Colorado flooding: State College natives lose all in landslide

In the middle of the night, Juliette Leon Bartsch watched her husband attempt a desperate rescue.

Triggered by heavy rain, a landslide had roared down the gulch above, pounding her house and engulfing her neighbor’s home several yards away. Through the mud and debris, Jonathan Bartsch and another Jamestown, Colo., resident started wading across to help.

Just then, another chocolate-colored wave came cascading toward them.

“It was like an ocean of water,” Juliette Leon Bartsch said Thursday from Boulder, Colo. “They jumped out of the way just in time. That was the most terrifying thing.”

Nothing could be done for Joey Howlett. The retired town shopkeeper, who cheerfully greeted his neighbors every day, died beneath earthen tons.

The Bartsches, both State College natives and Penn State graduates, and their two children were among the Jamestown residents who escaped with their lives — and little else — after flooding destroyed much of their tiny, picturesque town.

Airlifted to Boulder, the family joined thousands of others displaced in flood-ravaged Colorado from a devastating week of torrential storms.

Swollen streams and rivers from mountain runoff destroyed about 2,000 homes in 17 counties, especially in Boulder and Larimer, the hardest hit. Floodwaters also damaged about 17,000 homes, 200 miles of road and 50 bridges, causing more than $2 billion in property losses.

As of Saturday, the confirmed death toll stood at seven, according to the Colorado Office of Emergency Management. Another 60 people, all from Larimer County, were still missing.

For the time being, the Bartsches are staying in Boulder with fellow State College natives and Penn State alumni Chrissy and Christian Ellison. The road to Jamestown remains impassable, and might be so for at least a year.

Justin Bartsch, 12, has returned to his Boulder middle school. His 9-year-old sister, Gabriella, now has a new elementary classroom.

Ten distant miles away, their home sits half-buried, no longer a mountain haven.

“We loved this beautiful creek that we had our hammock next to,” Juliette Leon Bartsch said. “It was a very peaceful, reflective place for us. I can’t describe my anger at what this body of water has done to everyone’s lives.”

‘We left everything behind’

Other than the drumming of the rain, all was quiet in Jamestown — until a little past midnight.

“We were all asleep, and my husband and I woke up with this creepy feeling,” Juliette Leon Bartsch said. “We then just heard this sound of the land coming down and burying everything. It was just a cold feeling.”

In the early hours of Sept. 12, the onslaught slammed Jonathan Bartsch’s Subaru Outback and motorcycle into the house as rocks, 40-foot trees and mud several feet deep piled up behind the vehicles. That might have spared the family their neighbor’s fate.

“We actually think that created the berm to protect our house,” Juliette Leon Bartsch said.

She called 911, triggering a warning sent to homeowners downhill, likely saving lives by giving people time to reach higher ground. Though flooding demolished or severely damaged most of the town, displacing almost all of the roughly 300 residents, only Howlett was killed.

From an upstairs window, Bartsch saw her husband’s close call. It was time to go. They grabbed the children and ran out into the storm — a nightmare dash for safety.

“We left everything behind,” she said.

They first made it to higher ground across town, eventually settling in an emergency center set up in the elementary school.

Jonathan Bartsch spent the night shepherding older residents and others across the town’s usually placid but now raging creeks. He also went back to the house and fetched the family’s cat.

Stunned residents gathered in the shelter, dozens growing to a couple hundred, everyone unsure about what the morning would bring.

They woke to their town in ruins.

Houses tilted into foaming water. Scrap piles marked others. Roads had been scooped away as easily as ice cream.

A newlywed couple watched floodwaters wash away their home.

At the shelter, residents pooled all the perishable and canned food they managed to salvage. Cut off from the world, they planned out meals.

“We didn’t know when we would be rescued,” Juliette Leon Bartsch said. “It kept pouring. It was a full-on monsoon. It seemed like it would never stop.”

Jamestown didn’t panic.

It was a close-knit artists’ community before, the kind of place where residents shared garden vegetables, freely borrowed from each other and held fundraisers at the drop of a hat. An apocalyptic flood couldn’t wipe out their spirit.

People looked after babies. They rigged a zip line across the creek to bring needed medications to the shelter. They shared words of comfort.

“Everyone came together,” Juliette Leon Bartsch said.

Refusing to give up

The National Guard Chinook helicopters arrived on Sept. 13.

Juliette Leon Bartsch and the children flew to Boulder. Jonathan Bartsch, who works as a conflict mediator, stayed behind. With a handful of neighbors, he helped locate missing people and ensure everyone was evacuated.

“He carried old ladies onto the Chinook,” his wife said.

At Boulder, the Ellisons collected their bedraggled friends. Last Sunday, they had just sat down to watch the Penn State football game, recorded from the day before, when the phone rang.

Juliette Leon Bartsch listened in relief to her husband’s voice. He stood at the Boulder airport, fresh off the last Chinook out.

They have each other, their children and their friends. The rest will have to be replaced.

Like most of Jamestown’s residents, Juliette Leon Bartsch said, her family doesn’t have flood insurance. Their belongings are stuck inside a swamped house, for who knows how long. All that’s left from before is her Subaru, which her husband’s parents were driving in Yellowstone National Park when the mudslide hit.

In a past life, the Bartsches worked in Afghanistan with displaced people. Now they’re the refugees.

“We’ve been given clothing,” she said. “Many of us think we’re more fashionable now. We were given nicer clothing than we had.”

Three days ago, Jonathan Bartsch drove 90 minutes to the top of the mountain and hiked to town to dig out his wife’s microphones and other sound equipment.

If they still work, she’ll use them Friday. A singer who works for the Boulder library organizing concerts, she’ll appear with her vocal trio, Voxy, at a benefit concert for Jamestown residents.

And so, on those notes, a recovery grows. It may take a while, but she’s sure that Jamestown didn’t meet a bleak end.

“I truly believe the town will be rebuilt, and hopefully, it will be more beautiful than ever,” she said.

Her neighbors’ pluck give her hope.

As she and her children prepared for evacuation, someone gave them a carrier for their cat. They ran on board the Chinook, but just before takeoff, the terrified cat escaped and bolted.

Gabriella, followed by her mother, darted down the rear ramp and gave chase. But the cat disappeared and they ran out of time.

Justin, thrilled to have a cockpit seat up front, never knew. But his sister sobbed the whole flight, heartbroken.

She was still shattered when the third helicopter after theirs touched down. Off stepped a couple, family friends, with a present from townspeople who refuse to give up.

They handed over the cat.