By John Vahlenkamp
About 1:15 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, education reporter Victoria Camron awoke me with a phone call.
After working that Wednesday evening, Victoria had stayed up, following reports of flash flooding in Boulder. By 1 a.m., flooding was being reported up and down the foothills, with torrents of water rushing down canyons throughout Boulder County.
“You’d better get up,” she said.
I logged on at my desk, launched a police scanner app and Twitter, and began seeing and hearing what Victoria was talking about. I called photographer Greg Lindstrom and told him I needed him in Lyons, a small town tucked into the base of the foothills, where two creeks converge to become the St. Vrain River.
By the time Greg arrived at Lyons, just before 2 a.m., the highway into the town was closed, so he stood in the rain, capturing photos illuminated by lights from a nearby business and from a sheriff’s car’s flashers, watching water pour over the road in front of him (and, I learned later, behind him), listening as unknown objects struck the bridge over the river just to his south.
Greg’s photos, and his eyewitness account of what he was seeing became the first Times-Call story I posted about the flood. It would be updated through 11:30 Thursday night.
Good thing Greg didn’t make it into town. (The National Guard did not get into town to rescue stranded residents until Friday morning. Greg talked his way onto a truck headed in, but that’s another story.) I would not have been able to send Greg back to Longmont, where I directed him to a mobile home park along the St. Vrain River. There, around 3 a.m., he spoke with residents who had been asked to leave their homes, and he took some of the first photos of the river, which by then appeared to be three to four feet above its banks.
After he stopped by the evacuation center, which the city had opened about an hour earlier, I sent Greg home and called our city reporter and another photographer. I told them to team up and head to the east side of town, where police were reporting flooding. I notified several staffers to meet in the office by 7:30; others I sent directly to parts of our coverage area. I assigned a reporter and photographer to Boulder County west of Longmont, including Lyons; a reporter to southwest Weld County east of us; and two reporter/photographer teams to Longmont — one north of the river and one south of the river, because the city had been cut in half.
For the next week, our staff covered nothing but flood news, working in early and second shifts, often 12 hours per day. It was the best breaking-news work I have seen in any newsroom I’ve worked. Every member of the staff stepped up, writing two or three stories per day, plus “flood briefs,” with online updates and social media alerts throughout their shifts.
Throughout that week, members of the public — in person and via emails and social media postings — continually thanked us for keeping them updated. The first complete day of our flood coverage — Sept. 13 — our website had just under 700,000 page views. That’s about 20 times the average.