We find ourselves in the middle of one of the greatest wealth transfer periods of all time. Those with wealth must decide whether they want to make transfers, and if they do, they must decide how much, to whom, when and in what structure?
The Colorado Office of Emergency Management now estimates the damage toll for the September 2013 floods to be $3 billion.
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That number is as difficult to track as it is to contain, as property owners continue to see new flood-related issues arise a year after a weeklong, thousand-year rainstorm ravaged much of the Front Range – particularly Boulder County and Northern Colorado.
“The damage estimates keep growing,” said Val Beck, communications director for the Colorado Recovery Office.
The disaster took the lives of nine people. Hundreds of residents still find themselves displaced, or perhaps permanently removed from their destroyed homes.
Every locale also boasts a proud resolve to overcome, however – to rebuild roads, bridges and homes better and stronger than they were before. In some places – such as Estes Park, where the predicted doom for tourism didn’t play out the way many feared – there is a sense that things could have been much worse.
The recovery, though, is one that is just beginning. Roads that were temporarily fixed last fall just to reconnect residents to the outside world soon will see permanent repairs begin. Timelines for wrapping up recovery efforts vary depending on location. Two to five more years is standard. In Boulder County, officials believe that seven to 10 years is no stretch.
Eighteen Colorado counties were eligible to receive public assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But Boulder, Larimer and Weld counties – along with El Paso County to the south – were no doubt hit the hardest. Boulder, Larimer and Weld suffered a combined $313.6 million in damage to public infrastructure in unincorporated parts of the counties alone, with $217 million of that in Boulder County.
Boulder County saw flood damage in every community. Ten thousand homes were affected, with hundreds destroyed. More than 2,300 homes and 300 businesses were damaged in Longmont, accounting for an estimated $60 million. In Boulder, about 14 percent of homes were affected.
Lyons, a town with an annual budget of $1 million, saw $45 million in damage to public infrastructure. About 20 percent of the 960 homes in Lyons sustained damage. Owners of about 80 of those, including two full mobile home parks, have opted for a federally funded program in which the government buys them out of their high-hazard property. That property is then returned to the local municipality as open space.
Farther north, Loveland suffered $26.7 million in damage to public infrastructure. While the city itself didn’t see a lot of private buildings damaged, about 1,000 were affected from the mouth of Big Thompson Canyon to Interstate 25. Mountain communities such as Estes Park were initially cut off from the outside world.
In Weld County, Greeley was spared the magnitude of damage that much of the region saw. But smaller towns like Evans and Milliken were hit hard. Evans had 208 mobile homes and seven site-built single-family homes destroyed, to go along with $10 million in damage to public infrastructure.
“At one point, there were approximately 645 lane miles of roads closed in Weld County during the flood, which occurred during harvest,” Weld spokeswoman Jennifer Finch said. “We knew that if we didn’t get roads open fast, we would have a disaster within a disaster.”
About 118 miles of state and federal highways were damaged by the flood, with 486 miles closed at the height of the disaster. The Colorado Department of Transportation will receive $450 million in federal funding for the repairs, which will take about three more years.
CDOT had all of its highways, including U.S. Highways 34 and 36 to Estes Park, opened by Nov. 26 with temporary fixes. Permanent repairs will be finished on 36 late this fall. But permanent repairs to 34 and other area highways won’t begin until next year, or later in some cases. On 36, CDOT crews blasted away 250,000 cubic yards of rock – enough to cover a football field 13 stories high – to move the road farther from the North St. Vrain River in certain places in hopes of constructing a more floodproof road.
Xcel Energy has spent $15.5 million so far on repairs to its natural-gas and electric distribution systems. After having 70,000 customers lose electric service statewide during the floods, Xcel had service restored to most within 48 hours. Xcel’s system is functional for all of its customers now, although more complete restoration remains ongoing.
The Small Business Administration has approved nearly $110 million statewide in low-interest loans for individuals and businesses to aid in their recovery. FEMA so far has paid out $65.5 million in flood insurance claims, $61 million in grants to homeowners, and passed along to the state $262 million for reimbursements to municipalities. More is on the way. In general, for public infrastructure, FEMA covers 75 percent of the tab for municipalities, while the state and local governments split the rest.
‘Could have been a lot worse’
Despite all of the hardship, some are looking back a year later with relief.
