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In flooded Colorado, an anguished question: where to live, and for how long (+video)

For the thousands in Colorado displaced by the floods, the uncertainty is the hardest part. Even homes left standing may be inaccessible for months, and the future of entire communities could be in doubt.

By Staff writer / September 17, 2013

Kathryn Reeves, left, and Trenton Mays tow an inflatable boat full of family possessions from their relatives flooded trailer in Evans, Colo., on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013. Many residents left behind their most prized possessions as they fled from the flood waters.

Chris Schneider/ AP Photo

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Boulder, Colo.

They’ve been airlifted from the mountains by Chinook and Blackhawk, and driven out via flooded and destroyed roadways by the National Guard. Some people left behind houses barely touched by the floods, but now inaccessible because of washed-out roads. Others left homes completely destroyed, taking with them nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

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More than 11,000 people are displaced in Colorado because of the floods, and about 11,750 are under mandatory evacuation orders. The largest airlift rescue operation since Hurricane Katrina has helped evacuate more than 1,700 people from isolated areas, and was continuing Tuesday.

The numbers of displaced people – many of whom may not be able to get back to their homes for many months – creates a daunting challenge for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the state, as they work to figure out housing solutions. Stories abound of near escapes, daring rescues, and families – including many with elderly residents and young children – who have no idea where they’ll live for the coming months.

At this point, many are staying with friends, family, and neighbors, though several shelters are also operating and full. FEMA hasn’t made any housing decisions, though in a news conference Monday, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said that renting homes and using modular housing units were options. “There are a wide range of programs,” Mr. Fugate said, noting that FEMA has learned a lot from its work housing displaced people from Hurricane Sandy.

For now, many displaced Coloradans have no idea when they’ll be able to return even to assess the damage to their homes, much less to live in them.

“It’s that not knowing [when we can return], and being told ‘if you leave, you will not be able to come back’ ” that’s really hard, says Larry Shaw, shortly after he was airlifted out of his Pinewood Springs community by Chinook helicopter, along with his parents and their five dogs.

He and other Pinewood Springs residents, along with a menagerie of cats, dogs, and other pets who evacuated with them, were milling around a Boulder evacuation site Monday, many waiting for friends to pick them up, all with just the two packed bags they were allowed to bring with them.

The one bright spot as they waited to be evacuated, says Shaw and other residents, was the incredible camaraderie and community spirit in the town. A local store, the Colorado Cherry Company, hosted huge potluck dinners every night in which residents donated any perishable food they had – bison chili, antelope steaks, Italian sausage, salads – and used the store’s grills to cook it. A restaurant across the street had a still-functioning gas oven and people cooked pies. A few people with generators invited neighbors over when they turned them on for several hours.

“It was really beautiful how the community came together,” says Shaw.

The community of about 600, located between Lyons and Estes Park, is without power and cut off due to road damage, and Mr. Shaw says he’s heard some people estimate that it may be spring before they can return.

Though many houses, including Shaw’s, were flooded on the ground floor, most are still standing; the issue, as with many mountain communities, is access.

That’s not the case for the small, close-knit community of Jamestown, in the mountains to the west of Boulder, where many homes were completely swept away and destroyed and at least one person died when a mudslide hit his house.

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