It has now been over a month since the major flooding occurred in Colorado. While exact estimates vary, in the City of Lyons we sustained what experts described as a 1 in 1,000 year flood. Over 18” of rain fell upon each of the twin river canyons that form a confluence in the center of the town, with half of that amount falling in a period of several hours. What occurred on that occasion was not simply high rivers, but was a catastrophic event that will change how we live in this small town forever. The complexities of the human and natural systems involved in this event are as staggering as the devastating effects of the flood itself. A brief overview of these complex systems and their interaction as revealed by the recent flood event has inspired in me a newfound respect for the implications of complexity.
The first complex system brought to mind by this event is the deeply interconnected manner in which people live with nature, and how we commonly are able to ignore some major truths about the depth of that interaction. Normally, the situation in Lyons is that we do not have enough water. In this event, however, the sustained rain over 4 days culminated in a deluge that gave us all a new perspective and respect for the power of water. Water flowed in places it never has: through parks, around bridges, and straight through people’s houses. The muddy destruction was widespread, filled with natural debris intermingled with the remains of intimate belongings washed from houses. With immense power, water flowed through the town leaving a smell I will always remember.
In some areas, the torrents cut down and stripped away 4-5 feet of topsoil to reveal deeply embedded smooth granite cobblestones. These cobblestones are the product of millennia of flood cycles transporting once jagged rocks down from the high mountains and tumbling them into round forms. This revealed that, in reality, the beautiful land that our thriving town is built upon is a massive flood plain. While our human systems reflect an understanding of nature on our terms, such as “1000 year” flood, the natural systems are far greater than our human vision. What we consider a devastating event because of its human effects is simply a natural systemic event that takes place with some regularity, albeit on a time scale that far exceeds our general human planning. Our human systems built beautiful parks, festival grounds, and desirable farmhouses, all at the end of a loaded natural water hose. When the flooding came, over 80 homes were completely destroyed, some encased in mud, others literally washed away, leaving only memories in a debris trail extending to the plains below. The interaction of our natural systems with our human systems is the primary interface that changed this from being an ordinary natural event to a disaster.
One by one, each of the human systems created to sustain this small town were literally washed away in the flood. Most of the town’s infrastructure was built along the river. As the waters churned, we first lost our clean water; then our wastewater capability, our electricity, and our gas systems; then our transportation system as roads were heavily affected or literally washed away, taking away our mobility system. As the government system stepped in to disseminate information, we encountered a stark new reality – Lyons would be without major utilities for an unknown amount of time. In some areas the river had moved in its natural bed over 200′, covering our manmade water pipe systems with a more natural water system. All people were asked to leave Lyons for an unknown amount of time.
Our family was fortunate as our home was unaffected, but like all people in Lyons, we have experienced a huge and sudden shift in our systems of living. We have now spent four weeks in our house without major utilities, and only recently got electricity turned back on. New systems of living are emerging as we find new ways to do old tasks. The challenge of living in this way is a reminder that our modern infrastructure systems are relatively new developments in human history; our family has become acutely aware of the power and the preciousness of water, and why society has built our many conveniences. We rely heavily on these built systems, but as this and other major events have shown, they are more vulnerable than we want to admit.
Rebuilding our infrastructure systems is proving to be an incredibly complex task requiring an intricate network of people and organizations to engage together. In the immediate aftermath, the task of coping with the flood was far beyond what city, county, or state organizations could handle. The federal government provided an overarching structure within which all these systems would effectively interact, to begin the repair and restoration of an entire town. Volunteers from around the country joined to provide the people-power needed to help begin to clear the mud and debris from many homes. We expect these short term efforts to bring most utilities back on line by mid-November, roughly two months after the flood. However, the long-term work will take years to complete. The complexity of the systems involved to bring back simple utilities is impressive as private companies, local government, state and federal agencies, and individuals all interact in myriad ways. The scale of work required in rebuilding and restoring a small town is vast. I can only imagine what New Orleans was like after Katrina, or what Moore, Oklahoma still is going through.
Rethinking complexity in the context of this event requires an appreciation of both natural and human systems. What we term “natural disasters” are truly only events that greatly affect the people that live within natural systems, and our human systems prove to be much more fragile than we want to believe. But our resiliency and ability to grow and adapt to new systems is also vast. The complexity of the interrelated systems of our lives is enormous, and perhaps something that is beyond our full comprehension. We must develop new capabilities to look at our current and future systems and to become comfortable with the unknown – to test our assumptions about our systems so we can be prepared for the unknowable. We cannot prepare for every eventuality, so we must evolve our thought-systems to effectively operate in an increasingly complex world.