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After the flood: Colorado making tough decisions about how to rebuild

Torrential flooding in northern Colorado destroyed homes, damaged highways, and rerouted rivers. Many of the issues now facing residents and communities have come into sharp focus in the small town of Lyons.

By Staff writer / October 12, 2013

Musician David Tiller stands in the backyard of his destroyed recording studio and home that were in the path of the flooding in Lyons, Colo.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Lyons, Colo.

When the waters of the St. Vrain came pouring over its banks one night last month, they ripped out huge trees, tore through homes along Apple Valley Road, cut new channels through parks and yards, and rushed through some downtown neighborhoods in Lyons, Colo., with particular force.

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At David Tiller's small bungalow on Park Street, the "river" – normally a lightly flowing creek – overflowed its banks and gushed into the recording studio he had built in his backyard. Shortly after he, his wife, and their 5-year-old son escaped to higher ground in their van, the river ripped through their house with enough force to blow out the front walls, churn furniture as though it were in a washing machine, and wash the neighbor's house off its foundation and into theirs. Two weeks later, as Mr. Tiller and his sister picked through the wreckage, both the home and recording studio were half full of a toxic mix of mud, sewage, and river debris.

The flooding that hit northern Colorado between Sept. 11 and 15 affected 20 counties and an area of nearly 2,000 square miles, but it hit certain towns and neighborhoods with unusual severity. Now, towns like Lyons, one of the worst hit, are having to make tough decisions – whether to reroute rivers back to their former channels, whether to allow rebuilding in all the areas that flooded, and how to make the towns more flood-resistant in the future. At the same time, residents like Tiller are wrestling with agonizing decisions of their own. About 2,000 homes were destroyed in the region hit by the flood.

The state of Colorado faces an even larger task – restoring access to isolated communities. Some 200 miles of state highways and about 50 state-maintained bridges have been severely damaged or wiped out, many in challenging mountain terrain. It's a daunting undertaking that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and will involve competing goals of speed, economy, and disaster mitigation and planning.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), who has said he wants to rebuild "stronger," has set a Dec. 1 deadline for rebuilding as much as possible, before winter sets in. Overall, though, the process will take years.

No doubt many decisions will be tough, although there could be an upside.

"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."

In many ways, Colorado's task is similar to the one Vermont grappled with after the storm Irene hit two years ago.

Like Colorado, Vermont is a mountainous state, and the deluge of rain 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, [caused] 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.

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