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The great East Vail flood of 2003

Alan Braunholtz

Up here in the lost valley, we can get to experience a minor natural tantrum once in a while. A cloud burst dumping rain into water courses already saturated by a healthy spring runoff triggered the great East Vail flood of 2003.

Normally a pipsqueak, Bighorn Creek flexed its muscles, blowing out a culvert under I-70, then bored with the predictable confines of its banks, decided to explore a few streets and houses before joining Gore Creek.

We are a controlling creature and like to knuckle nature to our will. Consequently, we have affected it to an unprecedented degree. But every now and then, some chaotic event illustrates how tough it is to predict, let alone control a system as complex as the earth.

It’s interesting to watch our reactions to this perceived loss of control. You see it on every hurricane warning newscast. People staying home boarding up windows hoping to sit it out. Others fleeing the dangerous power of nature at full force, while surfers embrace the moment of chaos and monstrous swells to the frustration of the police trying to bring order to an abnormal situation.

Here homeowners stoically stacked rocks, bags of dog food, fertilizer and plastic sheeting to divert floodwaters around houses, dealing with the unexpected as best they could.

Kayakers slipped between sirens and flashing lights to cleanse their spirits in the swells of a blood red Gore Creek.

Public safety departments worked hard to keep all safe. Unable to instantly corral an unlistening and uncaring stream, they instead exerted their desire for order on the bemused citizens merely trying to get home as best they could.

While appreciative of everyone out there busting their butt mending roads and protecting property, many marooned residents ended up frustrated at the “one size fits all” solution to anyone trying to get through or around the short section of flooded road.

Can I park? Can I walk? Is there a bus that’ll take me through? I have children; I have dogs could all be met with a brusque “non!” that would have made a Parisian waiter proud. Empathy and explanations are as essential to rules as enforcement.

East Vail’s flood literally tested everyone’s ability to go with the flow.

Road closures can have their good points, too. For a few days I enjoyed the quiet of life in the mountains without the unremitting background rumble of the interstate – selfish and shortsighted, I know, since my job depends on tourism, but the serenity is very noticeable. I also shouldn’t forget that my solitude comes at Minturn’s cost. There are always trade-offs, and Interstate 70 is a better transport option than Highway 24 from almost any point of view.

I wonder how that 50-mile detour affected our driving habits. Shopping trips to Denver and Silverthorne probably got downgraded from essential to “later.” As traffic experts in Europe constantly discover, one of the easier, if contradictory, ways to reduce traffic congestion is to make driving less convenient. People become very efficient trip planners.

I’m guessing the migrating deer and elk enjoyed the temporary reprieve from interstate Russian roulette. They’re probably tap dancing up at Vail Pass and even in town I’ve seen no splattered carcasses, radiator grills or crushed windows for a couple of days. I still think there is a case to be made for lower dusk-till-dawn speed limits to save human and wild lives in high deer areas and seasons.

Now Vail’s summer tourism is in the hands of CDOT’s ability to work miracles of repair and I’m sure they’ll come through. We all like government departments when they’re essential to us. Who knows, maybe they’ll discover that a contributing cause to the culvert blockages could be all the gravel scattered on the roads every winter and then washed into the streams. This would be a big impetus for working out better ways to control all this gravel that threatens to smother the life out of every stream in East Vail. Fortunately for the town, our first summer event is a whitewater festival. National press coverage regarding floods and interstates being washed away probably helps more than hinders.

Except for those unfortunate homeowners swamped or still isolated from their homes, this little flood provided an exciting diversion to our normal routines and one that we’ll all learn from. Motorists discovered some spectacular Colorado scenery. Neighbors got to know each other. Stuck residents got reacquainted with old friends for unexpected sleepovers. I learned to keep a contact lens case and dog food in my car. I’m guessing sandbags will be pre-made in future big runoff years, and emergency services will efficiently practice even more scenarios and contingencies than they do now.

We may not be able to control or predict nature entirely, but we can adapt and get better over time.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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