Julie Van Domelen's world turned upside down after the 500-year flood devastated Lyons, Colo.

BY ALETA MAYNE
 
PHOTOS BY KENNETH WAJDA



It had been a long, hot, dusty day of fieldwork in the rural African bush when Julie Van Domelen ’82 finally sat down in front of her computer at the World Bank office in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. She’d arrived there later than expected, after being delayed on the roadside for several hours — villagers had set up a roadblock protesting a military shooting of one of their people.
      Opening her inbox, Van Domelen found an e-mail from her husband, Joseph, that simply bore the subject line: “We’re all OK here.” It was late afternoon in Tanzania, so the clocks at home in Colorado would be showing a very early morning hour. Julie thought to herself, “Well, of course you’re fine. You’re in Lyons. I’d better not tell you about the day I’ve had, because you wouldn’t want me to travel anymore.” Fifteen minutes later, a second message came through: “I should explain. Lyons is flooded. Call me.”
      Returning to her hotel, “the strangest thing happened,” Julie recalled. “I went back to my room, flicked on the TV, and the flooding pictures of my town were on Al Jazeera — ahead of the Syrian War news.”
      Anyone 9,000 miles away from home would be shocked to see news about devastation in their town. But Julie Van Domelen felt an immediate responsibility to get home. She’s the mayor.




A slice of heaven
Julie and Joseph moved to Lyons with their 3-year-old daughter, Maya, in 2005. They had been living in Senegal, where Julie was managing projects as a senior economist for the World Bank. Considering Maya’s future, the couple asked themselves, “What kind of life do we want? Do we want to move to different countries every three years?” Julie recalled thinking, “It’s exotic, it’s the work I love, but there are no roots for our only child.” So, they decided to explore Colorado, where Julie’s family lives.
        They poked around various cities before finding what she calls “the charming town of Lyons” — ranked one of the best U.S. small towns by Sunset magazine. With a population of about 2,000, it’s 30 minutes north of Boulder. The municipal website — which is now dominated by rebuilding updates — locates Lyons in “the shadow of Longs Peak, all nestled in ‘as snug as a bug in a rug.’”
         The 1.2-square-mile Rocky Mountain burg sits at the confluence of two small rivers. The North and South St. Vrain Creeks meander through the canyons and merge in the heart of town. A music hub, Lyons hosts two big annual festivals on the riverbanks: the RockyGrass bluegrass festival and the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. In the summer, hundreds of people float down the rivers on colorful inner tubes.
With a paddle board shop, a quilt shop, two funky coffee shops, and a gourmet market with an artisan bakery, it’s an idyllic town with sandstone buildings that give it a historic feel.
        “I don’t have any links to this town — we were basically throwing a dart on a dartboard,” Julie said. “But it felt like a good place.” She remembers their first night there: “We were falling asleep to the sounds of this river that were so serene after coming from a chaotic African city with the noise and the smells. This was a little slice of heaven.”




Helping communities overseas
When they moved to Lyons, Van Domelen retired from her position after 17 years at the World Bank. But, she stayed on as a consultant, in a position similar to her first job there.
      Her international work had begun right after graduating from Colgate in 1982. She’d received a Watson Fellowship to study renewable energy programs in France, Australia, and Kenya. “I really fell in love with Africa,” she recalled. When the fellowship ended, she returned home to Colorado to work for the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy efficiency and alternative energy policy think tank. There, she spent three years helping develop its economic renewal plan for small U.S. towns through the use of sustainable development. She then attended Princeton University for a master’s in public administration with a focus on international development, which led Van Domelen to the World Bank.
      Her first assignment, in La Paz, Bolivia, involved developing a new model: “a social investment fund to get money to the poorest communities in the country for small-scale infrastructure,” she explained. The community-driven development model has since grown to be a significant part of the bank’s lending practices.
      From South America to Washington, D.C., to telecommuting from a tiny office in Moab, Utah, Van Domelen has followed a career path that has focused on “learning how to reach the most vulnerable populations in developing countries,” she explained. Her role has been overseeing the financial grants that aid those communities — managed directly by the people receiving them.
       Upon moving to Senegal in 2002, Van Domelen began overseeing the World Bank’s social protection projects in 14 West African countries. She also managed the HIV/AIDS funding to Senegal. As a project manager on five-year, $50 million operations, she carried a load of responsibility — from supervision and evaluation to ensuring that funds were used effectively. In addition, she monitored studies
that looked at the big picture of what the government was doing with its own money.
      “I’ve done a number of assessments that identify the vulnerable groups and sources of vulnerability in a country,” she said. The studies explore how those populations’ needs can be addressed, such as funding safety nets to prevent ongoing issues like malnutrition — as well as problems caused by economic and natural disasters. So, “there is a certain irony to my situation right now,” Van Domelen quipped.

