September 12, 2013: Rebuilding property and lives after the #COflood

Plume of subtropical moisture streaming into Colorado September 2013 via Weather5280
Plume of subtropical moisture streaming into Colorado September 2013 via Weather5280

I made the mistake of checking my Twitter feed during the early morning last September 12. All sorts of trouble was brewing in the streams flowing out of the Front Range canyons. Aurora took a pounding too as did locations in the Arkansas Basin. I couldn’t get back to sleep.

Please take the time to read the stuff below (Click through to read the full articles that I’ve excerpted). We have some great writers covering water in Colorado.

From Physics Today (Samantha Tushaus):

Atmospheric scientists, their eyes on recent catastrophic weather events, are newly motivated to study orographic precipitation. Orographic precipitation—rain and snow caused or influenced by topography—is a key component of the hydrologic cycle, and scientists have long understood that the amount and distribution of precipitation depends upon topography and atmospheric characteristics.

However, orographic precipitation also contributes to natural disasters, including flash floods. In September 2013, Boulder, Colorado, and surrounding communities in the Rocky Mountain foothills experienced rainfall so torrential as to trigger flash floods, with water levels rising dramatically over only a few hours. The floods were accompanied by heavy debris and mud, which swept away vehicles, roads, and buildings.

Here’s a photo gallery of before and after photos from the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

Evans Colorado September 2013 via TheDenverChannel.com
Evans Colorado September 2013 via TheDenverChannel.com

From The Denver Post (Colleen O’Connor and Yesenia Robles):

Araceli and Rito Romero lost everything in the flood that swamped their mobile home in Evans, then were cheated out of $10,000 they paid to buy another trailer home.

Manuel Hernandez, an immigrant with a work permit, struggled to find housing for his family after their trailer home was destroyed, and now is paying twice as much to rent a space in a mobile home park.

John Vega managed to rebuild his mobile home in Milliken, complete with new floors and walls, but now lives in limbo, uncertain whether or not the mobile home park will be closed down.

“I told FEMA, if we have to move out of here, you’re going to have to move me out because I ain’t got money to move out,” he said on a recent afternoon, as his wife stood in their cheerful new kitchen making tamales for their granddaughter’s Quinceañera celebration.

Araceli and Rito Romero lost everything in the flood that swamped their mobile home in Evans, then were cheated out of $10,000 they paid to buy another trailer home.

Manuel Hernandez, an immigrant with a work permit, struggled to find housing for his family after their trailer home was destroyed, and now is paying twice as much to rent a space in a mobile home park.

John Vega managed to rebuild his mobile home in Milliken, complete with new floors and walls, but now lives in limbo, uncertain whether or not the mobile home park will be closed down.

“I told FEMA, if we have to move out of here, you’re going to have to move me out because I ain’t got money to move out,” he said on a recent afternoon, as his wife stood in their cheerful new kitchen making tamales for their granddaughter’s Quinceañera celebration.

US 36 West of Lyons September 2013 via the Longmont Times-Call
US 36 West of Lyons September 2013 via the Longmont Times-Call

From 9News.com (Maya Rodriguez):

September brings painful memories for thousands impacted by last year’s floods. For one business in Lyons, the flood did virtually no physical damage, but still took a major toll. Now, though, it’s a different story at The Stone Cup, a café and restaurant on High Street.

“We’re right back on top of things again,” said Sam Tallent, one of the co-owners.

Nearly one year ago, things were different here.

“It was a challenge having no business for a couple of months,” The Stone Cup co-owner Mindy Tallent said.

The Tallents said it has been a long year for the town and its businesses.

“We don’t really have any other options, so we just have to persevere,” Mindy Tallent said.

The Stone Cup looks to be in great shape because the flood waters never touched it. Water swept past it onto other, lower-lying areas. Rebuilding isn’t just about the progress you can see, though. There are scars in Lyons, even for those who didn’t suffer any physical damage to their home or business.

The café and restaurant remained closed for months because there were so few customers in town. They didn’t reopen full-time until December. What got them through it, the Tallents said, was a $55,000 federal loan from the Small Business Administration.

“You think about the importance of businesses to our communities, it’s employment, it’s economic activity and, in the case of the Stone Cup, it’s a gathering place,” said SBA Regional Administrator Matt Varilek.

The SBA said that in Boulder County, it received more than 2,678 loan applications after the floods and approved 68 percent of them– at a total of more than $65 million. More than $14 million of that, went to businesses in Lyons. As for the 32 percent of applications that were denied, the agency said those applicants couldn’t prove they would have the ability to repay the loan.

