In flooded Colorado, an anguished question: where to live, and for how long

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.

Chris Schneider/ AP Photo
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.

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.

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.

The last time Bruce Boeke saw his house there, just before he, his wife, and their three children were airlifted out on Friday, it was “awash,” he says: the entire first floor was flooded, the garage was completely filled with water, and water was flowing all around the house, over the yard and decks.

Still, he says, his situation is better than some of his neighbors. “The last time I saw our house, it was still standing, and the second floor was untouched.”

Boeke and his family are currently staying with friends in Boulder. Once his wife’s parents can get back into their house – they were evacuated from the foothills just outside of Boulder as well – they’ll stay there. When they can return to Jamestown, he says, is a total question mark.

The town’s water system is destroyed, and the roads are obliterated.

“That’s the big question: Are we going to move back?” says Boeke, who is also on the town board. “We don’t know what FEMA is going to do, we don’t know if our house is inhabitable or repairable. Is Jamestown going to exist anymore? It’s a pretty close-knit community. The majority of people want to go back and rebuild, but there’s a lot of questions to be made.”

Lyons, a town of about 1,500 just north of Boulder and a popular bluegrass and music festival destination, is almost completely evacuated, and city officials have warned that it may be weeks or months before basic services like water treatment and power are restored. Much of the town flooded, and residents aren’t sure when they can return.

For Parker Johnson, who barely escaped the flooding Wednesday night with his wife and three young children, including an 8-month-old baby, he’s mostly just grateful he got out.

Like many residents, he says, he didn’t take seriously the severity of the flooding Wednesday night. He was busy trying to move belongings from his flooded lower level to the dry floor a few steps up when a neighbor – who had forded a raging river to get to him – came in to tell Mr. Johnson he had to get his family out immediately. Until then, Parker hadn’t noticed that the river had jumped the banks and was now flowing through his front yard.

“I went into complete shock,” Johnson says, choking up as he recalls his friend’s intervention.

Dressed in pajamas and flip flops – which were quickly ripped off – he and his wife loaded their children into their Jeep Cherokee and were soon floating in the flooded water. Johnson says he still doesn’t know how the car kept from stalling before it finally hit some dry ground and his tires were able to get traction.

His family is currently staying with friends in Boulder, and looking for a longer-term solution. He estimates it will be three to six months before they can return to their home – though, miraculously, the slightly elevated main level didn’t flood.

“There is not even a remembrance of where there was a driveway,” Johnson says, describing instead a huge trough of boulders and river stones that would be impassable to even the heaviest-duty truck.

“A question that has arisen in my mind is will anything ever fully return to normal,” he says. “Do we go back and completely reinvest our livelihoods?” Several of his elderly neighbors, he says, have already told him they’ll probably walk away rather than rebuild.

“Maybe I need to rethink what’s next for us,” he says. “And yet we love it here, we had an idyllic situation…. We’re proud of what an idyllic lovely town we live in, and we’ve taken a huge blow.”

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