 


        
Although she doesn't usually have her photo taken in the field, Van Domelen wanted this picture in Tanzania on September 12 because this man parlayed one bike into six and used them as transportation in the village. “I was going to show it to our economic development guy,” she said.


The other side of the table
The town of Lyons is a place where everyone knows each other, and “everyone gets roped in” to local boards and commissions. That’s something that appealed to Van Domelen, who craved a sense of community after globetrotting for years. “One thing I’ve never been able to do with the World Bank is feel part of the community where I lived,” she said. “I was always a visitor.
      “I spent so many years advising and evaluating governments that I wanted to sit on the other side of the table and see what it feels like,” she added. She began serving on the town planning commission and volunteered for several economic development projects.
      Then, in 2009, the mayor resigned for personal reasons. At the time, Lyons was suffering from the nationwide economic crisis and needed strong leadership. As a tourist town, it relies heavily on sales taxes, and revenue was down 20 percent. “It was a real fiscal problem,” Van Domelen said. Recognizing the value of her economics experience, she decided to run for mayor.
      Despite being a newcomer, “she pretty much won in a landslide,” said Kirk Udovich, who is mayor pro tem. He has worked with Van Domelen since serving as board trustee of the Planning and Community Development Commission that she chaired. “People were aware of who she was, what she stood for, and the positives that she could offer the town.”
      Meanwhile, Van Domelen’s husband, Joseph, had begun writing for the local newspaper, the Lyons Recorder. When the economic crisis was affecting the Recorder and it was in danger of shutting down, Joseph partnered up with one of the graphic designers to save the paper. To give full disclosure, Joseph prefaces all of his articles on the Board of Trustees with a disclaimer that he’s married to the mayor. “He pokes fun at us, but I don’t care,” Julie joked. “We get a laugh out of it, and we keep it very separate.”
      The mayoral position in Lyons, as with most small-town elected positions, is essentially volunteer, paying only a nominal stipend. “It’s a labor of love,” Van Domelen said. Somewhat unexpectedly, she discovered a lot of overlap between her international experience and running a small town. For example, “we may not be dealing with getting the first water system in town, but we still have issues with infrastructure and maintenance,” she said. “I get to put into practice a lot of things that I have learned, which is really satisfying. So now I’m squarely on the other side of the table.”
      And, Van Domelen’s experience as a World Bank economist has surely paid off. “She’s very well connected, and she knows how to become connected,” Udovich said. “As soon as she took office, she found different avenues to benefit the town.” Van Domelen joined various commissions in Denver and Boulder County, including the coalition of mayors from nearby mountain towns. "Her involvement in these groups has brought a lot of attention to Lyons,” he said. “We’re not forgotten because of her presence, and that’s been huge.”
      One of Van Domelen’s biggest successes shortly after her election was obtaining additional grants to revamp Main Street. The resulting beautiful new streetscape design inspired businesses to invest in their own growth. Then, the arts and humanities council jumped on board, and secured grants for art on Main Street.
      The revitalization became a critical mass, helping the town pull out of the recession faster than the state and the nation. “We were the town that people were starting to ask ‘How did you pull this off?’” said Van Domelen. Up until September 12, 2013, Lyons was considered a success story. “That’s what makes it so heartbreaking right now,” she reflected.

 


        
Up until September 12,
Lyons was considered a success story.




The 500-year flood

When Van Domelen received that fateful e-mail from her husband on that Thursday in September, she was in the midst of evaluating the Tanzania Social Action Fund, a community development agency funded by the World Bank. That particular day, she was stopping in the villages — visiting a clinic, classrooms, a road reconstruction project — to learn how they’ve managed the money.
      Although she’d had a long day in the bush, Van Domelen insists that the field trips are her favorite part of the job. “The people I meet are phenomenal, as is what they’re able to do with so few resources.” Van Domelen added that it’s inspiring to “see people who are so grace-filled in these circumstances that are much more difficult than we have in our country.”
      Originally, that assignment was to have taken her on to Madagascar, to evaluate a security and cyclone reconstruction project. It still seemed like a possibility after first talking with Joseph, before he lost cellphone and e-mail contact. But the more she learned, the more it sunk in that she had to return to Lyons as soon as possible.

