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After Colorado floods, state will rebuild, but should it 'redo'?

The Colorado floods are leading to a massive rebuilding effort, but with winter closing in, the question is whether the state can wait to rebuild better and smarter, or whether it must simply move fast.

By Staff writer / September 25, 2013

Much of Lefthand Canyon Road in Boulder, Colo., had washed away on Sept. 14. The process of rebuilding from the Colorado floods is beginning.

Jeremy Papasso/Daily Camera/AP

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Boulder, Colo.

The floodwaters have largely receded, and the lists of unaccounted for people have dwindled.

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In their wake, they’ve left hundreds of miles of destroyed highway, dozens of washed-away bridges, and thousands of demolished and damaged homes.

The rebuilding process that Colorado faces now is a daunting, hugely expensive task that will ultimately take years. It is also, say many disaster experts, an opportunity – a chance to rebuild some things better than they were before, with an eye toward withstanding future flooding.

“The silver lining with events like this is you do have the opportunity to redo things differently – the layout of roads, the layout of towns,” says Michael Gooseff, a professor of hydroecologic science and engineering at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “Mother Nature has reset the playing field for us.”

The competing goals of speed, economy, and disaster mitigation and planning can sometimes be at odds with each other, experts say. And simply the scale of what needs to take place is daunting. But Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Jerre Stead, his new chief recovery officer, have talked about rebuilding “stronger” – though the governor has also set a relatively rapid target schedule.

Preliminary estimates say that some 200 miles of highway and about 50 bridges have been wiped out or severely damaged, and more than 2,000 homes destroyed. Many of those roads go through challenging mountain terrain and are vital to connecting communities, now largely isolated.

"We are about to embark on a rebuilding effort that is truly epic in scale," Governor Hickenlooper said at a news conference last week, in which he set a Dec. 1 deadline for rebuilding as many roads and bridges as possible. "We want to recover and rebuild quickly, better, and in the most efficient way possible."

In many ways, the task Colorado now faces is similar to that facing Vermont after hurricane Irene hit two years ago. Like Colorado, Vermont is a mountainous state, and the deluge of rain that fell poured into narrow valleys, washing away roads and bridges. The state lost some 500 miles of roadway and more than 30 bridges.

“The kind of flooding we had, and that Colorado is experiencing, is erosion, tremendous erosion. The power of the water just ripped apart roads, bridges, and many many homes and businesses,” says Sue Minter, deputy secretary at Vermont’s Agency of Transportation.

And, just as in Colorado, Vermont faced the prospect of a looming winter season when construction is largely forced to a halt.

Ms. Minter was part of a delegation from Vermont that flew to Colorado shortly after the flood to share some of what they’ve learned with their Colorado counterparts. One of the suggestions, according to Minter: Having an “incident command system” in place to allow for the quick marshaling of resources was hugely helpful, says Minter, who says Colorado is already moving toward a similar structure.

Vermont also reached out to the federal government and to neighboring states for help, and did whatever was possible to get roads replaced quickly, before the onset of winter, and to expedite permitting processes.

But that goal of speed, notes Minter, doesn’t have to be at odds with careful planning. Her advice to Colorado officials: Do everything possible in the short term simply to get roads passable. Then, once the winter has passed, take a closer look at all the projects with an eye toward rebuilding for resilience, to withstand future disasters.

“In this moment, they need to get those roads up,” says Minter. “But then they need to go back and think long-term.”

Once winter had passed in Vermont, a team of people that included both transportation officials and scientists revisited more than 600 sites to evaluate their strength, and ultimately concluded that about half of them needed more rebuilding, or repositioning, to make them stronger. Details like the contour of the road, and how it’s sloped near the river, can matter hugely when it comes to flooding, says Minter.

Some of the questions facing Colorado communities will include what sort of future disaster to plan for.

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