Episode 87: Colorado Flood Special: Conspiracy Edition
Recap: A special behind-the-scenes look at the development of mini-conspiracies surrounding the recent Colorado floods by yours truly.
Puzzler for Episode 87: There is no puzzler in episode 87.
Answer to Puzzler from Episode 86: There was no puzzler in episode 86
Q&A: There was no Q&A for this episode.
- Logical Fallacies / Critical Thinking Terms addressed in this episode: General conspiracy thinking.
- Relevant Posts on my "Exposing PseudoAstronomy" Blog
Claim: Gommamint Gonna Git'cha
Background on the Colorado Flooding
Disasters tend not to hit home until, well, they hit your home. To recap for those just joining the show, I live in Colorado. Until August of this year, I lived in Boulder, CO. In August, I moved to Lyons, CO. If you've never heard of it, I'll try to describe the geography:
Colorado is one of those western states that's a rectangle. Denver is the state capital and it's pretty much in the center, population around 640,000. It's known as the "Mile High City" because its elevation is just about 5280 ft, or one mile above sea level. Boulder is a quaint hippie-type town about a half-hour drive northwest of Denver, and it's around 5450 ft above sea level, or about 50 m above Denver, population around 90,000 with another 30,000 undergraduates when school is in session.
A further half-hour drive north-northwest of Boulder is the small town of Lyons, population ~2,000 in the town itself, more in the outlying unincorporated areas. Its pretty much as far northwest as you can get without starting to drive into the Rocky Mountains, and its elevation is just slightly below Boulder's. If you were to drive west-northwest another half-hour, you would reach Estes Park, a tourist town, population ~6,000, that's around 7500 ft above sea level. Another half-hour west and you get to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Lyons proper is flat and level and a river runs through the middle of it. I moved northwest of Lyons, up into the mountains. The county road you turn onto is about 200 ft above Lyons, and then you climb another 500 ft on a dirt road up to the house.
Colorado could be broadly summarized as a desert-type climate with rolling plains and tall mountains, but the state only averages 17 inches - or 43cm - of rain a year.
We hadn't gotten much rain at all this year. We were in somewhat drought-like conditions, even for us. And then, around the evening of September 11, it started to rain. And rain, and rain, and rain, and rain.
Estimates are that over the next few days, we got something like 15-20 inches, or nearly a half meter, of rain - all of our rain for one year, in just a few days. The ground quickly saturated and couldn't hold anymore water. Small, earthen dams that had been built on small resort properties in the mountains around me began to burst. Meaning that all the water was no longer collected or stopped in any way, it just flowed. And flowed, and flowed, and flowed.
I live in a house with two housemates. One got up around 6:30 to get ready to leave for work. The other, around 7:00. I was still in bed. I was in bed reading some weird email around 8:00 in the morning about lots of rain in Boulder and that one of my jobs was considering closing. And then a bit later, that the University of Colorado campus - my other job - was also closing for the day due to rain. At about that time, the housemate who had left at 7 came back and said he was here for the day, and the other one was, too. "Why?" I asked. I was told to look out the window, down the hill.
What was normally a dry gully, also known as the Little Thompson River, was about 300 ft or about 100 m wide. It had completely washed out the only way off our little mountain, trapping around 50-100 households. Over the course of the day, the water continued to rise, the rain continued to come down, and the news was showing stories of the same thing happening all over the area. At 1:55PM, we lost power.
At 1:56PM, the conspiracies started.
Preparing for Armageddon
The first thing to happen was that we shut off portable phones and laptops and the desktop computers that were on Uninterruptible Power Supplies. Next was that containers were set out on the deck to collect water. Lanterns were brought up from the basement. Frantic cleaning of dirty dishes from the dishwasher out on the deck in the rain. Accounting of all fuel and food.
I still had some internet on my iPad because I had have the Verizon chip in it, so I was reading the news. Talk about evacuations was in the news, but there was a resounding, "If they try to take me, I'm not going out alive" from one of the housemates. That was when I realized that I was watching how conspiracy theories develop around severe events.
