Longform

Nine months after Colorado's worst flood, the musicians of Lyons are ready for a comeback

Page 5 of 5

When Gary McCrumb returned home from his exploratory mission to the creek last September 11, Jean Ballhorn suggested they move his valuable collection of instruments as far away from the ground as possible before they left. So they crammed a vintage 1989 Martin guitar, a Boulder-made Ome Sweetgrass banjo, a Fender Telecaster, an upright bass and more in the crawl space and atop shelves. McCrumb moved his two motorcycles to a nearby hill, and by the time he and Ballhorn drove away in his truck, the water was already flowing knee-deep through the ground floor of the house.

Ferguson was home at Planet Bluegrass that Wednesday night when he got a call from Sally, telling him that sirens were going off due to flooding. He went outside to find water already rushing across the ranch. Fearing that Button Rock Dam had burst and that the contents of Ralph Price Reservoir were rushing down the canyon in a twenty-foot wall, he scrambled into his car and drove to higher ground. He left everything behind, including his two dogs, Maple and Ranger.

Planet Bluegrass director of communications Brian Eyster lives south of the confluence of the North and South St. Vrain creeks in Lyons. He was standing with his neighbors, looking at the foot-deep water flowing down the street. Like most people in town, he didn't sleep that night. He called Planet Bluegrass the next morning and got a busy signal -- the phone servers were underwater, along with the computers and the rest of the organization's electronic infrastructure in a building usually several hundred yards from the creek's edge.

At that moment, Ferguson was standing with his family on the cliff adjacent to Planet Bluegrass. "My property had become a six-foot-[deep] rolling lake," he says. Early shot a couple of videos on her phone. In them, the water seems remarkably calm, flowing around roofs of offices and houses. Underneath the muddy surface, though, it was finding the weak spots in the soil and structures, gouging deep channels through the terrain and gutting buildings.

There was supposed to be a concert in the Wildflower Pavilion that Friday. In a text-message exchange that morning, a Planet Bluegrass staffer who lived in another town asked if it should be canceled. "We aren't having shows for the fall, at least," Ferguson replied.

That afternoon, he took his children to Sally's house, safely out of the flood's path, but he returned to Planet Bluegrass Friday morning for Maple and Ranger. From the St. Vrain's new banks upstream of the property, he traveled in an inner tube through the rushing water. He found the dogs waiting on his king-sized bed on the second floor of the half-underwater house. And with the flood at its peak, the three of them spent the next 24 hours sitting atop Lake Planet Bluegrass. By the morning of Saturday, September 14, the rain had mostly stopped, and the extent of the damage was starting to become clear. The storm had dropped seventeen inches of rain on Lyons and surrounding areas. St. Vrain Creek, fed by a torrent of runoff from the mountains, had swollen to ten times its typical volume. Floodwaters had destroyed or severely damaged the Lyons Town Hall, the library, a handful of businesses and 20 percent of the town's homes. It had wrecked crucial infrastructure including the Lyons Public Works facility, knocking out electrical, sewage and potable water services for six weeks. Bridges and roadways were washed out, isolating residents onto six islands.

The town estimates its recovery costs at $50 million -- a number that doesn't include the damage to private homes and businesses.

The neighborhood where McCrumb lived was one of the most inexpensive in town and therefore attractive to artists. It was also the hardest hit. Ranch-style homes were ripped from their foundations and, nine months later, remain slouched against trees. Bohn Park, on the east side of the area at the confluence of the north and south branches of the St. Vrain, was once a gently rolling field with sturdy oak trees; the floodwater tore it to shreds. A picnic table that used to sit by the road, away from the water, now dangles off an eight-foot-deep gash. Most of the park is closed indefinitely, save for a large area away from the flood's path that has long served as the Planet Bluegrass parking lot.

At Planet Bluegrass, the main office was ripped off the ground and carried halfway down the driveway, where it sank with all its memories and documentation deep into the mud. The monstrous creek dug a deep channel directly in front of the main stage, decimated the offices and left enormous deposits of mud and debris throughout the ranch. Several buildings that initially seemed salvageable turned out to have critical damage to their foundations and needed to be entirely rebuilt. But the old stone buildings from the depot days still stood, as did the main stage, saved by its height and the strength of its base.