The Stone Cup is one of the fortunate ones, though. The Tallents just hope other businesses in town can also bounce back enough to bring Lyons back, too.

“I want to very seriously believe that,” said Sam Tallent, “because I think the vast majority of us want it back like that.”

The SBA said it has provided more than $109 million in low interest loans in Colorado since the flooding. Those who get a loan have up to 30-years to pay it back.

From MarketPlace.org (Grace Hood):

One of the hardest-hit centers following the 2013 Colorado flood was the 2,000-person town of Lyons. Key pieces of the town’s infrastructure, like sewer, water and gas lines, were severely damaged. Fast-forward a year, the town is still working on a list of 87 projects ranging from park and riverbank repair to bridge rebuilding.

You wouldn’t be able to tell by taking a walk down Main Street. In the town’s busiest corridor, you can barely see signs of the flood. But almost everyone in town has a story — including Connie Sullivan, owner of the St. Vrain Market.

From KUNC (Grace Hood):

After waters washed over Boulder, Larimer and Weld counties during the September flood, many started to rebuild. Others haven’t been able to go back.

The easiest way for Ed and Sarah Egloff to describe their lost home in the Big Thompson Canyon is to tell you what remained on the property afterward.

“The only thing that was in the place where I thought it should have been was the ground rod for the electrical service,” said Ed.

From the Fort Collins Coloradoan:

It’s been a rough year for Rough’n It Wright. The floor of the small, brown cabin named for the families that owned it for decades has sagged down and been left exposed since the Big Thompson River tore away the ground supporting it last September. Some of the cabin’s contents slid out through the gap and were swept away. Other furnishings are still there: A washer and dryer hang on by power cords and a hot air ventilation pipe; mattresses cling to beds tilted toward the river. The cabin looks like a shoebox, with the bottom peeled back from one corner. A beige carpet covers much of the slatted wooden floor, the edge of which rests on jagged white and gray boulders.

Perched under a towering canyon wall halfway between Drake and Estes Park along U.S. Highway 34, the cabin has become an icon of the 2013 flood and the challenges residents and government officials face a year later.

While progress has been made toward recovering from the devastating deluge, years of planning and construction work remain. Natural and bureaucratic barriers must be hurdled by agencies attempting to rebuild roads and bridges and families trying to rebuild lives.

The owner of Rough’n It Wright, Lynda Wright of Cypress, California, has not been to the cabin since the flood. Members of her extended family were in the cabin and the cottage next door — Linger Longer — during the flood and were rescued by the local volunteer fire department. Wright has only seen pictures of the devastation. But what she’s seen has made her determined to rebuild Linger Longer.

“When I look at the pictures, I don’t see what remains,” she said. “I see what it was before.

“I can visualize every single person I have known and loved who has been at that cabin over the years. And I am not going to give up on it.”

Production fluids leak into surface water September 2013 -- Photo/The Denver Post
Production fluids leak into surface water September 2013 — Photo/The Denver Post

From KUNC (Nathan Heffel):

One of the more striking images during the September flood was of inundated oil and gas pads, washed out earthen berms and overturned storage tanks. In all, over 48,000 gallons of oil and condensate spilled. While changes have been made in the industry to prepare for another flood, so far, they’re strictly voluntary.

Matt Lepore, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said that while there were some visible spills, the situation could have been much worse.

“Frankly [it was] a relatively small number of spills, a relatively small volume of oil and gas that was released,” he said.

From his standpoint, the industry performed well during the flooding, closing off wells — a process known as shutting in the well — that were at risk of flood damage before waters rose. The agency is looking at possible rule changes for sites near rivers and streams including anchoring storage tanks, installing impenetrable liners, and erecting fences. But for now, they’re strictly recommendations and no new rules have yet been approved.

Even so, some companies are making changes on their own accord. For example, in areas prone to flooding, earthen berms have been replaced with metal ones, which perform better in flooding.

“Earthen berms tended to wash away and potentially lead to greater impacts,” Lepore said.

The agency has considered making that a rule change, and has talked with the industry about doing so. Lepore said the change would most likely be accepted without much resistance.

“Honestly I don’t think the rule making would be too controversial,” he said. “I think most operators see the wisdom of the practices that we’ve recommended.”

Doug Hock, a spokesman with Encana Corporation, which has wells throughout Weld County, including some in low-lying areas, said he agreed with the recommendations laid out in the COGCC post-flood report. Although none of them are binding yet.

“These are recommendations that align with our best practices and you know, again we look at this, it really goes along with the measures we took,” Hock said.

The flood, and the subsequent damage to their wells, cost the company several hundred thousand dollars Hock said. Overall the procedures in place at the affected well sites worked. This included the automatic shut-in of at-risk wells.

