- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

DENVER (AP) - A large rectangle of dirt is all that is left of Doug Miller’s life from the days before the rains fell two years ago.

“That will be home one day again,” the 50-year-old custom home builder said, standing in front of the empty footprint that served as the foundation for his home of nine years. “That’s never swayed.”

But exactly when his property, located on a quiet block of Park Street near the confluence of the north and south forks of the St. Vrain River in Lyons, will be restored to a livable state is vexingly elusive.

“Sometimes I’m hopeful that things are going to start moving,” Miller said last week, as his dog Juneau wandered among piles of soggy looking asphalt that used to be the road. “And other times I get really frustrated.”

As Colorado hits the two-year mark since a historic deluge swelled rivers and creeks to overflowing, killing 10 and causing nearly $4 billion in damage across 24 counties, frustration is a theme for a surprisingly large group of folks still dealing with the storm’s aftermath. Hundreds of mobile home park residents in Evans, a city of 20,000 south of Greeley, are unable to return to communities that have been effectively scraped off the map.

The major access road into Glen Haven is still being put back together, causing repeated daily hour-long delays that result in unending headaches for locals and drive away tourist traffic headed to or from nearby Estes Park.

Only three of 17 homes in James town destroyed by a manic James Creek have been completely rebuilt, and a part of the population has relocated or hasn’t yet moved back to the tiny mountain town.

And then there are the dozens of Lyons residents, locked in a seemingly endless bureaucratic arm-wrestling match with town officials over attempts to get permits to rebuild their homes.

They confronted town leaders at a public meeting earlier this month demanding a more streamlined process for evaluating and approving their engineering and hydrology plans so they can move forward.

“We’ve spent a lot of money on this project, and we haven’t laid a shovel in the ground,” said Kitty Wang, who with her husband has lived in Lyons for 13 years and still awaits a floodplain development permit for a new house. “It’s a nightmare we keep trying to wake up from.”

Her biggest hope is that as memories of the storm recede, she and others like her won’t fade into oblivion too.

That includes Steve Childs, owner of the Glen Haven General Store, whose business dropped by more than 40 percent this summer as crews trying to get Larimer County Road 43 back into operation blasted open mountainsides and rerouted the north fork of the Big Thompson River in places.

The temporary road closures prompt motorists to turn around short of Glen Haven, as a man on a motorcycle did last week after deciding not to wait 40 minutes for a pilot car to guide him through the canyon.

“I cannot afford another summer like this last one,” Childs said of the drop-off in business.

$4 BILLION MARATHON

Molly Urbina, the state’s chief recovery officer, acknowledged that despite the billions spent to make repairs and provide compensation to victims of Colorado’s most costly natural disaster, problems remain.

The state, she said, has not forgotten about those still suffering.

“When we talk about disasters, we talk about a marathon, not a sprint,” Urbina said. “We continue to coordinate with local communities to assess and evaluate needs and priorities and to advocate for additional resources.”

Some of those resources have come from groups like Foothills United Way in Boulder County, which has raised $4.9 million in donations and spent about $363,000 for mental health services. The charity still sits on nearly $2 million to help cover the costs of at least 333 open cases in Colorado’s hardest-hit county.

“Folks who have experienced major disasters said we should expect a long-term recovery, but the sheer complexity of what people have had to deal with beyond their control or recovery workers’ control has been surprising to us, and really slows down progress more than we expected,” said Doug Yeiser, head of Foothills United Way.

Urbina said estimating costs for a disaster the size of the 2013 floods, which destroyed 1,852 homes and 203 businesses and created more than 18,000 evacuees over a five-day period starting Sept. 10, 2013, is a “complex, long-term process.”

“We understood that this would evolve as recovery priorities and projects became more clear,” she said.

The dynamic nature of the floods’ impact has played out in dramatic fashion since the one-year anniversary, with the cost of rebuilding in Colorado swelling by a third to nearly $4 billion.

The $1 billion spike, Urbina said, reflects the fact that initial cost estimates done in the months following the flood were rough. In the past year, more detailed estimates of what it would cost to fully repair and restore roads and watersheds in the state were made.