Estes Park had $11 million in infrastructure damage, but the real threat for the tourist town was a lack of access to the community. For a little more than a week, the only way into Estes Park was via Trail Ridge Road from the Western Slope. But even after that, it was a couple of months before Highway 36 reopened. Drivers had to approach Estes from the south, through Nederland. Highways 36 and 34 both reopened in November.
“That was a lifesaver for us because those first few months we were hurting financially,” Estes Park town administrator Frank Lancaster said.
Lancaster said 2013 was shaping up to be a record year for sales tax revenue in Estes Park before the flood hit. The town finished the year down 4 percent from 2012. But this year, things have bounced back surprisingly quickly. Through the first six months, sales tax revenues are up 6 percent over the same period last year. Lodging tax is up 7.4 percent over last year, although still slightly trailing the first six months of 2012. For 2013 as a whole, lodging tax revenue dipped 10 percent from 2012, almost all attributable to the flood and last fall’s government shutdown.
“But it could have been a lot worse,” said Lancaster, adding that it’s unclear whether two downtown business closings were attributable to the flood or normal economics. Both of those buildings have new tenants.
In Lyons, a gateway to Estes Park, town officials had projected a 40 percent slide in sales tax revenue for 2014. But so far, revenue is even compared with the same time last year.
“People have been amazingly supportive,” Lyons town administrator Victoria Simonsen said.
Tom Hacker, a spokesman for Loveland, said quick work by city officials during the flood kept the town from completely losing its water supply. Two of the primary water lines into the city’s water-treatment plant had been broken, and the third was being battered by boulders carried by a Big Thompson River that had jumped its banks and changed course.
The city mounted an effort over three to four days to build a series of dikes along the river – while it was at flood stage – to put it back in its banks.
“If that hadn’t worked, the city of Loveland would have been without treated water for months,” Hacker said. “That’s an example of the creative thinking – and fast creative thinking – that went into the flood response here.”
The one-year anniversary of the floods is shaping up as a time not only of celebration that the state pulled through the disaster, but also reflection and acknowledgement that a lot of work remains to be done.
The state has dubbed Sept. 13 Colorado United Day, a day for residents to sign up to volunteer to help with various recovery projects in flood-damaged areas.
Estes Park has launched a major push to get the word out to tourists that the town is open for business after the national media last fall was filled with images of destruction. Rather than looking back over the past year, the theme there is looking back 100 years. Sept. 3 kicked off a yearlong centennial celebration for Rocky Mountain National Park.
“We really do see that, from an economic standpoint, as an opportunity to remind people of the recovery and remind people that we have all these adventures at our back door,” said Brooke Burnham, director of communications for Visit Estes Park.
Residents won’t forget about the floods any time soon. While permanent road repairs will take years themselves, there also are the issues of rerouting streams and restoring riverbanks. Some mountain communities still have temporary systems in place for utilities. Some who lost their homes will have to wait until floodplains are remapped and new build-back standards are established before they can get permits.
Mike Chard, director of the Boulder Office of Emergency Management, said recovery efforts for the Fourmile Canyon Fire, which burned 169 homes in September 2010, weren’t officially wrapped up until two months before the 2013 floods hit. The destruction from the floods was far more widespread.
“For us to say we’ve done everything we can do will take some time,” Chard said. “It’s definitely going to take longer than some people are expecting. But we will recover.”
In Lyons, where so many property owners are accepting buyouts, town officials have some tough decisions to make about making room for more housing for some of those who were displaced. Surrounded by Boulder County open space, the town essentially is built out. Much of the housing that was destroyed, at the confluence of the north and south forks of the St. Vrain River, was some of the often-pricey town’s most affordable, catering to many of the artists and restaurant and coffee-shop workers who call the community home.
Simonsen, the town administrator, said one option being discussed is to remove the conservation easements on parks or other open space in town to allow for development of new affordable housing since Lyons will have the new open space at the confluence. But that idea so far is proving a tough one to sell to some residents.
“Change is hard,” she said.
In Longmont, the recovery won’t end with repairs, but rather with increasing resiliency for the possibility of future floods.
That city’s voters recently approved the issuance of bonds to cover about $90 million for a project that will rebuild the St. Vrain channel and replace five major bridges that cross it – at Main, Sunset and Hover streets, Boston Avenue and Pratt Parkway – with new ones built to withstand 100-year flood conditions.
