Flash flood scours West Glenwood
and Heather McGregor
A fast-moving thunderstorm fed flash floods on Mitchell Creek and Red Mountain Monday evening, forcing the overnight evacuation of 150 West Glenwood households and the Community Center.
Authorities were uncertain about the damage more storms could bring, and were concerned about a large logjam stuck in Mitchell Creek above the Glenwood Springs Fish Hatchery.
No injuries were reported from the flooding, although four Mitchell Creek residents were briefly trapped by mud flows while trying to flee the rising waters.
“There was about four feet of mud on the road,” said Garfield County Sheriff Tom Dalessandri, describing the spot where the residents were stranded.
Undersheriff Jim Sears and Glenwood Springs police Lt. Lou Vallario – who will run against Dalessandri for the sheriff’s post in November – went up the creek and helped the stranded residents walk out.
Dalessandri said the cars remained stuck, “but everybody got out okay.”
Residents of Ami’s Acres campground, west of Mitchell Creek, reported no flooding in their homes, but the road to the campground was blocked by mud and debris.
Dalessandri ordered county road and bridge crews out to clear the road, waiting until later to send heavy equipment up Mitchell Creek.
Evacuated residents gathered in the parking lot of the Glenwood Springs Mall, where the Red Cross set up a wagon serving coffee and cold drinks. It was the third evacuation for the Mitchell Creek neighborhood, and the first to occur for a real flash flood.
Mud and debris also ran on Red Mountain, and authorities evacuated the Community Center and closed West Midland Avenue.
Dalessandri reported that a freight train was stuck in mud that flowed onto the tracks in South Canyon.
For many of the Mitchell Creek residents the actual flood was not a surprise. Their homes had been sandbagged in preparation and their bags packed in advance.
Nevertheless, the storm came quickly and they had only minutes to leave their homes.
“We left within three minutes of the call,” said Marilee Rippy, who lives with husband Gregg on Creekside Court, right on Mitchell Creek.
The Garfield County Sheriff’s Department used the newly installed Reverse 911 system to notify residents of the evacuation.
Gregg Rippy was upstairs putting his shoes on when his wife called up to him to hurry up.
“I could hear the roaring” of the flood, she said. The creek “is very narrow right above us. It happened so fast. I had the dogs on a leash. I walked upstairs and said, `Come on!'”
Since being evacuated twice in the last month for false alarms, the Mitchell Creek neighbors were prepared for the worst.
“We had been packed,” said Sue Hakanson. She and her family live on Donegan Road, also right on the creek. “I could hear the thunder and I said, `It’s time to go.'”
Neighbor Steve Weller, who lives on Donegan near the Hakansons, was also ready to go before the evacuation call came.
“It was hailing so hard, I grabbed my sleeping bag and left,” he said.
Laura and Rich Kolecki tried to make it home around 9 p.m. to the Glenwood Fish Hatchery where Rich is the manager. They were stopped at the beginning of Mitchell Creek Road by a deputy sheriff. But Rich showed him a pass and they were waved through.
“I saw rocks and water” as they made their way up Mitchell Creek Road, Laura Kolecki said. They got as far as the Bowles place below the hatchery and were stopped by the flooding.
“Water was splashing on the windshield and blacked out the headlights,” she said. “We were knee-deep in water and mud.”
“This was as close as we’ve come,” said Dalessandri from his vantage point on Donegan Road.
“It was a powerful, concentrated cell,” he said of the storm, which moved into the area less than a half hour after the National Weather Service issued a warning.
“I was notified at 8:35. It was initially supposed to hit Rifle. … We ordered the reverse 911 and the radio and television scrolling alerts and activated the evacuation plan.
“I got to the West Glenwood Fire Station by 8:58, and by then we were in a full downpour, with reports of debris flows,” Dalessandri said.
The rain mobilized debris on steep slopes charred by the Coal Seam Fire two months ago, carrying mud and burnt trees down Mitchell Creek.
But the mudslide wasn’t the monster that people have been worrying about, possibly because of mitigation efforts over the past six weeks, said Bill Kight, spokesman for the White River National Forest.
Crews removed downed trees and other debris to reduce the material that could be swept along in a flash flood, and installed straw wattles and other barriers to catch debris and mud.
Nevertheless, Mitchell Creek was filled with mud and debris, according to Dalessandri.
A channel that was set up between Two Rivers Chevrolet and Glenwood Springs Ford to receive mudflows filled up with mud, said West Glenwood resident Dale Shrull.
“There was thunder and lightning, and the rain instantly started coming down. I went outside and there was six inches of water on our sidewalk,” said Shrull, whose home was narrowly missed by the fire.
“It went as good as the other two times,” said Kight. “We got people out before the weather hit. People were ready. They knew where to come to.”
Evacuees from Mitchell Creek were asked to check in at the Red Cross vehicle in the Glenwood Mall parking lot so a tally could be kept of the evacuees.
In fact, the evacuations were under way before the rainstorm registered with two Remote Automated Weather Stations that measure rainfall and emit a warning if it reaches a certain volume. The stations on upper Mitchell Creek near the fish hatchery and on Storm King Mountain signaled a threshold was reached, but not before the evacuations were under way, Kight said.
At 10 p.m. families milled around the Red Cross vehicle waiting to hear if they could return to their homes. By 11:15, they got word that they wouldn’t be allowed to go home until morning.
“We need to see how much damage there is before we can let people in,” Kight said.
The Glenwood Springs High School was also on stand-by as an emergency shelter, he added.
Judging by the intensity of the storm, Kight said, “it wasn’t as bad as we expected. This kind of storm happens so fast. If it had been full force there would have been a lot more mud.”
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