However, Sam Schabacker, director of the Colorado branch of Food and Water Watch, a group that believes hydraulic fracturing should be banned, said more needs to be done than leaving the industry to self regulate.

“There are no rule changes, there was no legislation,” Schabacker said. “So Coloradans haven’t been protected from future flooding activities in any meaningful way.”

“There are no new rules and regulations saying, for example, that you shouldn’t build in a flood zone, you should not be drilling in a place that typically floods and has historically done so in the state. So I think that it’s really astonishing to me, and us at Food and Water Watch, that after this unprecedented flood that nothing has resulted, no changes.”

Encana’s Hock said the company anchored tanks to concrete and installed impervious liners for spill mitigation – something he calls “best practices,” before the flood.

To Schabacker, the potential for future spills caused by flooding is still too large.

“[We risk] tens of thousands of gallons of potentially toxic liquid washing down rivers where we grow a large percentage of our food crops, where we have people who live downstream from these areas, and there are over 6,000 almost 6,000 wells that are built in these floodplain areas, there are more being permitted every day, and there have been no changes,” Shabacker said.

Discussions over regulations and rule changes as a result of the flood could come up at the next scheduled Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission hearing – including requiring metal berms to be installed around flood prone wells. However, COGCC’s Lepore said that’s not officially on the agenda.

From the Loveland Reporter-Herald (Jessica Benes):

One year after the 2013 Front Range flood, which hit Northern Colorado on Sept. 11-12, 2013, work is still in progress to repair local natural resources.

The Poudre Wilderness Volunteers are hosting a work day Saturday and Sunday to continue rebuilding efforts of the North Fork Trail by Glen Haven and mark the one-year anniversary of the flood.

The initial assessment of damage on forest infrastructure and facilities in Roosevelt and Arapaho National Forests — which include Larimer and Boulder counties — was estimated at $17.8 million, according to Reghan Cloudman, spokeswoman for the Canyon Lakes Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service.

And about $950,000 was done in damage to Larimer County parks and open spaces, according to Travis Rollins, open space operations manager for Larimer County Natural Resources.

Approximately half of the work has been completed on Larimer County open spaces. FEMA paid for 75 percent of the total, the state paid 12.5 percent and Larimer County paid 12.5 percent.

Larimer County residents have contributed hundreds of hours helping the natural resources department with flood cleanup and repairs.

The U.S. Forest Service is not eligible for FEMA grants. The agency allocated $5.2 million of its budget in 2014 to recovery and will spend all but $600,000 of that this fiscal year.

Dan Hull before and after photos
Dan Hull before and after photos

Here’s a photo gallery of before and after photos from The Denver Post.

From The Denver Post (Electa Draper):

While area landfills still are receiving flood debris a year after the storms, some water experts believe too much might have been cleaned up and could in time hurt the rivers.

The piles of muck-coated possessions of residents hit hardest by the September 2013 floodwaters mostly are gone from view, but every big rain that scours a river channel pries loose more debris.

Shards of metal, splintered wood, fractured drywall, ripped carpet, fence pickets and tattered plastic still can be loosed after a year of being encased in riverbeds somewhere upstream.

More than 1,800 homes were destroyed and more than 28,000 others damaged, according to the Colorado Recovery Office.

“We’re about 99 percent done with household debris, but it’s still an ongoing cleanup effort,” said Dan Gudgel, division manager for Waste Connections, which runs the Erie landfills. “You can still see debris in rivers and streams.”

“It’s hard to put a good number on the amount of flood debris,” Gudgel said, “but I would estimate we’ve seen 50,000 tons” at the Erie landfills, the epicenter of flood-debris disposal.

For Coloradans in love with their state’s beauty, the September 2013 floods revealed an uglier side of nature. Trees snapped and stripped clean like toothpicks, broken branches, gnarled roots and heaps of sand, gravel and rock look nasty lodged around a favorite walking trail, swimming hole or backyard.

Yet there is trash, and then there is debris that is a critical piece of river restoration.

“I’m very concerned that we have hauled too much away,” said Chris Sturm, the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s river-channel expert. He’s the coordinator of the interagency Stream Team that’s guiding watershed restoration.

“The river is a puzzle that the flood took apart,” Sturm said. “If you want to put it back together, the last thing you should do is throw out pieces of the puzzle.”

He believes some area landowners and officials might have overreacted and removed too much sediment, wood and rock.

Large woody debris can be removed from the channel but stockpiled nearby, he recommends.

“Let’s use that wood and sediment to reshape and restabilize the channels,” Sturm said.

In some places, they already have.

