For seven days, from Sept. 9 through Sept. 16, the sun was largely absent, replaced with heavy clouds and sheets of never-ending rain. Rocky Mountain National Park would close. Oil tanks floated in the floodwaters. Packs of National Guard transport helicopters took to the skies, flying as the rain would permit, to rescue thousands trapped high in the canyons that line the Front Range, caught behind mudslides, roaring creeks and broken roads.
From offices, oil fields, factories, laboratories and farms, one thing was clear. Colorado had just endured one of the largest natural disasters in its history. The Great Flood of 2013 had reshaped the commercial landscape.
This historic deluge will be catastrophic for many businesses. How many isn’t clear yet, although the Rocky Mountain Insurance Association estimates that one in four small businesses will fail as a result, largely because they lack adequate insurance.
For disaster recovery firms, paving companies, carpet cleaners and hardware stores, it will be a boon. For construction workers, it will mean jobs.
For average workers, it will mean months of detours as the region’s roads – and, in some cases, their employers – are rebuilt.
Nonprofits, many of whom saw key fundraisers halted amid life-threatening flooding, are in dire straits. The Sustainable Living Fair, a flagship fundraiser for the Sustainable Living Association, had no choice but to cancel the event held along the banks of the Cache La Poudre in Fort Collins. The cancellation, said executive director Kellie Falbo, put us “in a desperate situation.” The association lost $50,000 and immediately began turning to new fundraising efforts. Whole Foods in Fort Collins agreed to donate 5 percent of its Sept. 18 proceeds to the organization.
Xcel Energy Inc. had only begun to calculate how much damage had occurred within its transmission and delivery system. By mid-week, it was glaringly apparent that while electrical outages were comparatively few and brief in duration, the utility’s natural-gas delivery infrastructure was in bad shape.
“We have 7,000 people out of natural gas and it’s going to be a long, long process to get them back. All of our natural-gas lines are buried and anything in that flood area that is buried is damaged,´ said Xcel spokesman Gabriel Romero. “Once we get gas turned back on, we have to go home-to-home. It’s going to be inch by inch. Some people are going to be out of gas for months.”
Key industries in northern Colorado have been hit hard, some worse than others. Railroads and highways are in disarray. Oil and gas producers are mired in muddy water, with production in some flooded fields at a standstill. For the region’s giant agribusiness machine, the rains mean delays in harvests, but the overall forecast indicates the impacts to crops may be minor. At the same time, tourism has come to a halt.
Roads, rails devastated
The Colorado Department of Transportation was compiling a list of damaged roads and bridges and estimating the cost of their repair the week after the flood. A Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman could not give details to the Business Report by press time.
At least 30 bridges were destroyed, she said. Mountain highways saw the most serious damage, with entire sections of U.S. Highway 34 washed away by the raging Big Thompson River. The flood closed U.S. 34 between Loveland and Estes Park, Granby and Estes Park, and Greeley and Wiggins. Other major Northern Colorado road closures that lasted into the week included sections of U.S. 287, Colorado 14 between Ted’s Place and Walden and U.S. 36 between Boulder and Estes Park.
The transportation department’s priority was to fix roads around mountain towns that now have few points of access, such as Estes Park, the spokeswoman said. The town was only accessible by Trail Ridge Road, which winds through Rocky Mountain National Park and is susceptible to closure because of snow.
The closed roads complicated food-delivery efforts as grocery stores and restaurants shuttered their doors. Larimer County Public Health sent a team of three employees specializing in restaurant inspection and consumer health this week to the town to reopen food service businesses.
“They’ll look over the place, see what needs to be done and help give them guidance on how to reopen,´ said Jane Viste, spokeswoman for the county public health department.
The National Guard, emergency contractors and state employees will begin building temporary roads for U.S. 36 and Colorado 7 between Boulder and Estes Park as well as U.S. 34 between Loveland and Estes Park, transportation department Executive Director Don Hunt said in a statement. The transportation department issued requests for proposals the third week of September and planned to select contractors by the fourth week of September.
Sections of Union Pacific’s railways in Northern Colorado were damaged, shutting down a line from LaSalle to Fort Collins and causing delays on another railway from Denver to Cheyenne, Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis said.
Davis said crews would take days to restore service to normal on the Denver to Cheyenne line. The other line could take longer to reopen.
“All the customers that we serve in Fort Collins right now, there’s no rail cars going in or out,” he said at the time. “We have resources in place, and once (the water) goes down we’ll start repairing damage.”
Lost roads and bridges will affect the regional economy even after floodwaters recede, said Martin Shields, regional economist at Colorado State University.
Uncertainty about when damaged road and bridges will be repaired will pose a problem for places such as Estes Park. Three million people visit Rocky Mountain National Park annually, and they won’t be able to travel there on U.S. 34, the most popular route. Along with tourism implications, the infrastructure damage will affect the supply chain, raising local retailers’ costs.
“Infrastructure damage is so critical,” Shields said. “Without roads, your economy gets choked off.”
However, the region will see economic activity when construction funded by state and federal governments begins on damaged roads and bridges, Shields said.
Oil production halted
Multiple oil companies, including Anadarko Petroleum Corp. (NYSE: APC), Synergy Resources Corp. (NYSE: SYRG), PDC Energy Inc. (Nasdaq: PDCE) and Encana Corp. (NYSE: ECA), all shut off wells because of flooding.
