By Matt Sebastian
“This is insane.”
The Camera’s assistant city editor, Elizabeth Clark, sent me that text at 9:52 p.m. on the night of Wednesday, Sept. 11. When I had left the office about three hours earlier, our night reporter, Joe Rubino, was making calls on scanner reports of street flooding in Erie, east of Boulder. It had been raining for days, and this wasn’t exactly surprising.
But by 10 p.m., things had gotten exponentially worse, across Boulder County, and Elizabeth recognized this was a huge story. She and I texted back and forth over the next hour or so as she rejiggered the front page ahead of our looming print deadline, and worked with Joe to update our website and keep people informed via Twitter and Facebook.
Having already called our photo staff, Elizabeth decided at 11:34 p.m. that we needed more reporters, too: “OK, we need people. Ped bridge about to collapse at CU. Fourmile being evacuated.”
At that point, reporters Mitch Byars and Alicia Wallace — our only city desk reporters who actually live in Boulder — headed into the office, as did I, from Denver. Alicia never made it; her car was caught in the floodwaters at 55th and Arapahoe, and Elizabeth sent Joe, the night reporter, out in our staff SUV to rescue her. Alicia’s car was a total loss, and the two of them couldn’t make it through the high waters back to the Camera’s office. They retreated to Alicia’s apartment.
By 1:30 a.m., I made it to the Camera, despite most of the major roads into Boulder, including U.S. 36, having been closed. Through that first night, Elizabeth, Mitch and I listened to the scanner, made calls and updated dailycamera.com, Twitter and Facebook in an attempt to keep our readers informed of the weather disaster that was unfolding.
By that point, we had three photographers out in Boulder, including photo editor Paul Aiken, plus Jeremy Papasso from our staff and Matt Jonas from the Longmont Times-Call. Paul was able to get photos sent back to us for posting online, and, more importantly, was shooting and uploading what would become hugely viewed Tout videos of the flooding downtown, including CU students playing in the waters in flooded underpasses around campus.
We worked through the night, not really comprehending the magnitude, yet, of the flooding. By morning, it became apparent that in addition to widespread street and basement flooding in Boulder, which affected thousands of residents, whole mountain towns had been cut off entirely, with, we would later learn, hundreds of homes torn apart by water and mud.
That Friday, we staffed up and spent the day getting people out into Boulder and our communities as best we could — it would be days before we could get anywhere near the mountain towns — as the rain continued to pound Boulder County. That second night, Friday, was even worse, with more standing and rushing water on city streets, and Boulder essentially shut down. Once again, we staffed overnight, this time both by choice and necessity; while we planned to have Mitch and myself work the web overnight, Elizabeth and three other reporters were stuck in the newsroom, too, unable to get out of Boulder.
The rains let up slightly Saturday, and the airlift began — the largest since Hurricane Katrina. We covered the homecomings as mountain residents were flown down into Boulder on Black Hawk helicopters, and, eventually, would get on one of the choppers as it rescued residents near Jamestown.
Needless to say, we staffed up that weekend, with all reporters and city desk editors working at least one of their days off, and our tiny photo staff working, for the most part, seven days straight. The rains tapered off, finally, on Monday, and that’s when the real task began: documenting with stories, photos and video the lives suddenly uprooted by floodwaters across Boulder County.
It was “all hands” for at least a week, and our staff, each and every photographer and reporter, was unbelievably dedicated to telling this story, and telling it well. As journalists, it’s easy to forget or take for granted that what we do really matters. We deal with so much negativity these days it can take an event of this magnitude to serve as a reminder, that, in times of life-and-death crises — and we did lose four people to the floodwaters in our county alone — people turn to us for vital information.
It was immediately evident that the people of Boulder County were looking to the Daily Camera as a key source of information in a time of huge crisis, and I believe our staff more than delivered.
Some important lessons learned:
As a manager, it would be good to always know not just of where your staff lives, but what kind of cars they drive. Makes a huge difference when trying to send reporters and photographers into a flood zone. We deployed reporters quickly the first night, but hadn’t taken into account how hard it would be to get through the waters that were inundating Boulder.
Social media first, website second. The information was flowing so fast those first couple days, our priority was to tweet it out first, then get the site updated. In the past, we didn’t always do it this way, and, in our last major disaster, the Fourmile Fire in 2010, we certainly didn’t make Twitter the priority it now is. We did much better this time, and people recognized us for that.
Tell people’s stories. It’s so easy to get caught up in the “breaking” part of breaking news and just report the latest news and headlines, but there were many, many people in a lot of trouble, and we could have done an even better job helping convey what they were going through. It’s something I find we have to always work to remind ourselves of, but it makes for better reporting.
And, finally: Waterproofs pants aren’t really waterproof.