I want to be clear before I go any further that throughout this, I was fine. We had enough food in the house for several months. Plenty of gas for the stove for several months. Plenty of water in the cistern because we were on well water anyway, and on Sunday, we collected another 65 gallons of rain water off the deck by putting out lots and lots and lots of clean buckets. The house was 500ft up from the river at nearly 6300ft elevation, so we were in no danger of flooding. We suffered a lot less than most people.
That's not meant at all to minimize the devastation of other peoples' homes. I have many friends and co-workers who have hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to their homes due to flooding or stuff just being washed away. The ground under the firehouse down the hill was simply swept away, and there is no firehouse anymore after it mostly collapsed into the river.
But, there are other podcasts to discuss that, and news outlets having a field day showing you all the devastation porn that they think gets ratings. The rest of this podcast is about how the roughly twenty or so people that I interacted with, trapped on this side of the river with me, reacted, and how the conspiracies came about and what some of them considered to be priorities.
FEMA Camps and Gun Confiscation
One of the first conspiracies, and by far the largest to come up was FEMA camps and gun confiscation because that's what happened during Katrina -- as in Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in New Orleans. This idea of forced evacuation to a FEMA camp and gun confiscation was very popular with most people I talked with up here, and it was very popular with one of the housemates.
It was literally that first day, Thursday September 12, that we started to hear of the first evacuations, not only on the television news before we lost power, but also via the news I was reading on my iPad. The next day, Friday, when we started to see the black hawk and chinook helicopters flying overhead, did not help to calm some peoples' fears of forced relocation to a FEMA camp. Remarks about, "Imagine a dozen of those [the black hawk] coming towards you with missiles loaded" made that fairly obvious.
At first, I thought it was just worry about forced evacuation. I honestly didn't think that would happen because other than being trapped, at least in this house we were fine for weeks or even months, even without electricity. Mandatory evacuations were for those people who were absolutely trapped and didn't have any supplies. But, the people around me kept talking about it every time a helicopter flew overhead.
There was even some neighbor against neighbor: People up here are generally friendly, and some of them work in an official capacity, like being the fire chief for the immediate area. The fire chief would say one thing, and then go on about his business, and people would turn around and say that we couldn't trust him because he was just being told disinformation that was meant to keep us in the dark. This was as soon as that second day, Friday, when a bunch of us sojourned down the mountain to look at the washed out road and destroyed fire house. Even less than 24 hours later, there was very much a, "us versus them" mentality.
Less than 24 hours after the flooding started, people were already saying that they heard different things from different people in some sort of official capacity. Consequently, it was ALL called disinformation designed to keep us in the dark. And that we were being lied to. It wasn't that we were in a crisis situation, and information was out of date almost as soon as it was determined, and that some people had older information than others. In other words, disparate information meant that it was ALL disinformation and that we were being intentionally lied to.
When we got to September 14, Saturday, and the National Guard showed up with in seven covered personnel carriers, things got a bit more crazy. When the housemates announced, "The Storm Troopers are here!", I decided to do this episode.
The so-called "Storm Troopers" made it across the river via the very temporary bridge that some folks up here had managed to build with help from a nearby quarry. As soon as they made it across, one of the housemates went to his room and came back with a 45 pistol on his belt, arms crossed. When I asked him if he really thought that the National Guard was going to try to take him or his guns, he said that that's what they did during Katrina. I asked him if he really believed all the conspiracy theories. He told me to look it up, that there's video of police officers going door-to-door confiscating guns in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, including them prying them out of the hands of an 87-year-old woman. I told him to warn me because I was going to hide in a closet -- blood stains are hard to get out of clothing.
In preparation for this episode, I did some more research into this issue, and it apparently did happen. To quote from Wikipedia:
A September 8 city-wide order by New Orleans Police Superintendent Eddie Compass to local police, U.S. Army National Guard soldiers, and Deputy U.S. Marshals to confiscate all civilian-held firearms. "No one will be able to be armed," Compass said. "Guns will be taken. Only law enforcement will be allowed to have guns." Seizures were carried out without warrant, and in some cases with excessive force; one instance captured on film involved 58 year old New Orleans resident Patricia Konie. Konie stayed behind, in her well provisioned home, and had an old revolver for protection. A group of police entered the house, and when she refused to surrender her revolver, she was tackled and it was removed by force. Konie's shoulder was fractured, and she was taken into police custody for failing to surrender her firearm.
