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Colorado flood: One family's harrowing, miles-long escape on foot

By Jenney Deam

11:00 AM EDT, September 14, 2013

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LONGMONT, Colo. — David and Lisa Sangelo loved the view from the deck of their home perched on a hillside: the sweetly churning St. Vrain River, green, rolling hillsides, rustic homes, a lightly traveled highway connecting them to civilization.

But this week their bucolic landscape began to turn on them. At 2 a.m. Thursday, sirens wailed and a booming voice came over emergency system speakers that are scattered throughout the valley. “Impending flood,” it warned. “Seek higher ground immediately.” The phone rang with a robo-call telling residents to seek safety. The relentless rain became violent.

Yet David and Lisa remained calm.

“I got up with the sirens, looked at the valley and figured we were on high enough ground,” David said. They went back to sleep.

About five hours later, the family awoke to view “total devastation,” David said. The river had turned into a muddy rapid that had washed away chunks of the road below their home. The long driveway now ended in the muddy swirls.

“The whole valley had turned into a raging rapid with debris, propane tanks, whole trees, a refrigerator, a big roof of a house just floating by. Houses were under water,” he said.

Their home had no power, no phone, no Internet. And they had no way of knowing what to do.

Sensing that the house would be safe on the hillside, David decided to leave Lisa and their two children and try to walk to the town of Lyons about two miles away for help. David, 49, also needed to get to a pharmacy for his anti-seizure medication.  

He nearly made it. When the roadway disappeared beneath the currents, he had to turn back.

David and Lisa slept in shifts for the next 24 hours. But they remained cut off from all communication; cellphones were inoperable. He decided to try the trek again Friday morning when the rain subsided.

“If I lost my footing, I would be dead,” he said. He made it to Lyons, where emergency personnel told him to evacuate, like thousands of other Coloradans who have been flooded out by rain of biblical force.

“But my family is back home,” he protested. Unfortunately, there was no way even a military-style vehicle could reach them. He headed back alone.  

Late Friday the couple decided to hike out of the valley. Like refugees, each child took one backpack. The couple packed a single suitcase. David had already walked the route twice. He knew that if they could just cling to the hillside they could make it out. The rain had let up.

The family held hands in a line, followed by their big Akita dog.

“We were holding hands so tight, we were holding on to the kids. We started to slip and slide,” he said. A stranger who also was attempting to escape caught up to them and helped steady the kids, Noah, 10, and Casey, 7.

They joked about Noah’s’ name — the situation certainly called for an ark.

They focused on the walk, not the wild water, and managed to make it to the evacuation zone in Lyons, where they were joined by dozens of other evacuees. They got into military-style rescue vehicles and were taken to Longmont.

“It was really cool,” young Noah said. “There were these straps I had to hold on to.”

David expects it to be two weeks before they can get back home, and they will stay with friends in the meantime. “I think the house will be all right, but the whole landscape has changed,” he said.

As for the future, all they can do for now — in the larger sense — is duplicate how they reached safety. “We are just taking it one step at a time,” he said.

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