Flood Devastates Town but Can't Corral Cowboy Spirit


The annual rodeo in this small ranching community concludes this afternoon, professional cowboys a little sorer after having been bucked off feisty broncos and townsfolk beaming with pride that they were able to stage the biggest event of the year.

Just 12 days ago, Kaycee, population 250, was swamped with 4 feet of water as a flash flood ripped through town, carrying a 19-unit motel, the town's only grocery store, the Hole in the Wall bar and nine homes into the middle fork of the Powder River.

Harold Jarrard Park, home to the annual rodeo, was ravaged too. Situated alongside the river, its fences and corral pipes acted as strainers, catching all types of flood debris and turning the arena into a turbulent, muddy lake. Water flooded service buildings, electrical boxes and the aluminum bleachers.

Emotions flowed in every direction. Friends and neighbors lost their homes and businesses; the museum, post office, hardware store, tack shop and another saloon were filled with muck.

Should the rodeo be canceled? It had been held for 15 consecutive years, named the Deke Latham Memorial PRCA Rodeo after the 1986 car accident death of one of the town's finest bronc riders.

This was no small decision. The Professional Cowboys Rodeo Assn. twice has named this the "Best Small Outdoor Rodeo" among 700 such competitions across the country.

On the professional circuit, cowboys vie for every handful of prize money to qualify for the world championships in Las Vegas, and a victory in this small river town could lead to a neon chance at big money and trophy belt buckles.

Cowboys from Walla Walla, Wash., to Kansas City., Kan., had already made plans to pull their RVs and horse trailers to Kaycee, shaded in a grove of cottonwood trees alongside an otherwise barren interstate highway, 67 miles north of Casper, Wyo.

But when the floodwaters poured into Kaycee just after dawn on Aug. 27, all residents near the overflowing river could do was flee for their lives.

Rain, which might have been welcomed in drought-stricken Wyoming, had been falling for hours. Too much rain. About 4 inches here, and 10 miles away, more than 7 inches fell in about three hours. It flowed quickly down the rangelands in search of a river, heading directly for Kaycee. The National Weather Service notified local authorities, who began the evacuation. Neighbors called one another, and some ran from door to door, warning one another to get out.

Joyce Black, owner of the Riverside Inn Motel--a prefabricated building that previously had been used to accommodate highway construction workers--got the call and looked outside her window. Water was already lapping at the side of the building. She told her daughter and two grandchildren to get to the pickup, quickly.

"Within five minutes, the water was 4 feet deep," she said. "As soon as we put the dogs in a pickup, it started floating." They got into another vehicle and drove off, looking over their shoulders just as the motel was washed off its foundation and toppled over.

Nearby, Tye and Melissa Curuchet and their three young children were scrambling too, awakened by a neighbor. The couple led their three horses into a trailer before they fully realized the scale of the flooding. "We got the kids into the pickup when the water was up to our ankles," Tye Curuchet said. "And within 30 seconds, the water was up to our knees."

Down the street, uranium miner Billy Geis drove his three-quarter-ton pickup alongside a smaller one, rescuing a stranded woman. Soon, the water in his own cab was up to their waists. They crawled out through the windows and waded to high ground.

Such scenes were playing out across the town's small business district: people running, helping one another, then watching in stunned and helpless awe. In all, 28 buildings were lost and scores of vehicles were washed away, some turning up later, embedded in the banks of the river like flotsam. At least, they said, no one was injured.

A town meeting was held the following evening, and the question was raised: What about the rodeo? Its chairman, Ken Graves, already had decided in his own mind that it would have to be canceled.

But in a town hit hard over the last decade by a withering oil-drilling industry, the rodeo was the biggest economic boost of the year, with the bars, motels and small restaurants teeming with out-of-towners.

"I didn't know how we could recover," said Gordon Herring, the town mayor and a trooper with the Wyoming Highway Patrol. "We were divided among ourselves whether to put on the rodeo."

But talk at the meeting turned to the Wyoming can-do spirit, the memory of Deke Latham and how some of the nation's finest cowboys had made plans to come to Kaycee.

"We decided to go ahead with the rodeo and help the town help itself," Graves said.

Casper city and Johnson County officials already had dispatched workers, dump trucks, skip loaders and bulldozers to help Kaycee dig out. Other neighboring towns and counties sent help too. About 200 volunteers from nearby Campbell arrived with nothing more than shovels. Gov. Jim Geringer deployed National Guardsmen.

Within days, the town had doubled, then tripled in size. The Red Cross arranged emergency housing for the displaced, and the Southern Baptist Convention set up mobile kitchens to feed the throngs.

Severely damaged buildings were razed. Rancher Jim Ullery brought in 160 dump-truck loads of gravel to fill in exposed basements. And an army of volunteers attacked the rodeo grounds with a vengeance.

The volunteers repaired the electrical boxes, removed huge tree limbs that were lodged against the calf chute, bolted propane tanks back to the ground, cleaned the fences of debris and even carried off part of the Riverside Inn that had washed onto the grounds.

"I was watching all of this activity, and I just bawled," Herring said. "I couldn't believe all of the support we were receiving. From as far away as Billings, Mont., people in motor homes were coming, just to help us pick up debris."

By Friday night, just in time for the weekend rodeo, the work was completed, and the traditional free community barbecue was staged: sloppy Joes, potato salad, baked beans and brownies. Last year, folks donated $400 for the feed. This year, $1,100 was dropped in the cardboard donation box.

As businesspeople and homeowners were still considering their own rebuilding plans, the cowboys were arriving as scheduled for bareback and saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling, bull riding and barrel racing.

Texan Gary Allen, the world champion steer roper, looked over the arena in amazement. "If I hadn't seen the flood pictures, I wouldn't have believed there was one here," he said. "The grounds are in real good shape. Sandy, dry."

"This town," he said, "likes its cowboys."

Tye Curuchet, his home destroyed, said he would worry later about building a new place. In the meantime, his family is living with friends.

"But we proved to ourselves we could hold the rodeo," he said. "This weekend, there's a sense of starting over."

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