However, on June 8, 2006, Louisiana House Bill 760 that prohibited confiscation of firearms in a state of emergency unless it was pursuant to the investigation of a crime, was signed into law. Since then, 21 other states signed similar bills into law. And, on October 9, 2006, President Bush signed into law the Disaster Recovery Personal Protection Act of 2006, which is a federal law prohibiting the seizure of lawfully held firearms during an emergency. Though, if you go with someone, you could be required to surrender it under the provision that surrender COULD be required "as a condition for entry into any mode of transportation used for rescue or evacuation." But, they can't just go door-to-door taking your guns, at least not since October 9, 2006.
On Sunday the 15th, a National Guard person actually did come to our door, in the rain; I'm not quite sure why it took them an extra day to go door-to-door. One of the housemates, the one who actually owned the house, met him. He said there was just him in the house, that there was no damage except a bit of leak in the roof, and we had plenty of supplies. We -- or, he -- was asked to evacuate but told it was completely voluntary. If he didn't, the National Guard folks would probably not be back, and services may not return for 30 days or more. We'd be on our own, and he wanted to make that clear but also clear that it was a VOLUNTARY evacuation.
The other housemate later thanked the owner for saying it was only him because that way when they came to forcefully remove us, they would only think there was one person.
After the National Guard person left, the other housemate and I got into a bit of an argument where I was called a crazy optimist and I called him a crazy pessimist. I figured that roads would be fixed enough to at least get out within a few weeks, and that we would have power back within maybe two weeks, but by Halloween - about 45 days away - at the absolute latest. He was trying to figure out if his lantern fuel would last through January. He figured that the utility companies don't care about us, we pay a mandatory $22.50 connection fee per month regardless of if we have power, and they would take their sweet time fixing things. And roads? They wanted to keep us helpless. I said we would see.
He ended up hitching a ride to town on Tuesday about noon so he could go to work and would just stay with his girlfriend in Denver. He left a few hours before we found out we could get passes to drive out and back, and two days before we got power restored.
Even after we were able to get out, there was more conspiracy. We knew that we could leave, but that it was a one-way road: If we left, we would not be able to get back. For how long, we didn't know. I was starting to make plans on who I could stay with in Boulder or Denver if I had to leave for work.
Once our bridge was fixed - amazingly in only three days by some dedicated private citizens who had a bunch of heavy equipment - we were able to get down the mountain, across the bridge, down the county road, and theoretically anywhere else. While Lyons had suffered from flooding, the main street that we would drive on to go anywhere was fine. But, we weren't "allowed" out because of what THEY claimed to be safety concerns.
The official statement was that everything was still dangerous and had to be inspected. Then, in true disinformation fashion, the claim changed and it was now that utility and construction and repair crews had to do their job and that we'd be in the way.
This was twisted by those with a conspiracy mindset up here into two things: First was the obvious disinformation because they apparently couldn't agree on what lie to tell us, and second was that we were being punished for not evacuating, that they don't want us out there, they want to keep us trapped.
Soon after, on Tuesday - five days after the flooding really started - we were actually allowed out. We could drive about 8 miles down the road to where they had been evacuating residents, to a church, and pick up a pass that would allow us to travel into and out of Lyons once a day and only during daylight hours. I posted to Facebook that I was headed to get my pass, and if people didn't hear back from me, it was because it was a trap and I was really in a FEMA camp. Since you're hearing this, no, it was not a trap.
But, of course, we had to show ID, prove where we lived, and show up in person to get our passes. And also, you had to give all that information if you wanted to register with FEMA for any payment due to damage that insurance wouldn't cover.
But, the conspiracy continued. It now morphed from, "We're being trapped up here even though the roads are fine," to something like, "They're just trying to exert control over our every movement." And back to the whole disinformation thing, clearly the roads looked fine to travel on - because they were letting us travel on them - so it was just disinformation that they had to be fixed.
