From The Greeley Tribune (Analisa Romano):
Leticia Rivera’s son has a birthday coming up this month and, this year, his birthday wish is simple. He wants a home to live in, Rivera said, as she stood in a semi-circle among her neighbors at Greeley West High School on Thursday, all of them past residents of Eastwood Village mobile home park, which was wiped out in the flood. “Pobrecito,” Rivera said. “Poor thing.” For the past two months, Rivera, her 8-year-old son and her husband have been living out of a suitcase, traveling from one friend’s home to the next each week so that they can stay in the Greeley area and keep their son in the same school, she said.
Rivera said after a community meeting at the high school that the family plans to move into a mobile home provided by FEMA as soon as the agency places them. That should be soon, but like the rest of those who lost their homes in the flood, FEMA has had a hard time finding any vacancies. It’s one of an array of challenges in Greeley and Evans, where apartment vacancies have hit an 18-year low, and in Milliken, where few affordable housing options exist.
By October, FEMA was processing 1,900 applications for help in Weld County, with the flood wiping out all of Eastwood Village in Evans — which had more than 200 mobile homes — and damaging or destroying 43 homes in Milliken.
Many of those displaced by the flood have found at least a semi-permanent solution. Of the 1,000 students initially estimated to be homeless in Greeley-Evans School District 6, about half have found more permanent housing, said Theresa Myers, spokeswoman for District 6. FEMA spokesman John Mills said about 24 families are still using FEMA’s temporary housing program, which puts up displaced families in hotels or motels. But an uncountable number of people are doubling up with friends or family members, are transient residents like Rivera’s family or, in two extreme cases, living in a garage or museum in Milliken.
If one person living in a home destroyed in the flood has legal status, FEMA gives aid to the entire family, said Araceli Calderón, migrant education program director for District 6 and Greeley West High School. But some residents, like Erendira and Hector Aguayo, don’t have children who were born in the United States. The couple said they have been living in the basement of a home with 12 people, and sleeping on the floor.
“We can’t do anything,” Erendira said. She said the couple lived at Eastwood Village for 15 years, and because of their illegal status, were afraid at first to approach anyone for help.
“We are waiting to see what happens, hoping that God helps us,” Erendira said.
More affordable housing
Before a Thursday visit with Evans officials, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan said he felt much of the work to find temporary housing for flood victims had been completed, and announced nearly $63 million to go toward long-term rebuilding in Colorado communities.
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said he would like to see roughly 63 percent of that money go to housing, recognizing a dire need in all flood-affected communities for more affordable housing. In Evans, the city council is set to adopt a renewed FEMA map of the city’s floodplain that, by coincidence, came up for approval this year. As a part of that approval process, though, the city is considering a new set of regulations on whether habitable structures — like mobile homes — can be built in the floodplain as long as they are elevated.
Keith Cowan, the owner of Eastwood Village — which sat directly in the floodplain, according to the new FEMA map — said he will be put out of business with any new regulations. He said elevating the park would make it too costly to reconstruct, and it would be nearly impossible to find a new place to relocate the park.
“We spent 20 years trying to find a place,” Cowan said of when he established Eastwood. He said it’s difficult to find an area the city will approve for use of mobile homes.
For Eastwood residents who are living with family or friends, out of a hotel or not in an ideal permanent situation, that means a longer wait before housing becomes available in their price range.
“They are getting the (FEMA) assistance, but they have no place to put it,” Calderón said.
She said mobile home parks have also caught on to the going rate that FEMA pays flood victims, hiking up purchasing prices in same cases to almost double what residents paid for their last home. It presents a problem, she said, because flood victims receive money for all damages to their personal property, meaning not all of the money they receive should necessarily go to housing.
Available apartments are often only one or two bedrooms, but entire families lived in the mobile homes, Calderón said. Even when a large family is willing to squeeze into a smaller apartment, there is often a capacity rule that keeps them from renting, and three- or four-bedroom apartments are too expensive.
Rosie Gonzalez, 65, said she couldn’t find any mobile home vacancies in Evans or Greeley, and apartments and other housing in the area were either too expensive or not available. Gonzalez said it was cheaper for her and her husband to rent a house in Fort Lupton, although it means she is separated from her daughter and grandson, who lived with them at Eastwood Village and found an apartment in Greeley. Gonzalez said she is competing, in a way, with the other residents of Eastwood to find a mobile home.
“That is what they all look for first,” she said.
A special community
Sheryl Trent, Evans’ director of community and economic development, said many residents from the eradicated mobile home parks had lived there for multiple generations. Mobile homes are not only some of the most affordable types of housing, but many residents in those parks are homeowners, and the setting provides a real neighborhood feel, she said.
“That type of community, to some extent, was completely destroyed in the flood,” Trent said.
Evans has established a flood recovery task force to tackle questions like whether to pursue more opportunities for mobile homes and where to put additional affordable housing, with plans to meet regularly for up to 18 months, city officials announced.
