Deborah J. Haynes

Marilyn Brown Interviews Deborah J. Haynes About the Jamestown Flood

Marilyn Brown is Professor of Art History at the University of Colorado Boulder. She is a specialist in nineteenth-century French art and a survivor of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. My recent interview with her summarizes the past two months.

MB: Please tell us about your house and its surroundings before the flood.

DJH: My husband David and I purchased a one-acre site in Jamestown in late 1998, about 15 miles northwest of Boulder. We began calling the place “Ivydell” immediately. I. V. Yarous and his wife Della, who had a cabin there in the 1930s, hung a small wooden sign on their cabin porch with this name.

In my 2009 Book of This Place, I described the process of developing the site into a contemplative garden with paths, benches and “perches” for sitting, and marble sculptures on which I had carved words. In addition to the modest house, there were originally three other buildings: a small office that David used for preparing his books of financial tables, the original outhouse, and a studio/shop. A couple of years ago when I needed a place for my stone and tools, we placed another 10'x14' building beside the studio. I called it the “Stone Studio,” but in 2011-12 transformed it into a meditation cabin. I found tremendous solace at Ivydell from 1999 until this past September; it was a place of calm in the midst of the hurly-burly of daily work life.

MB: Could you describe the circumstances of the flood, including your dangerous return to the house at one point?

DJH: At 1 a.m. on September 12, 2013, a dear friend called to tell me that one of our neighbors had just died in a mudslide that crushed his house. A few minutes later, a reverse 911 call informed us to get to higher ground immediately because of the flash flood. As we were throwing a few things together to put in the car, two members of the Jamestown fire department knocked on the door to tell us to move quickly. The creek had become a river—many rivers really—that jumped its banks.

We drove the car to the street above us and went immediately to the Jamestown School, which had become an evacuation shelter for the town’s 300 residents. Two of our friends, who lived even higher up the mountain, invited us to sleep at their house, and we spent that first night watching television accounts of the flooding. At first we had phone and internet, but when the electricity went out the next morning, we walked down to the school to talk with others and wander along that upper bank where we watched the ongoing destruction of homes, roads, and one of the two main bridges. To say that this was unsettling is an understatement: we watched as the town infrastructure went downstream.

Mid-morning on Friday the 13th, I decided to climb down the hill from the school to the back of our property. Foolishly, I did not tell anyone, because I knew they would try to stop me. Everyone was aware of the water’s dangerous destructive power, and at this point it seemed likely that the entire Lower Main St. would be destroyed. David and our young friend Hans had built a path with a rope handhold a few years ago, and I traversed the muddy slope, gripping that rope. I was able to ford the river where it was shallow and entered the house through about five inches of water that streamed over the porch. I raced through the house, grabbing two large backpacks, a few clothes, Etruscan statuettes that David intended to donate to Bowdoin College, some of my recent art, and a bag of art supplies. When I returned to the side door, the water was a foot deep on the porch, and I could no longer cross the swirling river. Loaded down and holding the porch pole, I tried to step in, but immediately lost my footing. Using the bit of adrenaline that remained, I threw each of my four bags across the river, and waded around the house until I found a shallower, less frenzied place to cross. Needless to say, I was exhausted and shaken by this effort.

Later that afternoon, I sat with David and three friends on a bench overlooking the site. Four rivers swirled around the buildings, six- or seven-foot waves slapping onto the side of the house. I could not imagine that the house would survive this onslaught, and began trying to accept that nothing would remain within a few hours. I was, in that moment, very glad that I had entered the house earlier to claim a few precious items.

MB: What happened with your evacuation and finding a place to live?

DJH: Our airlift evacuation from Jamestown occurred mid-afternoon on September 13th. We heard that the first Army twin-engine Chinook helicopter had arrived in Elysian Park to the east of town to begin the evacuation; and we decided belatedly that we would try to make it down to the park. In the end, David and I were the last two people to get on. The Chinook lifted off immediately, leaving the back flap door open, so that we could see the mountains as we headed east toward Boulder. People were grim, crying, or sitting silently because the noise was overwhelming. In that moment I felt tremendous sadness about having lost that precious environment and community.

