Darla Sue Dollman: On Founding Wild West Weather
When I was ten my best friend and I used to lie on our backs on the grass at Sterne’s Park in Littleton, Colorado. We were watching the clouds. It was our favorite game, trying to guess what the clouds would do, what form they would take as the wind twisted and transformed them into sweet little bunnies or ferocious beasts in the sky. Five years later, on July 31, 1976, I once again stared up at the skies as the clouds transformed into ferocious beasts filling Big Thompson Canyon with 12 inches of rain. Eight of those inches fell in only two hours. In the Texas Hill Country, this would have been an average storm. In the Big Thompson River, a river that winds like a snake past steep mountain cliffs, this storm was a major catastrophe.
My family had recently moved to Loveland at the base of the canyon where a massive wall of water and debris burst forth from the canyon opening, tumbling over the open plains, propane tanks hissing furiously as they smashed into buildings and trees.
It was Centennial Weekend in Colorado and the canyon was filled with campers when the flood hit. The beautiful, little mountain homes and cabins, once filled with vacationers and unsuspecting residents, were snapped off their foundations like toothpicks. When the beast finally left the skies over the Colorado Rocky Mountains it also left $35 million in damages. It is believed that 139 people were killed. Some bodies were never found.
I wanted to understand this tragedy. I needed to understand how a simple thunderstorm could ruthlessly take so many lives and destroy so many beautiful little towns–Glen Haven, Drake, Glen Comfort. From that day on, my study of the clouds took a serious turn. I read everything I could find about weather.
Since that day I have had many close encounters with Nature’s wrath in the American West, many worrisome moments. My husband and I were trapped in our home with our two year old son during the Christmas Eve blizzard of 1982, our front door blocked by a six foot snow drift. In 1983, driving through Nebraska on the way home from my sister’s wedding we were trapped on the highway in over a foot of snow and spent the night in a convenience store restaurant.
On July 11, 1990, I once again stared anxiously up at the skies, waiting for my husband to arrive home from work as the Seven-Eleven Storm, the second costliest hailstorm in U.S. history, traveled from Estes Park to Denver leaving $600,000,000 in damages in its wake caused by hail that ranged in size from 1/4 inch to a baseball.
By 1997, I believed I was a Wild West weather veteran, having survived so many horrendous storms. My family started calling me Doppler Mom.
It was a dry, hot summer where I lived in Fort Collins, Colorado with red flag wildfire warnings. This all came to an end on July 28 when the rains began to fall–14 inches in one day. Tiny Spring Creek became a raging river. College students were jumping into the water near the railroad tracks on the north end of town, riding the raging waters onto College Avenue while the city’s emergency crews were on the south side of town trying desperately to save stranded residents in a washed-out trailer park. During a remodeling project at the Colorado State University library a massive collection of books were moved to the basement. The campus worked like a funnel pouring water into the basement and thousands of valuable books were lost. Seven people died and the resulting loss and damage to the city was in the millions.
I stood on my front porch that afternoon, nervously watching the flooded road in front of my house. I was watching television earlier when the screen went black. The emergency announcement was like nothing I have ever heard before. “If you are calling for emergency assistance, we will get to you as soon as we can,” it said, and that was all it said. My heart skipped. My son, a student at the local high school, was at the home of a friend on the opposite side of Spring Creek. I called his friend’s house and my son answered. “Hi Mom,” he said. I laughed. “When the screen went black, I told my friends you would be calling any minute,” he told me.
I told my son to stay in the house, but he decided he needed to come home. I was in a serious car accident weeks earlier and he was worried, so he climbed into his car and started back toward the house. He crossed Spring Creek and the bridge washed out behind him. I stared in shock from my front porch as his black car came floating down the road. He turned the steering wheel and it floated into the driveway. We bonded that day in a way that few people will ever understand–a natural disaster has a unique way of bonding families together.
On May 22, 2008, I spent three hours huddled in a basement closet with my two year old granddaughter, listening to one tornado warning after another until the final announcement–the small town of Windsor, directly east of us on the opposite side of I-25, was hit by a mile wide tornado with 165 mph winds that uprooted trees, killed one man, numerous animals including cattle grazing in the fields, ruptured gas lines, damaged 1,600 homes, and pounded the city with baseball size hail. Later that evening, when the tornado warnings stopped, I climbed into my truck and headed for the grocery store. I stopped at a light and gazed across a field at an odd sight–it appeared as if a giant steamroller had rolled across the land. The land on the opposite side of the road was fine. My heart beat faster as I stared at a stop sign flattened to the ground and I realized I had stopped at the spot where the tornado touched down. Welcome to Wild West weather, I thought, and an idea began to form in my mind.
Over the next few years, as I drove back and forth from Texas to Colorado, through Oklahoma, Kansas, and New Mexico, in blizzards, hailstorms, dust storms and freezing fog, past flash floods, dust devils and gustnadoes, I began to realize how much I loved the excitement of Wild West weather. I would call my daughter at the first sign of bad weather and she would log onto her computer and read me the weather updates. This has now become a game for my granddaughter whose favorite movie is Twister. My grandchildren love to play in the “tornado closet” while I pretend to drive in my truck and they type away on imaginary computers searching for the safest route to bring Grandma home.
And this is Grandma’s blog–Wild West Weather, a blog for amateur weather-watchers like me. Doppler moms and dads, students and grandparents–if you love wild weather, this is the place to be. Read about it, talk about it, share your memories and knowledge and I’ll share mine. I hope you enjoy your stay, but buckle your seat belt and hold on tight because this is the Wild West and you never know what’s going to happen next!
Darla Sue Dollman has a BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing from Colorado State University where she taught creative writing, literature, composition, and first-year introductory courses. She also taught Composition courses at the University of Northern Colorado and Technical Business Writing at Aims Community College. She has 32 years experience as a freelance investigative journalist and staff journalist for publications such as the Littleton Independent and the Rio Rancho Observer, and editor for numerous newspapers and magazines, including TV Guide Magazine’s Montana edition and the Niwot Tribune. She wrote restaurant review columns for many years for publications such as The Denver Catholic Register and Albuquerque Living Magazine. Visit her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Darla-Sue-Dollman/172206199498325
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