Eight days of rain, five years of cleanup: Three years after the 100-year flood, Boulder County is just past the halfway mark

Above: A photo of the Lee Hill home where James Adams, his girlfriend Sarah Kell and their roommates were stranded during the flood Photo courtesy of Sarah Kell

Boulder Floods by the numbers: a graphic outline  (Follow this link for more detailed financial data on the floods)

The rain started innocently enough on that mid-September Sunday in 2013, but then, for eight straight days, it never stopped.

In canyons like Coal Creek and Left Hand, dirt roads turned to mud and slid away like melting ice cream. In the city, business windows darkened and college students took to the streets, inner tubing through tunnels around the University of Colorado campus.

“We were displaced up on Lee Hill when it happened,” said James Adams, a local musician who was stranded with his girlfriend and roommates in the mountains during the storm. “Our road washed out and no one could leave for like four days. Our power was out for 24 plus hours, which meant no water since we were on a well at the time. The Army Corps. of Engineers had to come rebuild the road before we could make it out.”

Adams and others living on Colorado’s Front Range endured a 1000-year rainfall and a 100-year flood, with a cumulative rainfall of 17.5 inches over about one week.

The flood claimed ten lives as it ripped through Boulder County. Some people went missing for days, and others were stuck stranded in neighborhoods that turned to islands.

Boulder’s open spaces, trails and roads all but vanished in some areas, and the property damage to homes and businesses was astronomical.

In the City of Boulder alone, 6,562 thousand homes – 14 percent of the city’s housing stock – were damaged or destroyed. Private property damages in the city added up to $200 million, while municipal damages totaled $28 million.

Three years later, most of Boulder looks untouched by the flood, but take a drive toward Estes Park, Jamestown or Lyons and the scars of one of the state’s worst natural disasters are laid bare. In those places, some people are still waiting and working. They’re haunted by damaged homes yet to be repaired, private-access bridges yet to be replaced, pending buyouts and delayed reimbursements.

“It’s hard to work in flood recovery because so much of the county didn’t get hit and people don’t understand why we’re still recovering or what we’re still recovering from,” said Katie Arrington, a flood recovery specialist for Boulder County. “When I say, ‘Oh, I work in flood recovery,’ people are like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

As Arrington and other flood recovery workers know well, natural disasters may come and go in a flash, but cleaning up afterword is a slow, grinding process. At this point, three years and two months after the fact, recovery projects are just over halfway complete.

While the county, for the most part, is still on-track with its five-year plan and $217 million recovery budget, some areas have cost more time and money than initially anticipated.

The most striking example would be road and bridge projects, which have been immensely expensive in comparison to other reparation projects. As of September of last year, road and bridge repairs represented more than half of all flood recovery spending – more than $46 million out of about $81.5 million total – and repairs will likely continue through 2018.

“Some of the bridges were completely wiped out and the roads were scoured down to the bedrock,” said Andrew Barth, a communication specialist with the Boulder County Transportation Department. “Essentially, we’re rebuilding from scratch and that’s where the major expenses come in. And not only are we rebuilding, but we’re building them bigger and stronger, so they’re more resilient for the next flooding event.”

Throughout the county, 30 bridges were damaged and ten major bridges were destroyed, Barth said.

The bridge on East County Line Road over St. Vrain Creek, as well as the Sunset Street Bridge – both near Longmont – have already been repaired. In addition, the bridge on Flagstaff Road outside Boulder is complete, and the North 83rd Street Bridge near Lyons will be finished in about three weeks, Barth said.

While these major bridges are some of the most noticeable and costly flood-related projects, damage to private access bridges is another key issue that, in some ways, has been more difficult to resolve.

Unable to foot the massive bills associated with rebuilding private bridges, some people have resorted to parking on the wrong side of the road and creating make-shift foot bridges to get in and out of their homes; a less-than-ideal situation in terms of safety, Barth said.

“We’re working with a lot of people to try to help them find funding because these private bridges can range between $250 thousand and half a million dollars,” he said. “We’ve been able to secure money from the housing and urban development part of the government through the CDBGDR, the Community Development Block Grant for Disaster Recovery.”

Caseworkers have also tapped Community Development Block Grants, which come from the federal government, to help homeowners who remain in limbo, awaiting reimbursements, household repairs or buyouts. While some assistance has been offered to those most in need, plenty of families continue to struggle to find solutions while they wait on permanent housing.


Above: Flood damage in Jamestown, Colorado in Sept., 2013. Image from the FEMA photo library

“It’s been really hard for people,” Arrington said. “A small percentage of houses were able to be lived in, so they’re still waiting for a buyout but they’re living in a damaged house. Some people moved in with relatives. Some people are using savings and renting other houses.”

In some cases where the government – for regulatory or financial reasons – couldn’t offer help, outside sources have intervened. The non-profit organization Foothills United Way raised about $4 million for the Flood-Relief Fund, with a chunk of that going toward housing assistance, said Arrington, who is a member of the organization’s Unmet Needs committee.

Volunteer efforts and community donations have been managed by the Longterm Flood Recovery Group, which operates separately from the county but still works with county officials to help fund and complete ongoing projects, Arrington said.

“I know that many, many, many, many more houses were able to be rebuilt with the funds that the Longterm Flood Recovery Group had,” she said. “Volunteer groups have been coming on a regular basis for weeks at a time since the flood.”

In a presentation to the Boulder County Commissioners last September, county officials said the county is expected to reach $153 million in flood-related expenses by the end of the year. In addition, they estimated that over the next two years, about $130.6 million more in flood recovery funds may be required.

This massive chunk of money comes from a number of sources, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Community Development Block Grants from the federal government, state funds generated from tax dollars and volunteer funds.

To date, FEMA has approved nearly $124 million for individual assistance and $696 million in public assistance for issues related to the 2013 floods. Money from FEMA mostly aided in initial emergency assistance, and while FEMA dollars have greatly aided the Front Range community, some recipients were surprised and upset to receive repayment notices after the floods.

In the City of Boulder, CDBG-DR assistance has awarded $4.6 million for home rehabilitation and $450,000 for temporary rental assistance. Just over half of the home rehabilitation projects are complete, according to the Flood Recovery Resource Guide. 

Natural disasters are costly. The floods have required hundreds of millions of dollars and countless hours of work from volunteers and county and city employees. To think that the county has just passed the halfway point on the road to recovery can be overwhelming, and somewhat discouraging, but it hasn’t been for nothing, Barth said.

“I was here for the whole thing,” he said. “It still is mind boggling when I go back through pictures and look at all the roads that were washed out and then look at what we’ve built, it’s amazing.”

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