In Milliken, town officials are tackling a flood and stormwater management plan to similarly decide whether the town’s destroyed mobile home park should relocate, said Jim Burack, Milliken town administrator and police chief. He said he would like to see the creation of new, affordable housing in some form. In the meantime, Burack said Milliken is trying to get some FEMA mobile units for displaced families. Eight homes have gotten their permits for demolition, and 17 more are waiting on inspections to determine whether they must be destroyed.
But Mills said FEMA is still having difficulty locating pads for their mobile units. The agency last week put out a call to all Weld County mobile home parks for about 24 spaces. Some park owners said accepting the temporary units would sacrifice the business they get from permanent homeowners.
Helping each other
At Greeley West High School on Thursday, several dozen people stepped inside, stomped their shoes to clear them of snow and waved to each other, settling into a familiar pattern for yet another flood victims’ meeting. Much of the meeting was conducted only in Spanish. Representatives from FEMA told flood victims that if they run out of money to help them with temporary housing, they should call for more. They reminded flood victims that each case is different, and federal assistance is meant to be flexible. If you want to use temporary housing assistance money to toward purchasing a new home, then do it, they said.
Following reports in the media that flood victims have felt discriminated against when looking for housing, officials with HUD and the Colorado Division of Local Affairs reminded those at the meeting that it is illegal to discriminate based on race, marital status, children and other factors. They said victims should file a formal complaint, and they provided legal referrals for those who asked.
Javier Maupomé with the Mexican Consulate in Denver said his agency hadn’t been approached by anyone experiencing discrimination or fear of deportation. He said the consulate decided to meet with flood victims in Greeley because of so many reports in the media of those instances.
“This, I think, helped a lot,” Maupomé said of the community meeting. He said he hoped to put out the consulate’s name so that victims could use it for references to other agencies that could help.
Mary Ellen Good, regional migrant education program director with Centennial BOCES, said she has probably worked with 12-15 families who are still homeless after the flood. She said she hasn’t heard of many issues regarding discrimination or fear of deportation as those families search for homes. Good said most families that remain displaced seem to be staying with others. Some families, when they find a place, invite another to stay with them, she said.
“People just keep trying to help each other.”
From The Greeley Tribune (Sherrie Peif):
Tears come to Vilma Villalpando’ s eyes just thinking about it.
“We had about 20 minutes,” the Greeley mother of three said about the day floodwaters took her home. “My mother-in-law turned and looked out the window and saw the water coming. We barely got out.”
Villalpando — who was able to save a change of clothing for each family member, one picture of her wedding day and one kitchen pot — was one of hundreds left homeless when the September floods destroyed Eastwood Village mobile home park and other areas of east Greeley and Evans.
In the nearly three months since, Villalpando, her husband and their three daughters have bounced from home to home living with family, friends and in hotels while trying to find another home.
She said without the outpouring of help from the community and especially Greeley-Evans School District 6, her family wouldn’t have survived.
That support has sometimes overwhelmed the district, where boxes of shoes, clothing, toys, food and cash continue to pour into the administration building and individual schools.
“It’s been obscene — in a good way,” said Jon Cooney, principal of Bella Romero Elementary School, the hardest hit of all the schools. “I don’t think a single day has gone by since the flood that I haven’t gotten multiple calls or emails dealing with the flood.”
Bella Romero has received so much in cash contributions that it has set up its own account that the school will use to help families with deposits and other expenses to get into new homes. In all, 272 of Bella’s 700 students were on the evacuation list and 99 of them had their homes destroyed.
“I grabbed all the important papers and a change of clothes,” Villalpando said, tears welling up in her eyes. “They didn’t tell me the gravity of the situation. I thought I’d be able to go back in my house the next day.”
When she was able to return, there was nothing left of the home she and her husband Alfredo had purchased.
“You could see the water line,” she said. “It was up (to the ceiling). The mud in my bedroom was (more than two-feet) deep. Water moved all the furniture in the living room, kitchen and dining room into one corner of the home. Everything was smashed and just together in a big pile.”
After the flood, donations began to pour in to the school — so many that district officials had to ask people to stop bringing things because there just wasn’t anywhere to put them, and children needed to get back to school, said Theresa Myers , director of communication for the district.
Since then, cash and in-kind materials continue to come in, most recently a donation of $50,000 from North Colorado Medical Center Inc. Schools across Colorado and the United States have sent money and other items. Additionally, federal programs have helped get students back in class.
“About 1,000 kids qualified as homeless,” Myers said. “The McKinney Vento Act helped remove the barriers that could get in the way of their education. Some of our families lost every stitch of their belongings and escaped only with the clothes on their back.”
Anthony Asmus, principal at Centennial Elementary — one of the many schools in the no-flush zone that also saw dozens of children displaced from their homes — gets a new box of toys frequently from a school in Texas that organized a drive for his kids.