Along the St. Vrain Greenway in Longmont, unsightly piles of wood, sand and rock remain at random intervals along the creek banks. It’s part of the plan.

“You should keep what you can and reuse it,” said Longmont Public Works director Dale Rademacher. “It saves on transportation costs.”

It also saves on importing new materials to shore up banks.

Julie McKay, who heads Boulder County’s comprehensive creek planning, said some materials — colored rocks that are not native or natural components of local basins — have been brought in by some landowners.

Yet, McKay said, she understands the urgency that private residents and officials felt immediately after the flood to shore up banks and to clear the channels ahead of the spring runoff.

“A lot of county time and resources were spent on hazardous woody debris removal,” McKay said. “We were very oriented to what would happen in the spring if we didn’t. We’ve exhaled now. … Now it’s a planning phase.”

As to whether it’s safe yet to go back in the rivers for recreation, it’s a personal choice stream by stream.

Chrystal DeCoster lives in Lyons and has observed how new storm events deliver small reminders of the past devastation. She’s also seen disappointed people dragging their punctured inner tubes out of the St. Vrain.

DeCoster’s advice: “I wouldn’t stick a toe in the water yet.”

From the Longmont Times-Call (Whitney Bryen):

Nearly a year after the flood that ravaged the small town [Lyons], French still flashes back every time his phone rings to the 1:30 a.m. phone call on Sept. 12, 2013, telling him to evacuate his home.

A nearly empty medicine bottle still causes anxiety as French remembers the fear that he faced, afraid he wouldn’t have access to his medication. Thinking about the neighbors and friends who helped him get the medication he needed while he was displaced from his home is his only relief.

Even small things, like a dripping faucet or static on the television that sounds like rushing water can lead to sleepless nights and bouts of depression, French said.

“The flood affected me in my head, triggering all of these new things that are making me paranoid and terrified all the time,” French said. “But it also affected me in my spirit.”

Since the flood, French has been visiting free and low-cost, drop-in counseling sessions being offered to flood survivors searching for relief. He continues to see local psychotherapist Linda Weber, who moved her practice to Lyons part-time to reach more flood survivors.

French said that overall his fears seem to be subsiding, but as the anniversary approaches, he is concerned that the memories will set him back again.

Here’s a photo gallery of then and now photos from Colorado Public Radio.

From The Denver Post (William Porter):

On a sunny, late-summer day, Eric Skokan strolled among the rows of his farm northeast of Boulder, proudly pointing out some of the vegetables he grows for his two restaurants and various farmers markets: spinach, fennel, six types of basil, cabbage, broccoli, celery, and an experimental stab at sesame plants.

Forty yards away, two sows sprawled on their sides in a fallow patch, their piglets nursing away. Beyond them, corn stood higher than the proverbial elephant’s eye. In all, a scene of bucolic ease and nature’s largesse.

“It’s been a great season,” said Skokan, chef-owner of Black Cat Bistro and Bramble & Hare, his farm-to-table restaurants in downtown Boulder. “Everything is looking gorgeous. Vivid green, the kind of fields that make you feel like a farmer.

“Good, steady rains. Warm days that weren’t too hot. Prime weather.”

Skokan, who started farming in 2007, knows something about weather, both the prime kind and wrath-of-nature punishing.

From The Denver Post (John Aquilar):

Karen Little finds herself in the same bind as thousands of other Coloradans hit by historic flooding a year ago — no flood insurance and a dire need to manage the aftermath of the state’s most costly and widespread natural disaster.

“It leaves me with nothing,” said the 62-year-old bookkeeper, whose home near La Salle was decimated by an overflowing South Platte River last September. “I can’t fix my house because I don’t have the money and I don’t qualify for anything.”

While Little got $16,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help with rental assistance and house repairs, it wasn’t enough to make her house habitable again. She doesn’t make enough money to qualify for a U.S. Small Business Administration loan.

“I didn’t know I needed flood insurance,” Little said.

That’s not unusual given the fact that drastic flooding events are not common in Colorado, said Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association executive director Carole Walker. Homeowners either don’t know about flood coverage, which is underwritten by the National Flood Insurance Program and administered by FEMA, or they choose to forgo it.

“Many people probably said, ‘I’m not in a high flood risk area’ and didn’t have it,” she said. “Colorado has not had this type of widespread, catastrophic loss from flooding.”

Only 24,000 individuals and businesses in the state have flood insurance policies — totaling $5.6 billion in coverage.

From The Greeley Tribune (Kayla Young):

A new, more secure irrigation system in Platteville has become the silver lining for 14 agricultural areas in northern Colorado that had a diversion dam wiped out by last September’s floods.

