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A Flood And A Flashback

By: Don Ward
By: Don Ward

The flooding in Atlanta reminds me of one of the most moving stories I've ever covered.

 Originally published in September, 2009

Viewers often ask me which stories I remember the most.  In more than 17 years as a reporter in the field, I covered thousands of stories, many of them memorable, few of them impacted me as much as the one I did on July 31st, 2001.

A memory was triggered earlier this week during a quick update I read on the news from the flooding situation in the Atlanta area. The script said something like:

"The latest victim is a two-year-old boy swept from his father's arms by the floodwater."  Imagine the agony for a parent in that situation. 

I immediately thought back to a woman who had been in that exact same horrifying situation decades ago in the deadliest natural disaster in Colorado history.  On July 31st, 1976, a stubborn and explosive thunderstorm parked itself over the top end of the Big Thompson Canyon.  By most reports it let loose about 12 inches of rain in just a few hours.  The rain accumulated and sent a huge and destructive wall of water rushing down the canyon, it took out everything in its path. 

In its path that day was a cabin belonging to the Watts family. 25 years after the flood, in 2001, I was working at KWGN in Denver (then WB-2) and I assigned to interview Deborah Watts, who was still in Northern Colorado.  Her story still moves me every time I remember what she told me that day. Deborah was in the cabin with her husband and their children when the wall of water hit, and demolished their home.  The youngest child was Aaron, just two at the time.  Deborah wrote a book about that day, and the pain that followed,  When I did the interview and heard her story first-hand it was heart-breaking.  Her pain so raw, even after a quarter of a century, it was still hard for her to talk about it.  It was also hard to hear about it.  Here's the way Deborah described that day in the book, the day Aaron died.   I'm quoting now from "A Flood of Memories" by Deborah Watts, from Legacy Press.

"..The cabin shook: lightning lit up the entire loft.  I looked towards the family room to see a huge wall of water 25 feet high coming towards us.  Aaron saw it too and came running towards me.  He cried out, "Mommy! Mommy! I don't want to die."

and later..

"I heard a cracking of the wood and then the floor beneath us gave way.  Aaron's arms were desperately reaching for my hand....my right arm was not able to function to grab him.  Aaron cried,"Mommy! Mommy!" for the last time.  Then I helplessly watched him vanish from my sight and grasp into the roaring flood waters."

I don't think there are words strong enough to describe that moment for a parent.  Deborah didn't try in the book, her narrative was simple.  She left the agony of that moment to the imagination of her readers. Her verbal description to me an 2001 was just as moving...just as difficult to take in. 

I've thought of that day, that story, that moment many times over the years.  Deborah probably thinks of it just about any moment of any day. 

Here's a picture of the book, "A Flood of Memories" by Deborah Watts, Legacy Press.

Here's a picture of Aaron from the book "A Flood of Memories" by Deborah Watts, Legacy Press.

She calls the story a tragedy turned to triumph.  Deborah says her strong faith is what kept her going through such a terrible time.  I'll never forget the few minutes I spent with her, listening to her story, then re-telling it myself on the news.  It's one of the many stories I've covered over the years, one of the few that comes back so strongly whenever there's a reminder....like that poor father who lost his son in Georgia.

We'll talk again soon

Don

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