Ferguson never seriously considered shutting down Planet Bluegrass or even moving it. As soon as he escaped Lake Planet Bluegrass with his dogs, he was working with ranch manager Chad Soulia to buy a dump truck. They found one in Colorado Springs. By Tuesday, they'd also bought a backhoe and hired several Lyons high-schoolers (no one else could get into the town) to join them in digging out their music-festival ranch.

The first public comment Ferguson made about the flood was published in an online publication, Bluegrass Today, a week after the rain had started. He assured the writer of the piece that he was "just power-washing the property."

Lyons licked its wounds alongside Planet Bluegrass. The town estimates that in the month and a half that businesses were closed because of a lack of utilities, it lost a total of $3.5 million in sales revenue. And it feared the losses would continue, with the route to Rocky Mountain National Park still largely washed out and most of the area's trails and parks demolished or inaccessible.

KC Groves was out of town during the flood, but she rushed back. The regular Lyons Jam that Tuesday could not be held at Oskar Blues headquarters because it had no utilities and the roads were gone, so Groves called Katechis and asked if they could instead hold it at CHUBurger, one of the brewery's two restaurants in Longmont. "It was important for us to be together," she says, "to stand our ground."

The regular Lyons Jam performers, including musicians from Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, Morrison and elsewhere, all showed up. So did an unusual collection of far-flung fans and supporters, including Groves's orthodontist. "It was the first time a lot of people in Lyons had seen each other since the flood. The energy was just crazy -- people were crying. It was really intense," Groves recalls. They decided to make the jam a benefit for musicians like McCrumb who had been personally affected by the flood, and sent around a collections jar. "People were just shoving money in there," says Groves. "It was out of control." They raised around $4,000 that night.

Groves posted word of the impromptu benefit on Facebook; so did Oskar Blues. The response was overwhelming, and Groves made the effort more formal, founding the Lyons Musicians Relief Fund. An oldtime string band in Washington raised $600 for the fund in five hours of busking. The Highland Ramblers, a Denver band, recorded an EP called Four for the Pour and donated all proceeds to the cause. Contributions came in from individuals, too. "The goodwill was out there; we just had to channel it," Groves says. To date, the Lyons Musicians Relief Fund has raised $21,000. It's a small drop in a very large barrel, when you consider the losses that many people in town suffered. But it's made a critical difference for many artists.

See also: Oskar Blues helps the Lyons and Longmont communities with Can'd Aid Foundation

Planet Bluegrass, too, was inundated with Festivarians eager to donate to its recovery. But Ferguson was adamantly opposed, reasoning that the organization had the resources to rebuild and a revenue stream intact as long as the festivals continued. He insisted that donations be directed to the Lyons Community Foundation, founded in 2007 to distribute funds to nonprofit public-service agencies.

That left Planet Bluegrass heavily reliant on ticket sales to cover the $1.5 million that Ferguson estimates it will take to completely rebuild. The organization did have flood insurance -- but only on two of the property's structures, as those were the buildings that insurance adjustors had initially determined were at risk for flooding. FEMA distributes grants to private citizens, but businesses struck by disasters get low-interest loans instead. Planet Bluegrass took out one from the Small Business Association for $1.3 million.

Nine months later, it has spent a million of that loan. The staff and construction crew filled up the dump truck with debris again and again. They poured new foundations and rebuilt the campground. On a wild prayer, they dug the servers out of the muddy office -- and discovered that somehow the data had survived. In November, CenturyLink ran temporary cables to a temporary office, propped off the ground awaiting a new foundation and sporting only holes in the walls where windows belonged.

Planet Bluegrass always puts tickets for its three festivals on sale in early December. Last year, those days happened to fall on the coldest December 4, 5 and 6 on record in Lyons, with temperatures ranging from eighteen degrees to eleven below. Soulia wrapped the servers in thick comforters, and phone operators in the next building (which at least had windows) bundled up in hats and jackets and huddled around a space heater.

Spokesman Eyster had been posting on Planet Bluegrass's Facebook page, reassuring Festivarians that the organization would continue as scheduled in 2014 despite the flood. But, as Ferguson says, "It's so easy to lose money doing festivals." To bolster confidence, Planet Bluegrass announced the full lineup for RockyGrass, including Béla Fleck, Sam Bush and Ricky Skaggs. The initial run of tickets sold out in sixteen minutes, faster than they ever had before. Telluride went even faster.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kiernan Maletsky is Westword's music editor. His writing has appeared in alt-weeklies around the country as well as Miley Cyrus's mom's Twitter feed.
Contact: Kiernan Maletsky