Specifically, watershed recovery master plans performed over the last year revealed that the true cost of improving flood-impacted watersheds would amount to some $600 million.

Last February, Gov. John Hickenlooper announced $56.9 million will come from a federal program to help restore stream corridors and prevent future flooding.

The remainder of the increased cost estimate since last year - around $400 million - came about as the result of detailed design and engineering work, which more clearly outlined the cost of building roadways that can better withstand future flooding, Urbina said.

Work will begin soon to redesign U.S. 36 from Estes Park to Lyons at an estimated cost of $50 million.

Also, individuals and local governments have found damage they initially didn’t know about or thought private insurance would cover, according to the Colorado Resiliency and Recovery Office.

FINDING THE NEW NORM

Rose Womack and her 79-year-old mother, both on fixed incomes, needed at least $30,000 in repairs to their Longmont home but got only about $9,000 in government relief money. Fortunately, they got help from volunteers and others that transcended mere dollar amounts.

Skilled laborers with the United Church of Christ Disaster Ministries and the Rocky Mountain Conference of The United Methodist Church tore out all the flood-damaged walls and replaced them at no cost. Lumber Liquidators called up one day and asked where it could deliver the new floors.

Womack chokes up a little when she talks about the buses of high school-aged children who descended on the neighborhood to haul away debris and re-establish the landscaping.

“They say there are angels among us,” she said.

A smear of dried mud still remains inside the garage door of her Longmont home.

“I think perhaps I left it there as a reminder of how far we’ve come and how things can change in the blink of an eye,” Womack said.

Few communities changed as dramatically as Jamestown, in northwest Boulder County. Townsfolk still mourn its one fatality, town patriarch and retired local cafe owner Joey Howlett, 72, who was crushed by mud and debris that tore through his home.

While insurance proceeds and grants replaced the 45-year-old, 1,725-square-foot fire station with a larger facility and Jamestown restored its water-distribution system, signs of nature’s wrath remain in the town of fewer than 300.

“It definitely hasn’t gotten back to normal,” said Erika Rae Archer, Jamestown’s flood project manager. “But we’re in the process of establishing a new normal.”

UNSETTLED FUTURE

A new normal is also being pieced together in Evans, where the Eastwood Village and Bella Vista mobile home parks were turned from once-vibrant low-income neighborhoods to empty, weed-choked lots by the floods. It’s not certain what will happen to the two properties, though Bella Vista’s owner is working with the city to re-establish itself at the same spot on 37th Street.

Nearby, the bulk of Riverfront Park, including a group of ballfields that hasn’t seen action since the summer of 2013, remains fenced off to the public - too damaged to reopen. The raging waters of the South Platte River tore up the surface of the park, unveiling an old landfill the city didn’t even know was there.

“The flood is the defining event of the city,” said Evans’ flood recovery manager, Zach Ratkai. “And the repair of flood-affected areas in Evans is a daunting task.”

While roads have largely been overhauled and $16 million has been set aside for fixes to Riverfront Park, Ratkai said flood-related repairs in Evans will be a fact of life for the next two to three years.

But the city just south of Greeley doesn’t have the money to front for repairs, Ratkai said, instead having to rely on reimbursement from federal and state agencies.

“Evans is large enough to be on the map as a disaster-affected area, but we’re small enough not to have a lot of extra money in our coffers,” he said.

Childs, the owner of the Glen Haven General Store, said his tiny community is also trying to figure out what to be post-flood. It lost seven of nine businesses two years ago, and federal floodplain rules make it nearly impossible to rebuild so close to the river.

His store and the Inn of Glen Haven, which remains closed, are the only standing businesses left. Community leaders are in negotiations to buy property that once housed horse stables for a new town hall site.

But Childs wonders what the new Glen Haven will ultimately turn out to be. He wonders if it can recover as successfully as it did after the devastating Big Thompson flood of 1976.

“It looks different, it feels different,” he said. “Are we going to be stuck with an inn and a general store and that’s it?”

___

Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com

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