The yellow-striped chunks of asphalt that cascaded into Coal Creek in the waning days of the summer of 2013 are long gone, while the yawning gap in the road created by rushing floodwaters has once again been spanned.
Still, motorists wait for County Road in Louisville to open to traffic more than three years after it was destroyed in Colorado’s costliest natural disaster.
The reconstruction project just south of the city’s historic downtown, scheduled to wrap up Oct. 15, aptly illustrates the lasting impact the flood of 2013 had — and continues to have — on communities that found themselves in the path of the epic five-day deluge. Last week marked the third anniversary of the deadly storm, which killed 10 people and displaced 18,000 more, destroyed more than 1,800 homes and 200 businesses and racked up costs of nearly $4 billion.
Though the flood has long slipped to the rearview mirrors of most folks, the recovery effort remains strong, said Molly Urbina, executive director of the Colorado Resiliency and Recovery Office.
“The summer of 2016 was a very busy season in flood recovery, as we saw many projects coming out of the ground with a lot of construction activity with housing, roads, bridges and watersheds,” she said. “We saw activity begin to peak this year and will continue through 2017 as the process for various projects continues through engineering, environmental reviews and permitting at the local level.”
Besides the bridge in Louisville, there are two other flood-damaged bridges still out of commission in Boulder County, a road wiped out in Larimer County, a park closed in Evans and tens of millions of dollars worth of permanent repairs needed on miles of roads that thus far have only seen a temporary fix.
Of the $353 million the Federal Emergency Management Agency has given to the state for distribution to local communities tackling major infrastructure repairs, $137 million has been disbursed. The remainder, Urbina said, will be paid out “after completion of eligible activities and submittal of required documentation.”
Which means the mopping up of the mopping up is still several years out.
“The one thing that surprised me is how long this process takes,” said Roy Rudisill, director of emergency management for Weld County.
While all roads in the county are passable, there are at least two major repairs on a bridge and road near Kersey still to go, he said. Work on everything related to the 2013 flood, including reimbursement checks from the government, probably won’t close out until 2018, Rudisill said.
So far, Weld County has been reimbursed $7.5 million of the $10.2 million in expenses it submitted to both FEMA and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).
For the small city of Evans, reimbursements from a variety of federal agencies have added up to $3.4 million so far. Spokeswoman Kristan Williams said the city has spent more than $5.7 million recovering from the flood, which sent the South Platte River rushing over its banks and into the city’s neighborhoods.
The biggest impact to Evans residents from the flood was the destruction of Riverside Park, Williams said. A small portion of the park has been refurbished and has reopened, but the bulk of the 100-acre facility is not yet usable. It won’t be until 2018, she said.
“This park has been the venue for baseball tournaments and festivals and is deeply missed in our community,” Williams said. “Thousands of hours have been spent by the city to plan, design and work with federal and state agencies to be able to reopen. It is extremely complex and challenging to convey that it isn’t a matter of putting on gloves and picking up trash to be able to reopen it.”
At least $2 million is needed to get Riverside Park back in order, Williams said, but securing funds from a variety of state and federal agencies is no easy task.
“There is a process you follow to make sure you get reimbursed,” she said.
“The process was lengthy”
That process can be painstaking. Longmont, which is eligible for $55 million in FEMA reimbursements for damage to its bridges, roads, wastewater treatment plant and the St. Vrain River itself, has assigned half a dozen city staffers to gather receipts and put together expense reports for FEMA to vet.
Peter Gibbons was hired by Longmont in March to head up the city’s recovery division.
“It doesn’t work as, like, you get this big blank check,” he told the Longmont Times-Call this month. “You get a $55 million obligation, which means, ‘We’re going to give you $55 million as long as you do all the things you said you’re going to do.’ ”
That process is a big reason Louisville’s County Road bridge took so long to rebuild. City Manager Malcolm Fleming said the bridge was not as high a priority as were some other critical flood recovery efforts in Boulder County, but the $3.2 million project was also subject to federal and state procedures and review guidelines.
“The process was lengthy, and residents have expressed frustration with how long project has taken,” Fleming said. “However, to get the FHWA funding, we had to operate within the FHWA’s constraints on the design, bidding and construction process, which took time.”
