for 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Moe's Original Bar B Que in Eagle.

There will be a silent auction and live music. Moe's is at 630 Grand Ave. Some of the auction items so far include weekend getaways, ski passes, horseback rides and gift certificates.

If you can't join but would like to help, a tax-deductible check can be made out to the Swift Eagle Charitable Foundation, PO Box 1977, Avon, Colo. 81620. Write "Sweetwater Flash Flood Victims" on the check.

If you would like to donate something to the tax-deductible silent auction, please contact Bill Sepmeier at 524-0661 or

The event is mostly organized by friends and families of the victims. Many of the Sweetwater residents themselves are the self-reliant types who prefer not to ask for assistance but will help their neighbors in a jiffy.

"It is a close-knit community and anyone with equipment is helping to clear driveways," said Sweetwater resident Bill Stephens, who nearly lost cattle in the flood and counts himself lucky. "We haven't had a flood like this since about 1976. It's part of living in Sweetwater, though, and we all know it."

The flood happened July 24. Eagle County Emergency Manager Barry Smith said the Sweetwater area received about 3 inches of rain in three hours while Gypsum, at a lower elevation to the south, received about an inch in that period. The deluge resulted in debris flows that knocked out power and damaged numerous properties along Sweetwater Road, where about 200 people live.

Damage to public property alone cost about $190,000 and estimates for private property damage are still being figured. Smith said ranchers experienced the brunt of the damage. Hayfields and pastures for livestock have been ruined, homes have been surrounded by mud and rock - and homeowners insurance isn't covering it.

"It's basically considered an act of God," said Annie Schmidt, explaining why her insurance company isn't helping her family. "There's still about 3 feet of mud around the house. I don't know when we'll be able to replace the landscaping."

Her hot tub is buried, too.

Like other Sweetwater residents, though, Schmidt was reluctant to complain of hardship. When first asked, several residents shrugged off their stories and mentioned someone who had it worse. Then that person would do the same, and mention how the other person had it tough. Only then did details start to emerge. Bottom line - the Sweetwater victims are in it together.

"It's hard living up here and everybody has such a strong heart," said Schmidt, who has lived there 15 years.

Stephens was buying supplies to fix a livestock fence last week.

"I lost a lot of fence," he said. "It's a miracle my kids' 4-H steers are alive. Their pen filled up with debris. They should have drowned."

Later that week, the steers were sold at the 4-H Club Livestock Auction at the Eagle County Fair and Rodeo. They sold for a "fair amount of money," Stephens said, remarking at his family's luck.

Properties along Sweetwater Road are generally designed for flood mitigation, with dams and ditches in place to protect homes from runoff. Sometimes, however, even those measures are overwhelmed.

Schmidt's property has two ravines that divert water to either side of the house.

"They did what they were supposed to do but there was so much mud," she said. "Seeing it happen was scary."

She said they were outside checking for clogged gutters when they heavy rain was becoming heavier. (One of the residents described the rain as having "no gaps between the drops.") Schmidt said they heard the debris flow before they saw it.

"We were outside and heard rocks rumble," she said. "Then we saw it and there was a second surge of rain. We thought, 'here it comes, we better get back inside.'"

The tumbling rocks were thunderous and soon the power was knocked out. One of Schmidt's neighbors also got stuck on the road nearby and took refuge with the family, leaving the car were it was.

"We assured the children that we were safe but kept them away from the plate-glass windows, not knowing what might come through the house," Schmidt said of her 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son.

Meanwhile, county crews and others toiled to reopen the roads and restore power, which was basically an all-night job.

On Aug. 6, more mud and rock slides happened in the area but weren't as severe.

"The ditches and culverts are so full, the rain quickly overflows and goes into the roads," Schmidt said. "Mud is still everywhere. You do feel isolated when talking to friends who live in Eagle and they don't understand what you're talking about."

These stories come out with cheery voices and the word "lucky" comes up often. The residents are grateful for all the help from the county and friends, and are generally making the best of things.

"We recently got together for some mudslide cocktails," Schmidt said.

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The VailDaily Updated Aug 15, 2012 01:38PM Published Aug 15, 2012 01:35PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.