It was a Sunday night when the rain began - nothing spectacular, as I recall. Kristen was living in the northwest part of the city north of us. She was going home from her week-end second job, but the police would not let her through on her normal route. She had to take quite a round-about route to get home that night. Our fear was that the dam above the city would break and flood her part of town.
This rain came roaring down the city streets, piling up against a berm, which was built up around the railroad track. The water backed up, destroying 98 mobile homes, taking 5 lives. I had no realization that these trailers were even there, though I drove by them many times. They were tucked in behind the Dairy Queen and some other business, obviously well hidden by trees. They were mostly very poor people in old trailers, so the tragedy was magnified for them.
The next morning I got a call from my boss, asking me to please call everyone on our list of employees to tell them not to come to work. There was flooding on our campus. I never dreamed of the magnitude that Monday morning.
As the story unfolded, the water had inundated the basements of many of the buildings on campus. One of those buildings was the student center, which housed the student bookstore in the basement. All of the books, some 60,000+, which were waiting for the students to return in one month and purchase for classes, were now floating around on The Oval, which is a beautiful, tree-lined area of our campus.
When school started a month later, the grounds had been cleaned up so well that the new students would not have known there was a flood. But the buildings were a different story. There were long lines snaking around the student center, waiting to purchase their textbooks from tractor trailers which had been driven in and parked on the plaza of the student center. It was hot. There was no air conditioning anywhere, and the decision was to work on the heating first, in order to be ready for winter. Huge fans were moved in to classrooms and meeting rooms - but nobody could hear what was being taught! There were videos played for students in the long lines to be able to see what had happened.
The library had just undergone a multi-million-dollar renovation, and now its basement was destroyed as well. The books and journals down there included all of the ones for the students in our program to use for their research and assignments. They had to use interlibrary loans for the first year at least. But soon after that the electronic sharing of articles and book chapters began. It has made research much less labor intensive.
So many books were destroyed. A company whose job it is to try to salvage water-logged books came to the rescue. Dozens of temporary employees began the laborious task of placing the books in boxes to be taken to Fort Worth, where they would be treated with dry ice. They spent many days on this task. Unfortunately, it didn't work, and they were still smelling of mildew when they were returned months later.
The building I worked in also had water in the basement which reached the top of the steps. When we finally were able to go back to our offices (more about that), there was a huge pile of water-logged books, furniture, research, artifacts stacked outside the building on the grass. Someone had made a sign and stuck it in the pile that said, "Mount Devastation." So very true. Below are pictures of the building and grounds just north of ours.
We were out of our building for at least the first two weeks - we were loaned a small office with one computer and one phone, in one of the buildings that had escaped the water. We took turns working one at a time, and the rest of us got some unexpected time off. I remember making phone calls from home, and having people call me there, because school was beginning very soon and we had lots of loose ends to tie up.
We were allowed to go to our building once a day to get our mail - it smelled horrible of mold and filthy mud, and was treacherous to walk. We were only allowed in there when a guard opened the door. This was to prevent looting, which is often the result of a disaster.
Many of the professors lost all of their life's work, art work, artifacts from travels, books they'd written, research in their basement offices.
The final tally of insurance pay-out was $100 MILLION. The very deeply disguised blessing in all of this is that many improvements were made that would have not been done for years to come. The first year was very difficult - all traffic had to be routed in one pathway - 24,000 students and 2400 employees "fighting" for space to get to and from class.
It took another few years to build up the campus and place flood walls that are supposed to prevent a reoccurrence. I'm not sure it would work, but if you were to come and visit our campus, the only evidence you'd see is a water mark they've placed in the basement stairwell in the student center.
If you are interested in reading more of this story, you can go to this web address: http://welcome.colostate.edu/index.asp?url=history_flood97_main