In reality, the roads that we can travel on are, for the most part, fine. But, they all still have to be inspected by engineers to make sure that they really ARE fine. What looks okay on top may have had some of its foundation eroded and is just waiting to collapse, as I saw one road nearby and took photos of. And, repair, construction, and utilities crews all are rushing to reconnect and fix everything they can before it gets too cold to do so in a month or two. Every single car that drives by means that they have to be more cautious, pause a bit longer, or in some cases stop what they're doing and move so that car can go by. Limiting travel per the "official story" really does make sense. But, it's not hard to see how people who already have a conspiracy mindset will leap to their conclusions.
Interesting People: Can't Get Out to Get Supplements, and Every Conspiracy in One
On top of all that "they say" "we say" stuff, there were a few more interesting characters I met up on the hill. Well, two, primarily.
One was fairly harmless, and since her husband was leading the team that built our bridge across the river, and a levy to narrow the river to make everything work, I didn't say anything. On the third night of no power - Saturday - we had a lot of people over in a "Freezer Grill-Out" party because I had just been to Costco and had 7 pounds of chicken breast and the other guys had a pound or two of fish and two steaks. All in the freezer, all needing to be eaten that night or thrown out. The next night, they had several people at their house for the same thing even though they had a generator.
The two housemates and I were among the first to arrive and we were shown around their really neat house. The wife showed us around because the husband was still working on the bridge. The tour ended near her room where she does crystal work, incense and aromatherapy, and hypnotherapy. I sighed silently and went back down stairs after the tour ended.
What really got to me though was when she was talking during dinner about how we were trapped up here and even if we were to leave, we wouldn't be allowed back. She was incensed about how they might be okay about going to get necessary things like water or basic food, but that all the food was GMO and we couldn't go to natural food stores and also wouldn't be able to get our supplements from the nutrition or whole or organic food stores. I remained silent.
The second gentleman who was an interesting character is what I termed "Every Conspiracy Guy." Because he seemed to believe every conspiracy. I first overheard him at our Freezer Grill-Out party when he was talking with a group of people explaining that he was a Christian Scientist. Why? Because doctors are brainwashed by Big Pharma and the medical establishment from day 1 to tow the party line and they don't have our best interests in mind. When he asked a rhetorical, "Am I right?" I was on my way back to cook more chicken and chose not to respond.
He went on to talk about how GMOs are killing us, and to not even get him started on 9/11. At the party the next night, he had a ball talking about GMO foods with the crystal/aromahypnotherapy lady.
On Tuesday, two nights later, the remaining housemate and I had managed to borrow a 1.75 kW generator - enough to charge all the miscellaneous devices like phones and cameras and laptops, start cooling a mini-fridge, and even run my desktop computer for a few hours. But, we couldn't get the generator started. The housemate went up the hill to find a big strong man to help, and Every Conspiracy Guy answered the call. We finally got it running in exchange for him using our wifi for a bit. Unfortunately, two nights earlier, he realized that we were intelligent, me being a geophysicist and the other housemate being a rocket scientist. And, as intelligent people, we must of course believe the conspiracies. The phrase, "But you're so smart, how could you POSSIBLY believe the official story" was bandied about more than once.
Rather than be drawn in - though the housemate wasn't quite so lucky, or perhaps didn't know where it was going to go - I opted to clean the refrigerator for the next half hour while listening to them argue. It started with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. And how he's in construction and there's no expletive way that those towers could have fallen the way they did from those planes, and what about Building 7? I corrected the housemate's response that the steel melted with that it didn't melt, it just weakened, like you have spaghetti that's uncooked and it's strong, flash cook it for a minute and it's weaker but still not melted or mush, which is what happened.
Since I knew it would go on and on, I then asked him what it would take for him to not believe the conspiracy - what specifically needed to be explained? Otherwise, we could go back-and-forth forever. I think he thought that meant I was engaging because his response started with "Good!" and agreeing with me that we needed to talk specifics. So he said that he needed to know why the towers fell the way they did but then he went right back to me realizing there was no point arguing with him because he followed that up immediately with, "because there's NO WAY they can fall the way they did from planes!"
