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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.

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But restoring the river to its former path could be tricky – and expensive. And to the extent that engineers can find places to leave buffers – places where the river can spread out into wetlands and flood plains, alleviating pressure downstream – it will be better for future flooding, Shipley says.

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"Part of what we're trying to do is build this town back better than it was," he says.

At this point, essentially the entire town of Lyons is evacuated since all utilities – water, sewage, electricity, gas – were lost in the flood. The town's public works building is in shambles, and weeks after the flood, the city was still trying to locate water mains.

Power and gas have now been restored in some areas, so that some businesses can resume minimal operations, but the town has warned that the businesses assume risk for any fires.

But even as the town struggles to get services back, residents – who have been allowed back in during the day with a pass – are struggling with many of their own questions about how, or if, to rebuild.

On Park Street, one of the worst-hit sections of town, rumors were flying that rebuilding might not even be allowed or that the county might decide to buy residents out and repurpose the land.

"We don't know if we can rebuild, or what the town will decide," Tiller says. "It's the golden question."

Tiller, a gentle man who surveys damage to his property with a Zen-like calm, lost virtually everything in the flood and didn't have flood insurance. He and his wife are musicians in the band Taarka, and they bought their house outright several years ago with a small inheritance.

"Having this house allowed us to make a living as musicians," he says. "Without it, we don't really have that option."

The night of the flood, he rescued a few of their most valuable instruments, some microphones and recording equipment, and his good camera. Everything else – from valuable 17th-century furniture that had belonged to his grandmother to his son's favorite stuffed panda – was swallowed up by mud.

Rebuilding in a place that flooded so badly isn't ideal, but all Tiller and his wife have left is the land they own and whatever can be salvaged from the home. So if rebuilding is allowed, that's what they'll do, he says.

"We might not have a lot of choice," Tiller says. "That's where our money is, and we're not going to get whatever that land is worth back."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been assessing damaged properties, and Tiller says it is offering rent assistance of $1,068 a month for his family. It might also give as much as $32,000 to help repair damage, although Tiller thinks that figure is only about a fifth of what they'll need.

Overall, FEMA has already approved $36.2 million in individual assistance to Colorado homeowners affected by flooding and $34.2 million in housing assistance.

Just up the street from Tiller, Joe Meckle lost not just his home but his business as well, a chiropractic clinic he ran out of his house. Dr. Meckle did have flood insurance, but it won't cover any of the damaged belongings – including expensive X-ray machines and chiropractic tables that were destroyed.

"This town was a Shangri-La, man," he reminisces ruefully, as he swaps stories with neighbors outside his mud-filled home and debates what happens next.

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