“I am just so thankful for Greeley and Evans and the surrounding areas for reaching out in any way they could,” Asmus said. “Students would not recover the way they did without the help. It got them back to school sooner.”
Things such as shoes, coats and underwear needed replacing immediately, said Myers. And the churches have seen to it that they are, she added.
“The faith community has been amazing,” she said. “Nearly every church in this community has donated something.”
The district has gotten it down to a science. If a student needs something, they fill out a “need request form” with details such as the size of an article of clothing. The principal turns it over to the welcome center, which fills the need and delivers the item to the school.
The donations have come from everywhere.
Walmart and Walgreens donated all their leftover school supply inventory to the district. A school district in Wyoming bought all new backpacks for the students. Windsor and Highlands Ranch school districts have sent cash, and companies such as Nobel Energy have bought coats for all the students.
“Tom’s shoes donated a pair of shoes to every single student and staff member here,” Cooney said. “There has been thousands of dollars offered for financial support. It’s just overwhelming. It’s amazing. Kids are just so resilient. They just keep coming to school.”
Villalpando said much of that is because the school has been so supportive of her 12- and 7-year-old daughters, who attend Romero.
“Just the therapy they’ve given our daughters to help process the situation they went through,” she said. “It has been difficult, just the simple fact of finding another place to live.”
But they have also received new clothing, uniforms, food, shoes, socks, undergarments, school supplies, furnishings and much more, she said.
In addition to the $50,000 from NCMC, the district received $13,000 from Flood & Peterson, $14,500 from the Nashville to Colorado concert and nearly $31,000 in combined smaller donations.
The district also received a $118,000 grant from the state that it used to hire two temporary classified employees to process all the stuff and contract with North Range Behavioral Health for counselors to help families and students impacted by the floods.
Most of the money has been spent on helping pay for temporary lodging at area hotels and other items families may need, such as beds and other furnishings or appliances once they find new housing. Requests are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Myers said the donations have helped tremendously but there is still much more to do. Many families still do not have homes and with the cold weather it’s a bad time of year to be homeless.
In addition, students who were displaced must still attend their home school under federal law and the district must pay for the transportation of those students to school. The Villalpandos fall under that category, and each morning the district buses them from the southwest side of Greeley to the far northeast.
“Initially, that was overwhelming,” Myers said. “But it’s down to about 100 students. That’s still a huge expense we’re absorbing right now.”
The district may be able to apply for more grants to reimburse that cost later, but there are no guarantees.
At John Evans I.B. Middle School, where the number of students displaced was smaller, the main problem was most of its families lived in a no-flush zone and went days without being able to turn on the water.
Jennifer Pierson, a counselor at the school, said Journey Christian Church, Greeley Wesleyan Church and other businesses stepped up to make sure they all had hot meals each evening.
“Olive Garden supplied all the pasta and rolls and salad and everything,” she said. “DP Dough contributed proceeds from the sales of their calzones one day. And there were a lot of anonymous donations. First Assembly of God bought large Thanksgiving dinners for all our families.”
Pierson said a little more than $7,300 was donated and is also going to help families get back in their homes.
“We have helped pay hotel costs and bought a table and chairs for one family,” she said. “Just whatever is necessary.”
Those “whatevers” range from the most critical situations such as the Villalpandos’ to families inconvenienced for a few days by the no-flush orders to families such as Felicia and Aaron Strait, who were forced to move in with Felicia’s family — 12 people in a three-bedroom home — for about a month after the floods while repairs were made to their home in the Riverside Park subdivision of Evans.
Although not as bad as the Bella Vista and Eastwood Village mobile home parks, the Federal Emergency Management Agency still found most of the homes on their block had structural damage.
Felicia said they were fortunate they didn’t lose a lot, especially the family turtle Jenna, a 2-year-old red ear they found swimming around the 8-feet of muck in their basement when they were allowed in to assess the damages.
“Jenna’s tank got flipped over,” Centennial second grader Trinity said. “That was scary. But we’ve brought her upstairs now.”
Nonetheless, the family said they were still grateful for the things they did need, such as a warm meal, uniforms and clothing for their two daughters.
Hayley, 10, and Trinity, 7, represented their school when Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., came to their school soon after the floods.
“I also got to shake the hand of the mayor,” Hayley said excitedly. “That was fun.”
The family’s neighborhood is still lined with homes in various stages of reconstruction, but it’s the mobile home parks Felicia worries will never get cleaned up.
Overall, district officials said they are thankful for all the help they received and they wish they could thank everyone personally, but there has been so much they don’t know where to start and they feel bad if they missed anyone.
However, they said the kids have recognized that in times of need the community rallies around each other, and that has been a great lesson for them to learn.
“The kids understand where the help has come from,” said Centennial Assistant Principal Eduardo Navidad. “They have learned that sense of community and how everyone came together. They have gained a sense of belonging that some didn’t have before.
“They have an understanding of togetherness. We are very thankful for that.”