 
The several days of “freakish continual rain” in Lyons had added up to “what we usually get in a year.” 
      “Biblical rainfall amounts” (as described by the National Weather Service) had besieged not only Lyons, but also the greater Colorado area. Called “the 500-year flood,” the Los Angeles Times reported that it damaged or destroyed 17,983 homes and 968 commercial properties statewide. The several days of "freakish continual rain" in Lyons had added up to "what we usually get in a year," Van Domelen said. The swelling floodwaters had changed the course of the raging St. Vrain creeks — those same waters that had calmed Van Domelen on her first night there.
      Water split the town into six isolated islands. Joseph and Maya were on one island, while Julie’s parents (who had also moved to Lyons) were on another. Bridges and roads were either submerged or washed away — including Route 36, the town’s main arterial to surrounding areas. Mudslides and rockslides tumbled down the mountains. Twenty percent of the housing was destroyed, including two trailer parks. Sewer pipes along the river were smashed, and all other utilities were wiped out.
      The entire town would need to be evacuated, but until National Guard troops could arrive, the community banded together. People dragged neighbors out of their homes, and “looking at some of these houses, you wonder how they got out,” Van Domelen said. She learned that her parents, who are in their 80s, were being checked on regularly. Impromptu barbecues broke out. Grills were fired up to cook meat as it thawed, and kids polished off buckets of melting ice cream. Taking the edge off the unsettling sounds of helicopters overhead, mandolins came out of their cases and played a happier soundtrack.
      When Julie told Joseph that she needed to get home, he responded: “Well, you can’t, really — you can’t get into town.” Even their daughter said, “Mom, it’s not so nice here right now. Just stay in Tanzania.”
      But Friday, she booked the next available flight, on Sunday.





Calling all angels
While Van Domelen was preparing to leave Tanzania, she asked herself, “What can I do from here?” Putting the Colgate network to use, she messaged her core group of about a dozen women with whom she’s stayed in contact over the years.
      “I was calling all angels,” she said. “And those contacts have been important.” Some — like a friend whose Mantoloking, N.J., house was one of those pictured on the cover of the New York Times after Hurricane Sandy — provided much-needed moral support. Others, like Penny Fearon ’82, put her in touch with people who could offer advice or even come to Lyons to help. Fearon gave her the name of a disaster technology group that later set up the town’s wireless Internet as well as a person at the Yellow Boots disaster relief organization who was already on his way out to Colorado.
      Colgate friends also gave her the names of small-town mayors who had been through natural disasters. “It’s helpful to talk to people who have been in this position, because it’s not anything you can train for,” Van Domelen said. “You train for emergency management, but you don’t learn how to deal with FEMA, the rules of the game, or the process for recovery. It’s figuring out that next step."
      And, the process is a learning curve, so it’s good to hear how other communities organized themselves, how they prioritized, and what they would’ve done differently, Van Domelen added. “Those are the kinds of questions that can save time on your part,” she said.





The silent natural disaster
Once Van Domelen was able to depart Tanzania, it took her three days to reach her family. A mechanical error kept her grounded in Nairobi. In Paris, she missed the connecting flight. Her plane finally landed in Colorado on Tuesday, and she joined 11 of her family members who were staying at her sister’s house in Boulder.
      Immediately, she got to work — and continued working for 24 hours. “There were a million things I needed to do,” she recalled. “We needed to rebuild our water and wastewater systems, streets, bridges, electric, and gas.” E. coli bacteria had contaminated the drinking water, and the wastewater system had suffered at least $1 million in damage. Evacuees learned these updates through a town hall meeting that was broadcasted online.
      The town staff of 15 set up a temporary office in the elementary school in nearby Longmont. With one intermittent phone line, the team was “making heroic efforts trying to move resources into place,” she said. “It would be daunting enough if we were a city and could put a whole department on it, but we had a flooded-out town hall, our finance department is a one-person operation named Tony, and all of us were evacuated from our homes as well, so in our free time we were trying to figure out where we were going to live.”
      Although the mud line stopped at Main Street and most businesses stood intact, the loss of utilities would shut them down for months. "So it’s this silent natural disaster going on, because there’s not a single chain store in this town,” Van Domelen said. “There are about 150 independent small businesses whose owners have invested their life savings to make a go in this cool place. They don’t make a ton of money, but they have great creativity.”

