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Blast from the past: Epic blizzard of 2003 can provide some needed perspective

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By Stephen Knapp

“We had discovered an accursed country. We had found the Home of the Blizzard.”

— Douglas Mawson

Here’s the thing about things — they can always be worse.

Sure, the weather front that delivered more than a foot of white inconvenience to the mountain area on March 23 wasn’t exactly welcome, but it wasn’t exactly a White Apocalypse, either. Though slickery, most roads west of the Hogback remained passable all that Saturday, and by lunch on Monday the reliable Colorado sun had consumed most evidence of the crime. Old-timers will tell you it could have been a lot worse — and that 10 years ago, give or take a long weekend, it was.

On Tuesday, March 17, 2003, Colorado was battening down the hatches. With the gentle promise of spring just four days away, a robust low-pressure system was spinning north over Raton Pass, its luggage stuffed with a load of souvenir moisture picked up over the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico. An “upslope” pattern was developing, meaning that the dewy air mass would approach Denver from the east, bump up against a fence of Rocky Mountains and start dumping cargo. Forecasters warned that the Queen City of the Plains could see 2-plus feet of snow, with more likely in the foothills. But, hey! Most folks along the Front Range had heard that song before and were confident they’d be back in shirtsleeves and running shoes by the time the weekend rolled around.

The first flakes began falling on Evergreen during that evening’s late news. By the time the morning weather wonks clocked in on Wednesday, March 18, the foothills were buried under 25 inches of heavy, wet hassle, and the sopping low-pressure cell draped across central Colorado was still shedding water weight with both hands. The silent onslaught continued all day Wednesday, finally tapering to a dead stop about sundown. Any celebrations, however, were premature. On Thursday morning, March 19, the storm roused itself long enough to drop another half-foot on the way out.

Thursday afternoon the sun peeped down through shredding clouds at a civilization paralyzed, a landscape immobile beneath the deepest layer of snow to afflict it in precisely 90 years. (Numerologists will be interested to know that the biggest recorded snowfall in the area’s history left 46 inches on Denver exactly 100 years ago this year, in December 1913. Record-keepers of the time paid no mind to wilder parts to the west.)

Few gaping out their bay windows at the formless 10-foot drifts that were their vehicles could imagine how it could possibly be any worse. But just how bad was the Blizzard of 2003? The numbers tell the tale — Denver received a hearty 32 inches that wreaked about $30 million in damage. Highlands Ranch got 35; Genesee, 45; Ken-Caryl Ranch, 47; Pine Junction and Buffalo Creek, 48. As bad luck would have it, though, the Twin Cities of the Foothills took the brunt of the beating. By Oprah on Thursday, Conifer rested under 66 inches of snow. Evergreen was socked in by a blanket 72 inches thick. For those without an abacus handy, that’s 6 feet of I-won’t-be-in-today-Mr.-Peterson. Bergen Park topped out at 73.

“You just don’t think it’s ever going to be that bad,” Joe Jurschak is quoted as saying in a Canyon Courier story the following week. With a sick child needing attention and hopelessly snowbound on Skyline Drive, the Jurschaks had been evacuated to the high school by Evergreen firefighters. Longtime EFR volunteer Evan Soibelman remembers the call.

“We went as far as we could go with 4-wheel-drive, then snowshoed in the rest of the way,” Soibelman says, “carrying all of our gear.”

A valiant effort, but then in the days and weeks following the blizzard, heroism, large and small, public and private, was amazingly commonplace.

“It was a high-risk situation for everybody,” recalls Soibelman, an EFR assistant chief back in 2003. “The biggest problem was access. People needed medical treatment, or medications, or oxygen delivered to their homes. It was a 100-percent effort. All of the firefighters were basically camping out in the fire stations for days. Local stores donated food to keep us going.”

Early on, emergency personnel responded by snowmobile, snowshoe and pure grit. “We answered literally hundreds of calls on Wednesday and Thursday, alone. We were swamped.”

By Thursday, a pair of brawny military-issue tracked vehicles on loan from the Colorado National Guard were available for the most critical missions, but the yeoman’s work was still done the hard way. Firefighters responding to a South Evergreen attic fire were, incredibly, able to save the structure, and if a Murphy Gulch Road resident grieved losing his home to fire, he counted himself lucky to be rescued by volunteers from the Alpine Rescue Team. Dozens of stricken horses stuck in head-high misery were laboriously liberated by hand, and stalwart rescuers extracted stranded motorists by the bushel.