The conversation then went back to me cleaning the refrigerator while he continued to talk about the New World Order and how the Rothschilds and Rockefellers and Morgans own everything and are the power behind the power, they killed JFK, are trying to destroy the American dollar, financed both sides of World War 2, and then he got into Tesla. And how Tesla was going to provide free energy to everyone but he was shut down by JP Morgan.
Listening to him was like listening to several hours of Coast to Coast AM, but in a condensed version.
I'm going to wrap up this rather different episode by stating what I've heard Dr. Steve Novella state a few times, but something that you really don't realize until you're actually in that situation yourself, and that's how conspiracies can get started when they surround a non-ordinary crisis-type situation.
It's that there is so much information going around and it's changing so quickly as more and more data are gathered that anyone who already has any sort of natural distrust or dislike for the government or official sources of information can very easily twist that into "them" lying to you. For example, we were told by the national guard we would probably not have power for over a month, but it came back one week and three hours after we lost it. Was that disinformation spread by the national guard trying to get us to leave so they could sweep the house and take our guns? No, it was a pessimistic estimate by the power company who hadn't been able to survey what the damage was and didn't know when they would even be able to get their personnel and equipment to the various sites to survey and repair.
I was told so many different things by so many different sources and read so many different versions and rumors were spreading so quickly that if I weren't already aware of how conspiracies develop, I could very easily have fallen prey to it just like many others.
But in addition to that, I learned how some people act and argue their own pseudoscience or conspiracies. I especially found it interesting that there was an assumption that, because one is intelligent, there's no way they should believe the official story and must believe the conspiracy.
And I have to say that the housemate that was all freaked out about gun confiscation is not stupid. He's fairly intelligent and works in a technical field. But as we find out so often in skepticism, being smart does not correlate with how immune you may or may not be to conspiracies. Critical thinking is independent of intelligence, and it requires one to be constantly vigilant to decide if the most likely explanation is the official story or something else. It's not always the official story. But neither is it always the conspiracy.
With all that in mind and the fact I just got power back less than two days ago, this episode is being cut short. I am co-leading a graduate seminar to Yellowstone for a week that covers October 1, so the next episode may be out either early or late, depending on if I get it done early; regardless, the episode on whether Mars' moon Phobos is hollow will show a date of October 1, and if you have an idea for a puzzler for it, please send it in.
Provide Your Comments:
Comments to date: 7. Page 1 of 1. Average Rating:
Randy S Anchorage AK
6:56pm on Wednesday, August 6th, 2014
I was on vacation in Estes Park in July. I had a bunch of podcasts banked to get me through the time between long hikes. It was very cool that this episode happened to be one of them. I was able to see the damage caused by the Big Thompson River on the highway to Loveland. There must have been alot of panic spreading during this time. I felt your account combined with what I saw a year later, as well as accounts I heard from locals and friends in the area helped put these things in to perspective. Especially how a conspiracy can develop out of panic.
Brian Modjeska, California
12:02am on Tuesday, October 8th, 2013
I had similar disaster experiences in 2007. I was evacuated from my home for 8 days due to a wildfire. Then I was evacuated another 5 times that year due to post-fire floods and mudslides.
Tuatara New ZEaland
1:59pm on Sunday, September 29th, 2013
Great episode! While, as you said, not astronomy related, it certainly was a fascinating insight into the heads of some people.
Stuart R. Lyons, CO, USA
10:59pm on Monday, September 23rd, 2013
Thanks Rick. And that's weird ... I actually find these Captchas some of the more readable ones.
Rick K. St. Louis
9:21am on Monday, September 23rd, 2013
Thanks for the insight into how conspiracy theories start and grow. I found it interesting that guns were actually taken away in New Orleans.
Neil Perth Western Australia
8:33am on Sunday, September 22nd, 2013
Great Podcast - really enjoyed it and was a great example of how conspiracy theories can grow and take on a life of their own.
3:04am on Sunday, September 22nd, 2013
Hi! Long time listener here, and I thought this was an excellent show, very insightful of the mindset of people. I couldn't keep but wondering about how much this is an 'American' reaction to the situation. Here in peaceful Holland, especially the 'taking away our guns' issue is of course not even relevant, but overall I don't think the level of distrust of the government goes as deep as your examples.