Since I was the last person on the helicopter, I was the first person off when we landed. At the Boulder airport I was interviewed by the Daily Camera—the interview is still online at

Having received many offers of temporary housing, I decided that we would stay with Tom and Judy Potter, good friends whom David knows quite well. We were with them and their dear cat Rue for 16 days. We then moved into a rental house in Longmont, about 12 miles NE of Boulder. Mark Smith, a member of my Buddhist sangha, took the “Sunset House” off the market so that we could live here for six months. Built in 1952, it is a spacious house that suits us during this transitional time.

MB: Please tell us about the state of your property in the aftermath.

Civil air patrol photograph, September 16, 2013

DJH:  Miraculously, the house withstood the water, with relatively minor water damage that has already been mitigated. The studio, which was half full of mud, was completely cleared out by an exceptional volunteer group of Texas Baptists, who were in Jamestown for many weeks working with town residents to save what could be saved. The crew was able to find a few items, such as David’s family pewter and some unbroken china, but everything else vanished downstream. The land remains a jumble of debris, broken trees, and piles of boulders. A few marble fragments have been found, along with three of the complete stones. As of today, the interior of the house is still in pieces: flooring removed, drywall and insulation removed, sheathing, tyvek, and siding removed. It seems that we were able to effectively keep mold from growing, but with cold days and freezing nights, the house feels like a wind tunnel.

MB: What have you lost (materially and otherwise) and how are you dealing with grieving for the loss?

DJH: The compounded losses are heartbreaking. It appears to be one big thing: a house, some buildings, a town, a place for my husband as he turns 88. I lost my art—standing stones and benches, other massive marble from Carrara, Italy, and Marble, Colorado, that I was preparing to carve, and nearly all of my historical art—plus all of my tools and the site itself. It is impossible to encapsulate the pain of this experience with a few words. Obstacle seems to build upon obstacle. The sheer quantity of it all is overwhelming.

As I wrote in my blog some weeks ago, some days are difficult, full of grief about the many layers of loss. In the best moments, my personal loss gives me a new level of understanding of what others have lost in this disaster affecting thousands of people in Colorado, and for the others’ suffering elsewhere in the world. Just this past Friday, Typhoon Haiyan (or Super Typhoon Yolanda, as it is called there) pummeled the Philippines and landed in Vietnam, killing a yet unknown number of people and affecting millions of others. Learning about this on the heels of the devastation I experienced in Jamestown awakens a new depth of compassion for others. Being willing to even imagine others’ suffering is a profound part of my daily contemplative practice.

In sum, our community of 300 was devastated by a massive flood. A year’s annual rainfall (about 14 inches) fell in 48 hours, changing the course of the James Creek, destroying the town infrastructure, and wiping out my work of the last 15 years at Ivydell. I must say that at this moment, thinking about that typhoon, I feel humbled and less stuck in my own self-concern and suffering.

MB: Where do you find your strength?

DJH: This is perhaps the hardest question you have posed, Marilyn. I find strength in the love and support of family, friends, and colleagues, and especially from the energy within Jamestown and my Buddhist community. During two weekends in October, 14 members of David’s and my families came from Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, and Nevada to help us. Friends have offered so much care and emotional support, as well as clothing, food, furniture, household goods, and other material goods. The spirit within the community of Jamestown is very strong, with neighbors helping one another even as we struggle with differing layers of loss. My Buddhist sangha has been remarkable: I have felt the strength of those spiritual connections since the day we were evacuated. My meditation practice is also sustaining, in particular as it helps me to be less self-absorbed and more compassionate toward others. If I have learned anything through this entire process, it is that suffering is ubiquitous. No one escapes this life unscathed. And, everything is impermanent.

MB: So, what are you planning now?

DJH: To be honest, I don’t know what will evolve. For several years I have looked forward to this period of retiring from active writing, teaching, and administering programs so that I could return to studio practice. I don’t yet know what I am capable of as a visual artist, and I take inspiration from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He evidently considered Perpetual Peace, written in his 70s, as his finest work. But language remains a powerful tool for exploring and expressing the tumult and unexpected transformation of my life following the flood. Perhaps I will write another book. Perhaps I will start over and create a new site in Jamestown. One arena of pertinent research for me right now involves the environmental implications of the flood on the air quality and land contamination from mine tailings. We shall see what evolves.

MB: Is there anything we can do to help?

DJH: Right now, we are trying to raise money to rebuild Jamestown’s infrastructure, a process that will take years. Much information about this effort is available on the town website, All donations, large and small, are welcome. Much federal, state, and local support must be matched, and we are such a small community to do this alone.

Thank you for this dialogue!

   Contemplative Space
   Other Forms