“We had multiple medical transports down the hill every day,” Soibelman says. “It was brutal.”

“When things are bad, we take comfort in the thought that they could be worse. And when they are, we find hope in the thought that things are so bad they have to get better.”

— Malcom Forbes

Those very few businesses that remained open were running on skeleton crews. Napa Auto Parts sold out a stock of tire chains that had been sitting virtually untouched on its shelves for two years.

“We’re selling a lot of shovels,” remarked an Evergreen Drug employee.

By Thursday evening, pretty much everybody who needed a shot of groceries had managed to find a way to the store, and by Friday morning there was little left to buy besides fabric softener and 12-ounce cans of creamed eels. Safeway, already stripped of bread and batteries, was forced to shut down completely for about 12 hours while a sagging corner of its ceiling was stabilized. It would be Saturday before fresh produce and milk reappeared in the displays.

And yet the mountain area’s Storm of the Century wasn’t without silver linings. Along with the snow, a remarkable sense of community settled over the region. Folks without wood-fired heat were invited to bunk with better-equipped neighbors. Families formerly on nodding terms collected to prepare meals on propane stoves and eat them together in good fellowship and television-free peace. Strangers made the rounds on snowshoes to help strangers dig out. Kittredge resident Gilbert Montez hitched his dogs to a sled and mushed his way up the canyon to Evergreen, and the sight of a lone cross-country skier making his silent, leisurely way toward the lake down a deserted, pure-white Evergreen Parkway beneath a clear blue sky is one that makes the heart ache for simple wonder. Also, county statistics show that crime was way, way down that week.

That the Blizzard of 2003 shut down Interstate 70 goes without saying. It would take four days to open that artery. Hundreds of less-beaten paths took a mite longer to clear, with some still impenetrable fully two weeks later. General power failures were only natural. Most of central Evergreen made due without electricity for four days. Many outlying districts remained in the dark for more than a week.

There were other lingering effects, as well. The roofs of hundreds of mountain-area residences were damaged by the unprecedented load, and a full dozen commercial outfits, including the Goodyear Auto Service Center, Evergreen Auto Repair and Peak Hot Tub and Spa, suffered outright collapse.

Mail service had resumed on a limited basis by Saturday, the 22nd. A full two weeks after the storm’s onset, exasperated postal authorities rather unnecessarily informed district residents that no attempt would be made to service the large number of street-side mailboxes still buried beneath gigantic berms of crusted snow.

Sunny skies and warm temperature typically follow spring storms, and for weeks that lovely weather caused big headaches for the Evergreen Metropolitan District. Rapid melting overwhelmed its Meadow Drive facility with a whopping 1.9 million gallons of water per day — nearly double its never-before-reached 1 million-gallon capacity. Finally, after taking a much-needed nap, local firefighters spent three exhausting weeks locating and uncovering every fire hydrant in the district.

The storm’s precise cost will never be known, but Jefferson County reported additional expenses totaling more than $1 million for the two-week period between March 17 and 31.

And then there was the emotional cost — the storm struck at the beginning of R-1’s spring break, robbing thousands of innocent schoolchildren of at least three guaranteed snow days during the storm itself. However, the voluminous amount of snow prevented buses from getting through the routes during the following week, so students did manage to get a couple snow days — despite sunny skies and warmer temperatures.

Finally, to avert having to extend the school year because of too many snow days, the district decided to open schools and told parents to drive the hundreds of students to school.

It was a good month before all parts of the mountain area had returned to something like normal. With snow falling hard on that fateful Tuesday night, Chief Hosa resident Joe Watt had the foresight to take his truck out of the garage and park it at the bottom of the driveway where it would have a fighting chance to get out. He left his Subaru where it was. For the next month, he and his wife, Laura, hauled everything 80 yards to and from the house by snowshoe.

“It was 28 days before we got the Subaru out of the garage,” Joe Watt remembers.

To some, the Blizzard of 2003 was a thing of terror. To others it was a thing of beauty. To everyone who saw it, it was a thing not to be forgotten. And yet, if history is any guide, it could have been worse.

“A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.”

— Carl Reiner