Although few designs could have withstood such a large-scale weather event, developers of the new Beeman/Meadow Island structure say the modern system would have prevented some of the damage from the 2013 flood.

For starters, ditch operators will no longer need to enter the South Platte to manually install stop logs that manage water flow. Lowering the floodgates will now be as easy as pulling up a phone app, said Robert Eckman, vice president of Obermeyer Hydro Inc.

This equates to quicker response times and less risk for workers.

“The ditch operator can now lower or raise the gate remotely using an application on his cell phone,” explained Eckman at a visit to the reconstructed irrigation facility yesterday.

Obermeyer Hydro Inc. designed the gate and control system for the reconstruction of the Beeman/Meadow Island No. 2 River Diversion. The Wellington-based company has installed 40 similar structures across Colorado, and currently has dozens of irrigation system projects underway across Asia, Europe and South America.

“The No. 1 thing about this system is that it is really controllable. It will maintain a constant water elevation, which is very important to pull a constant flow rate into the canal,” Eckman said. “The second thing it does is that it’s fully collapsible. In a flood, it flattens out completely and there is nothing up top that would catch the debris and worsen the flood.”

The demand for well-engineered river diversion systems has arisen from a need for safer and more manageable facilities. In Platteville’s case, the decision to implement a more advanced structure came down to practicality, said Amy Willhite, who managed the project’s funding for Beeman Irrigating Ditch & Milling Co.

“We asked if we wanted a Band-Aid approach or if we wanted to fix this thing for good. We decided we wanted to put the money into it to fix it right so that this wouldn’t happen again. We realized that this would cost a lot of money. Luckily, the Colorado Water Conservation Board came to the rescue with the emergency loan program,” Willhite said.

In total, the Colorado Water Conservation Board provided $28 million in low-interest loans and grants to rebuild across the flood area. The Beeman/Meadow Island project received $2 million, approximately $1.5 million of which has been used to date. This low-interest loan will be repaid over a 30-year period.

To contribute to engineering costs, the facility also received $50,000 in grant money through Northern Water, said Amy L. Johnson, a Northern Water project manager.

“Northern Water is the fiscal agent for a $2.55 million grant from the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Northern Water and CWCB worked through an application process and developed this grant program and awarded 107 different grants through two cycles,” Johnson said. “In the case of this project, the Beeman Irrigating Company received two grants, both in cycle one and cycle two.”

Johnson said many of the grant requests received by Northern Water were similar to that of Beeman Irrigating Company. Ditch operators needed help repairing diversion structures and clearing out debris in time for the new irrigation season in August.

In a sense, the timing of September’s flood was fortunate for farmers. Although flooding caused extensive crop losses, ditch operators were given enough time to regroup before the 2014 season, said John R. Stulp, a water policy adviser to Gov. John Hickenlooper.

“If we were ever to have a disaster, September was the best time to have it because immediately a lot of companies had financing lined up, and grants from the state to start the assessment and engineering. Then they were able to work through the fall, winter and early spring,” Stulp said.

He added, “By the time late winter and early spring came and the water started flowing, many were back in operation. Over 90 percent have been reconstructed so they are operational. By next spring, nearly 100 percent of those that choose to be reconstructed will be back in business.”

Mike King, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said the remaining repairs will require more careful planning.

“Those are areas where we had the river change channels and the community is undergoing a discussion about where the river should go,” King said.

Through collaborative efforts, King said Colorado has been able to respond quickly to natural disasters and develop action plans.

“It’s awfully hard to have the human resources infrastructure in place and trained because this may not happen again for 100 plus years. What I think we did have in place was a dedicated staff that was willing to learn. I think we’ve all come out of this with a better understanding,” King said.

He added, “We looked to other states that had been through natural disasters and we mobilized very quickly. We looked at all of the hurricane damage along the East Coast to get debriefings on how to go to the feds for resources.”

For a state that has suffered an onslaught of natural disasters in recent years, King emphasized the importance of utilizing human resources to implement rapid response measures.

“Unfortunately, it’s something we’ve gotten far too good at in Colorado. In three and half years of Governor Hickenlooper’s administration, we’ve had 13 natural disaster declarations, which is unprecedented nationwide,” King said.

He added, “Whether it’s droughts or fires or floods — and we’ve had all three — we have become very proficient at making sure resources that are available on the federal level are mobilized and put on the ground for Coloradans. That is absolutely something we’ve become more proficient at than we would like.”

From KRDO (Jay Polk):

It was nearly one year ago that parts of Southwestern Colorado were hit hard by flooding rains. Water invaded homes along Cheyenne Creek and the neighborhood around it was declared a disaster area.