“It’s really a community decision to say we want to build back in a better way,” said Dale Rademacher, general manager of Longmont’s public works and natural resources department.
At the state level, Beck, the Colorado Recovery Office communications director, said officials are reluctant to put a timeline on the recovery efforts, knowing that full recovery is a moving target.
“We are sticking with the message that this last year we got through was a sprint,” Beck said. “That’s the stuff that needed to be repaired as soon as possible. But we’re headed into the marathon of all of this. And it’s going to be a long haul.”
Disaster by the numbers
- FEMA: $65.5 million paid to date in 2013 flood insurance claims through National Flood Insurance Program; $61 million in grants paid to date to homeowners; $262 million so far passed to state for municipality reimbursements;
- SBA: 4,119 homeowners statewide applied for loans; 953 businesses applied; $109,646,900 of loans approved.
- Colorado: Statewide damage estimate $3 billion; $1.5 billion in state and federal aid allocated so far, with $776 million of that in use.
- CDOT: 118 road miles damaged on state and federal highways; 486 miles of roads closed at height of disaster; $450 million in funds granted from federal sources for recovery.
- Xcel Energy: 10 miles of gas pipelines replaced; 900 meters replaced; $15.5 million so far in replacement costs; 70,000 electric customers without power statewide at height of flooding.
- Boulder County: 80 homes identified for federal buyout program; 10,000 homes affected by water; more than 1,000 homes damaged in unincorporated parts of county alone. $217 million in damage to public infrastructure in unincorporated Boulder County.
- Larimer County: 47 homes and seven commercial buildings destroyed and $79.1 million in public infrastructure damage in unincorporated parts of county; $17.3 million spent so far.
- Weld County: $17.3 million in damage to public infrastructure in unincorporated parts of county; $7.3 million spent on recovery so far; 1,250 homes damaged and 202 homes destroyed countywide.
- Boulder: $27.3 million in damage to public infrastructure; Private property damage estimated at $300 million; 14 percent of homes damaged.
- Longmont: $45 million in damage to public infrastructure; 2,319 homes damaged at an estimated cost of $31.9 million; 327 businesses damaged at an approximate cost of $28.2 million.
- Lyons: Public infrastructure damage of $45 million; 40 homes signed up for federal buyout program plus two whole mobile home parks; 20 percent of homes damaged by flood.
- Loveland: $26.7 million in damage to public infrastructure; $2.5 million in FEMA reimbursements received so far.
- Estes Park: Lodging tax revenue for first six months of 2014 up 7.4 percent over 2013; $11 million in damage to city infrastructure.
- Fort Collins: Figures unavailable.
- Greeley: $1.1 million in damage to public infrastructure; 0 homes damaged.
- Milliken: $450,000 in damage to public infrastructure; 44 homes, including 43 mobile homes severely damaged or destroyed.
- Evans: Estimated $10 million in damage to public infrastructure; 208 mobile homes and seven single-family homes destroyed; 1 commercial building destroyed.
- U.S. 36: Emergency repairs: $20 million. Permanent repairs estimate: $7.1 million. Planned finish date: Late fall 2014.
- Colorado 119 (Boulder Canyon): Emergency repairs: $1.5 million. Permanent repairs estimate: $1 million to $4 million. Planned advertisement for construction: Winter 2016.
- Colorado 119 (Weld County): Emergency repairs: $1.75 million. Permanent repairs estimate: $1 million to $4 million. Planned advertisement for construction: Winter 2015.
- U.S. 34 (Big Thompson Canyon): Emergency repairs: $30 million. Permanent repairs estimate: $50 million. Planned advertisement for construction: Summer 2015.
- U.S. 34 (East of Greeley): Permanent repairs estimate: $4 million to $10 million. Planned advertisement for construction: Winter 2015.
- Colorado 7: Emergency repairs: $17 million. Permanent repairs estimate: $10 million to $20 million. Planned advertisement for construction: Winter 2016.
- Colorado 72 (Coal Creek Canyon): Emergency repairs: $7.5 million. Permanent repairs estimate: $4 million to $10 million. Planned advertisement for construction: Winter 2015.
- Colorado 60 and 257: Emergency repairs: $300,000. Permanent repairs estimate: $4 million to $10 million. Estimated advertisement for construction: Summer/fall 2015.