 
Although the mud line stopped at Main Street and most businesses stood intact, the loss of utilities would shut them down for months.
      Estimating $50 million in public infrastructure damage, Van Domelen said it’s been a challenge for a town with a budget of $1.7 million — even for a World Bank economist. “Sitting on the receiving end, I feel like I’m the village trying to get money from the national program,” she said, noting the twist of fate. “It’s a bit through the looking glass.”
      In October, the federal government shutdown compounded the challenges. For example, FEMA agents continued to work, but its website providing information on community grants was inaccessible. Other essential agencies, like the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Army Corps of Engineers, were all closed. In addition, Lyons had been approved for $50,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Revolving Loan Fund. “We had money sitting there that we could disperse, but we couldn’t get to it,” she said. The USDA was closed, too.
      In times like this, Van Domelen used Facebook as a virtual megaphone to provide updates — the bad and the good. It became a powerful tool following the disaster when people were dispersed to various communities and couldn’t locate each other. The social networking site also served as a temporary Town Hall, with video of official meetings.


 


        
“You don’t think it can happen to your beautiful little perfect world, but human existence is precarious.



Saving small-town America
Despite the frustrations, Van Domelen’s World Bank experience has given her a leg up on leading the town through the recovery effort. For one, budgetary lines that spike into the $50 million range don’t give her the sticker shock that they would for others. And on a more basic level, when there was just a Porta Potty in front of Town Hall, she joked, “I just came from rural Tanzania with squat toilets [in the ground].
       “I know how the rest of the world lives and that things can happen to places,” she said. “You don’t think it can happen to your beautiful little perfect world, but human existence is precarious, particularly in the countries I work in. So it doesn’t shock me to the core that something like this could happen.”
      By Halloween weekend, some Main Street businesses had reopened, and most of the townsfolk had moved back into their homes, including Van Domelen and her family. As in previous years, Halloween was a big celebration, with a parade and trick or treating at the businesses. But the festive spirit carried an underlying current — the sad realization that not everyone had homes to which they could return. Another glimmer of normalcy came after Thanksgiving weekend, when the kids went back to school in Lyons (they had been using an old high school in Longmont for a temporary location).
      Lyons has now shifted from emergency recovery mode to planning for the future. Dirt roads and temporary infrastructure stand in place, while watershed issues and permanent utility lines are being mapped out. The goal of building to be better than before has already played out in several ways, such as deeper gas lines that won’t be affected if another flood happens and higher speed Internet lines.
      Van Domelen explained that her mayoral functions have expanded into meeting with state and national officials to plan for the long-term recovery — not just for Lyons, but also for Colorado. “But, I love big, complex problems,” she said.
      Of course, a disaster like “the 500-year flood” creates problems that may not have solutions. People lost jobs or moved on, businesses are in danger of closing, and those who lost their homes have to decide whether or not to rebuild in the flood plain. To assist the broad spectrum of need, the Lyons Community Foundation has an active fundraising program for households and the Lyons Business Recovery Fund for the businesses affected.
      “We use the power of the small town,” Van Domelen said. “People step up — so we’ve got working groups of interested citizens who are trying to figure out what to do about all the affordable housing we lost, how to get people legal aid, and help them deal with their insurance companies.”

 
“If this were a place that had internal discord, it would be impossible.”
      Now, in the dead of winter, the businesses in Lyons — which bustles with tourists in warm weather — need more help than ever. The nationally known Oskar Blues Brewery has been leading the efforts in raising money through its Cand’aid Foundation for business grants. “We’re going to try to save small-town America, starting here,” Van Domelen said. "If this were a place that had internal discord, it would be impossible," she continued. “But we have a super city council, a fabulous town manager, and great citizens. We have a really good team in place.”
      Although the task is greater than the resources they have, Van Domelen said, “You’ve got to shrug your shoulders and say, ‘OK, what’s the most important thing we can get done today?’ And focus on that.”
      She joked that now that everyone’s so busy, the slow small-town pace has evaporated. Whereas people used to come into Town Hall to gab with the women behind the desk while paying their utility bills, there simply isn’t the time now. In fact, volunteer coordinators have brought people in to not only answer the phones, but also to pitch in on errands and even muck out homes.
      The changes in Lyons are perhaps most striking at the source of the transformation. “It’s eerie, because eighty percent of the town looks fine,” said Van Domelen. “And then you go down to the river, and it looks like a completely different place.” The St. Vrain riverbanks have disappeared, and the water has an altered course. “It is pretty jaw-dropping,” she said.
      When Van Domelen needs a moment to take it all in by herself, she visits the Apple Valley neighborhood, “which is probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen,” she said. “And it’s just destroyed. There’s a lot of work here to be done.”