The new bridge couldn’t come any sooner for Myra Chapman, a seven-year Louisville resident enjoying a late morning at Community Park last week. She said the rush-hour backups on State Highway 42 from cars trying to take a left onto Pine Street are getting old. Restoring the County Road link to downtown is vital.
“You have to wait three light cycles before you can turn,” she said. “It’s been a very long time.”
A very long time is something many Boulder County residents, especially those living in the foothills, know a lot about. Roadways paralleling rivers in steep, narrow canyons took the biggest hit, as torrents of water barreled through the narrow passages desperately seeking lower elevation in as little time as possible.
Giant machines moved dirt and rock last week along Lefthand Canyon Drive, just east of where Lee Hill Drive intersects with the mountainous road. Boulder County Transportation spokesman Andy Barth said the work is part of $30 million to $40 million worth of road reconstruction projects expected to be completed in the county in 2017 alone.
“We’ve estimated that we could be in construction until 2019, 2020,” he said.
Boulder County’s roads and bridges took a $150 million hit from the 2013 flood. Barth said $57 million has been spent so far on repairs, with $24.1 million of that total having come back to the county in the form of reimbursements from FEMA or FWHA. There is still nearly $93 million worth of flood-related work to do.
“It wasn’t like the asphalt was just broken — it was scoured down to bedrock,” he said. “This stuff takes a long time.”
It will also take a long time for the resurrection of U.S. 34 west of Loveland, where a 3-mile section of the highway will be closed in both directions to all but canyon residents starting Oct. 17 so that major repairs can be performed.
“The canyon section sustained widespread, massive damage,” according to a description of the coming project on the Colorado Department of Transportation website. “Major sections of roadway were washed away completely, along with access bridges and retaining walls. In the narrows, much of the roadway and grade were undermined, washing out the pavement from below and exposing the wall support structures.”
The closure, between Drake and Cedar Cove, will last until Memorial Day weekend.
Signs of progress
While challenges remain plentiful three years after the skies opened to tragic effect, many communities are successfully putting the flood of 2013 behind them one fix at a time.
In Larimer County, the gigantic task of putting County Road 43 back together again — at a cost of $49 million — has come to an end. The months of escorted traffic through multiple blasts zones as crews resuscitated a road swept away by manic waves of water are no more.
The website that for more than a year informed motorists of nearly constant delays on the route between Estes Park and Drake bears a happy, if short-lived, message.
“Because this project is now substantially complete, this website will be taken down in mid-September,” it reads.
Todd Juergens, road and bridge director for Larimer County, said after spending nearly $46 million on flood repairs through the end of August, the county projects it has nearly $55 million left of repairs to do. That includes reconnecting County Road 22H to County Road 29 over the Big Thompson River west of Loveland, a task he thinks will be completed by the end of the year.
“This is what we do,” Juergens said matter-of-factly of the work in front of him.
The residents of hard-hit Jamestown did what they had to do to come back from nearly total destruction. For months after the storm, dozens of residents were unable to return because of flood damage to their houses — if their houses were standing at all.
Tara Schoedinger, Jamestown’s mayor, said even with up to $20 million in damage and a population of about 20 fewer people than there were preflood, her town has emerged as a “strong and more resilient community” three years after the deluge.
The final home to be rebuilt on a once-sodden ground will be unveiled in the spring. And Jamestown proudly shows off its newly built bridge with burly retaining walls on the west end of town.
Urbina, the head of Colorado’s recovery office, said other postflood accomplishments are worth noting.
More than 100 affordable housing units in flood-impacted communities have been built, many of which are available for residents displaced by the flood. One hundred sixty-nine businesses and farms in Colorado have received money through the Community Development Block Grant program. Also, 74 watershed restoration projects in the state will be implemented through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Watershed Protection Program.
“The strength shown by the disaster survivors and the leaders at the local level continues to inspire us, and the state will remain a partner working side by side with them until this recovery is complete,” Urbina said.
2013 Flood recovery by the numbers
FEMA public assistance (infrastructure): $355 million
FEMA individual assistance: $62 million
FEMA reimbursements distributed via the state: $137 million
Total damage from storm: $3.9 billion
Homes destroyed: 1,852
Businesses destroyed: 203