Anadarko, an oil company with one of the largest operations in Northern Colorado, curtailed production at about 670 wells out of a total of 5,800, 20 miles of pipeline out of more than 3,200 and 250 tank batteries out of a total of 2,535 in the field.
Four of the company’s 13 production rigs stopped operating. The company was flying over flood waters to monitor the situation and had construction crews on standby to help with any potential issues.
“Future work will be delayed until road repairs and conditions allow for equipment transport,” the company said in a statement.
Noble Energy Inc. (NYSE: NBL), another large oil producer in the region, shut off “5 to 10 percent” of its wells and found two releases of natural gas among its operations.
“The amount of gas released is currently unknown, however, both wells are low-volume producers,” the company said in a statement.
Encana, which drills natural-gas wells around Erie, closed its office in Longmont and halted production from 397 of a total of 1,241 wells in the area, spokesman Doug Hock said.
As of Tuesday, 99 of those shut-in wells were back in production.
Shutting off a well during flooding prevents pollution and protects company assets.
“Until waters recede, those wells will remain shut in,” Hock said.
Encana crews were patrolling wells this week to see whether any spills had occurred from flooding, he said.
“We still have not found any spills of any reportable quantity, but cannot rule out future discoveries until we get to everything,” he said.
The company will keep the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission updated on what it finds.
The state agency said it was working closely with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, local authorities and the public to assess the damage. Teams of field inspectors, environmental protection specialists and engineers from the state agency were evaluating areas along the South Platte for damage.
“We have limited information about specific impacts or particular locations,” spokesman Todd Hartman wrote in an email. “But as the situation improves and more information is available, (the commission) will be working with state and local authorities, operators and the public to assess risks and, where necessary, provide environmental response and remediation.”
Environmentalists had concerns that oil and gas facilities have polluted the floodwaters. Cliff Willmeng, a member of activist group East Boulder County United, shot a photo of a teetering oil tank surrounded by flood waters along the St. Vrain River near Firestone. He saw “easily over 100″ wells that had been flooded.
“These companies need to be a lot more forthright about what facilities are underwater, because I imagine that they actually know,” Willmeng said. “This is taking place in an area that is very productive agriculturally. Now we’re starting to talk about routes of human and environmental exposure to the chemicals associated with this industry.”
Farms near the Poudre and South Platte rivers saw flooding and crop loss as others saw heavy rain that postponed harvest of key crops such as corn and sugar beets. Stephen Koontz, associate professor and extension economist at Colorado State University, said he believed the overall damage to agriculture would not be significant.
Even after the flooding, conditions of corn and sugar beets remained better than during the same time last year, when Northern Colorado suffered from drought, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Janine Freeman, co-owner of J-9 Crop Insurance in Ault, said she had received a few phone calls from farmers wanting to file flood insurance claims. She may receive additional calls once farmers know whether floodwaters have drowned their crops.
“There are so many unanswered questions right now,” she said. “It’s something we don’t handle on a regular basis, so we just don’t know what the crop’s going to look like (until) the water’s completely off of it or it’s dry enough to get a machine out there.”
JBS USA canceled morning shifts at its beef plant in Greeley earlier this week. Idling the plant, which has a capacity to process 5,400 cattle daily, led to lost production although the company could make that up some weekend, a spokesman said.
Flooding did not affect the plant, but some of JBS’ more than 4,200 employees in Greeley suffered from the flood, he said.
“A lot of our workers were impacted,” he said. “Some couldn’t make it to work. Others had things that they needed to take care of at their homes.”
Fall tourism called off
Estes Park, hit early by flood waters racing down through Rocky Mountain National Park, was virtually cut off for days as the flood gathered force.
At midweek, Visit Estes Park was trying to find a way to cope with its isolation. Having the main arteries into town, U.S. 36 and U.S. 34, shut down creates a problem for getting tourists to town, said Brooke Burnham, director of communications for the town’s visitor bureau. Under normal circumstances, it takes about 1.5 hours to get from the heart of Denver to Estes Park via U.S. 36, but now it takes from 2.5 to 3 hours, depending on traffic.
To have disaster strike in September is particularly painful because it has become the tourist town’s second busiest month. “It’s a loss to be closed for any period in September,” Burnham said.
Macdonald Bookshop, a fixture on the south side of Elkhorn Avenue since 1928, suffered only minimal damage from an inch of water in a lower room, said owner Paula Steige. That’s a far cry from the four feet of water and mud that inundated the store in 1982 after the Lawn Lake dam broke and sent a devastating surge down the Roaring and Fall rivers into the heart of the tourist town.
“Very little happened. I’m very lucky this time,´ said Steige, who took over the family business in 1971 after the death of her mother. “This time I’m more worried about my inventory, the orders I’ve placed, and that I won’t have business.”
Steige flew home from Alaska on Sept. 14 and was forced to take the circuitous route to Estes from Denver International Airport over Berthoud Pass, through Granby and Grand Lake and then over Trail Ridge Road.
In Loveland, tourism officials were grappling with their own issues, especially the ongoing closure of sections of U.S. 34, where it has been damaged by dramatic surges in the Big Thompson River. Cindy Mackin, visitor services coordinator at Visit Loveland said lots of people drive through Loveland this time of year on their way to Estes Park to see the leaves change, but they will have to take other routes this year.
“What we need,” she said, “is for people to come to Loveland, to eat at our restaurants and shop at our stores.”
Business report staffers Dallas Heltzell and Melissa Schaaf contributed to this article.