This week marks six months since floodwaters inundated much of the Front Range. Seventeen inches of rain fell in less than a week last September. According to FEMA, 10 people died; more than 1,800 structures were destroyed; and more than 16,000 were damaged.
The recovery effort is moving along -- nearly all of the washed-out roads have been temporarily repaired and permanent repairs are underway. But there’s still a lot of work to do and many homeowners remain in limbo. Some still have a bunch of debris in their yards. Some people can't get to their homes and others don't have homes to go back to.
At an information session in Longmont earlier this week for flood survivors, Teri Hassa, who lives on the Little Thompson River just north of Boulder County, said she has metal sheeting, livestock containers, cars and parts of other people's houses on her property. Hassa said she's patient, but at this point, she doesn't know if she can get government help to remove the debris.
Last weekend Larimer County held a similar session in Estes Park. County recovery manager Suzanne Bassinger said the sessions are necessary now because several months after living through a natural disaster, whether this flood or the High Park Fire, survivors are struggling. "It’s six months later and they’re just getting over the shock of what has happened -- the extreme changes in their lives that have occurred or the losses."
Uncertainty over rivers' futures
Barbara Welke is one of those survivors. Her home is outside Lyons, but she's been living with a friend in Longmont since September. The night the St. Vrain River flooded next to her house, she was awakened in the middle of the night.
"At 1:30 in the morning, I heard gurgling in my tub downstairs, and muddy water was coming up through the drain," she said. "Water from the garage filled up the dining room within minutes. My rug started floating; my shoes started floating."
Welke said the St. Vrain River jumped its channel and went straight through her house, bringing with it debris from other houses as well as parts from a dozen cars and trucks.
She said she's planning to rebuild, but she has to wait to see what local, state and federal officials decide to do with the St. Vrain River. Like other waterways that flowed out of their channels during the flood, the path and the banks of the St. Vrain may be moved back -- or they may not. With major decisions like that still up in the air, Welke and others like her are playing a waiting game.
"I don't want to do anything until I see how the new flood maps will read. It might put me in the floodway now, instead of the floodplain," she says.
If she does move back, Welke wouldn't be able to rebuild in the same way, and she may have to move into the old farmhouse on her property, which was also badly damaged.
"Luckily I did have flood insurance but not enough to cover everything," she said. "I have applied for the buyout program as a Plan B." Boulder County is offering a buyout with FEMA funds, to pay property owners whose properties are deemed too dangerous to rebuild.
In a hurry to repair infrastructure before runoff
Boulder and Larimer Counties were two of the hardest hit; the third was Weld County. Commissioner Doug Rademacher said the county is starting to do permanent road repairs, and is trying to finish as many of them as possible before snow starts to run off from the mountains.
"We’ve had reports that it could be extremely heavy up in our area. For example, I was in a meeting yesterday, and the St. Vrain Valley in the mountains has more than 200 percent of normal snowfall. And these are the same three watersheds that were affected by flooding: St. Vrain, Thompson and Poudre," Rademacher said. "All of them have well above average snowfall. If it gets warm and the snow comes down in a short time period, we could have some serious flooding once again. So we want to get our permanent repairs done before that happens."
Rademacher added that most of the irrigation ditches in Weld County have been repaired. "That serves several different purposes -- not only obviously to get water to the fields but to divert some of the water from the reservoirs. So with those ditches in place that’s major flood prevention. So that’s good," he said.
Rademacher thinks the flood's long-term effect on agriculture in Weld County will be minimal. "The weather’s been pretty wet so there might be concerns that some of those areas may not get planted on a timely basis, but for the most part, the ag sector’s going to be just fine," he said.
Still many unknowns
As the recovery moves along, one major challenge is getting a grasp on the scope of the problem, according to Boulder County recovery manager Garry Sanfacon. The state recovery office did a needs assessment in December, but didn't have the resources to go door-to-door. Now a national nonprofit called World Renew is surveying residents in some of the affected areas, but it's not working with the state in that effort, according to Governor John Hickenlooper's recovery office.
That leaves Sanfacon to do his own outreach. "We’re really trying to get the word out for people to come down here and meet with us," he said. Sanfacon's office is at 1301 Spruce St., Boulder. Sanfacon said it's open every day from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. "And what we do is basically bring up the property photos pre- and post-flood, listen to people’s stories and provide them some options and resources on how they might proceed."
Before and After
Pre- and post-flood aerial images of a flooded section of the St. Vrain River, north of Lyons, Colo. In the photo on the right, the channel is deeper and wider, and a large amount of sediment and debris has been deposited throughout the valley. The channel itself relocated and can now be seen flowing around the north side of the house near the center of the image; it used to flow around the south side. (Photo: Courtesy of Boulder County)
Billions in unmet needs
Another challenge is money. The state estimated the initial damage to be about $3.3 billion dollars. As of December, the governor’s recovery office said they don’t know where about $2.1 billion of that is going to come from.
The state is expecting a new grant of about $62 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the spring. The money will be used for infrastructure, housing and economic development. Most of it will be spent in Boulder, Weld and Larimer counties. People will be able to apply for portions of that funding after the state officially gets it.
Funding from HUD won't come close to filling the $2.1 billion gap, but Chief Recovery Officer Molly Urbina says she's working with the governor, as well as Colorado's congressional delegation, to secure more funding from federal agencies.
Sanfacon said that he wants people outside of the affected areas to know the recovery is not nearly over.
"Part of what we’re finding is a lot of people who live in Boulder and other parts of the county, the effects of the flood have really disappeared, and they’re going on with their daily lives. And that makes sense," he said. "But there are a good amount of people that are really still deeply impacted by this and will be for years."
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the nonprofit World Renew is doing a door-to-door survey of residents affected by the flood. The survey is not door-to-door, but World Renew volunteers are talking with residents about their experiences with the flood. The nonprofit is working in partnership with some county officials, although the state's recovery office is not involved. This article has been updated to reflect the changes.