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Flood's toll incurred by few, borne by many

By Associated Press
Published On: Nov 26 2013 11:48:56 AM CST
Updated On: Nov 26 2013 05:01:36 PM CST

Highway 34 along the Big Thompson River. (Photo: Capt. Darin Overstreet/U.S. Air National Guard)

DRAKE, Colo. -

Lifelong canyon resident Mary Myers hangs a painted sheet from her front porch overlooking the Big Thompson River.
    
On it is a list of who Myers thinks has helped her and who she thinks hasn't. There are big boxes with checks next to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Small Business Administration, and the word "Power." But the box next to the words "Larimer County" remains empty. Myers wants the county to tell her how it will replace the washed-out bridge that once led visitors to her riverside home.
    
Myers and many of her neighbors were stranded this fall when September's flood washed away U.S. Highway 34, 65 bridges and 1,500 homes in Larimer County. Now, as many work to rebuild without the benefit of flood insurance, canyon residents like Myers are waiting for their government to help with things they say they can't do alone.
    
Things like moving the Big Thompson River, restoring lost land and rebuilding bridges.
    
On Nov. 21, a sign of help and hope returned to Big Thompson Canyon. The Colorado Department of Transportation reopened U.S. 34, an arterial route that connects Estes Park and residents of the canyon back to the Front Range.
    
But after two catastrophic floods in less than 40 years, Big Thompson Canyon residents, like mountain-dwellers across the state, have become increasingly dependent on the government to protect and restore a landscape many see as a hazard. So one question continues to be posed as Colorado's mountain residents recover from two years of devastating wildfires and floods: Who should bear the burden of protecting their way of life?
    
This fall, a governor's task force suggested that residents of Colorado's wildfire zones should pay extra taxes to help cover the growing cost of disaster response. It's still too early to know if the state will work to prevent residents from building in areas prone to flood or fire, but the dangers of mountain living have come into clear focus for Colorado's leadership.
    
"On the Front Range of Colorado, if you are in the foothills of Colorado that's a very dangerous place to be," Colorado Department of Transportation Executive Director Don Hunt told a bipartisan panel of lawmakers appointed to look at flood recovery. "I don't know that we can ever have enough technology and warning systems to keep people safe in these canyons."
    
When Myers, 52, lost her job at Poudre Valley Hospital last fall, she and her husband, Mike, decided to leave Fort Collins and move into an old family cabin in Big Thompson Canyon.
    
Myers had grown up at the summer cabin, which her father had repaired after World War II. As a 15-year-old, Myers watched as a late-July rainstorm scoured the canyon, killing 144 people.
    
A Chinook helicopter airlifted Myers and her grandmother out of the canyon after the Big Thompson flood of 1976; it was months before they were able to return. This September, it was a Black Hawk that evacuated the Myers, their two dogs, and two of their cats.
    
"It took a lot longer to be able to come back in 1976," Myers recalled. "We were anticipating that we wouldn't be able to get back in here until spring."
    
Myers was wrong, thanks to an aggressive agenda set by Gov. John Hickenlooper's mandate that all state roads destroyed by the flood be repaired by Dec. 1. U.S. 34 beat the deadline by two weeks - much to the surprise of Hunt, who predicted that road would not be "a perfectly paved road by Dec. 1."
    
Myers moved back home two weeks ago, and when she drove the highway the morning of Nov. 20 it was perfectly paved, smelling of fresh asphalt. The Big Thompson River was calm, flowing in a monstrous new riverbed it carved in September; its banks are littered with trash, splinters of houses and the occasional piece of clothing.
    
But two large floods in her life haven't persuaded Myers or some of her neighbors to give up on "our canyon," she said. In fact, research shows that disasters rarely chase their victims permanently away from their homes, said Sarah McCaffrey, a forest researcher with the U.S. Forest Service's Northern Research Station in Illinois.
    
"People do move back, because by and large the values are still there that they lived there for," she said. "There is some evidence of disaster subcultures where you just sort of learn to live with it."
    
That holds particularly true in areas prone to flooding, McCaffrey added. For Myers, there used to be the belief that something like the 1976 flood wouldn't happen again for centuries, so why not move back?
    
"Hey, we all survived the flood of 1976. They just don't come any bigger," she thought before September.
    
Myers has launched into restoring her subdivision's land to what it was before the flood. Delighted with CDOT's job on the highway, she regularly passes out cookies to crews on the side of the road. She also keeps a thick address book of contacts - state and county engineers, mostly - to whom she sends letters and a PowerPoint presentation detailing what she wants of them.
    
She wants them to restore what the residents themselves cannot afford to cover. The Restu subdivision where she lives lost more than 100 feet of land between homes and the river, and its houses now hang off a cliff that wasn't there three months ago. Many subdivisions also lost bridges, built after the 1976 flood by Larimer County, which connected them to the highway. Myers' neighbors think the river needs to be moved back before other recovery work can begin, but none of them can afford to rent the right equipment to do it, they say.
    
The canyon residents have created a Facebook group to share their frustration. It's called: "We survived the flood. Now what?"
    
Myers said that question has baffled many engineers who were shocked to see the river hundreds of feet from where it used to be. After chatting with every worker and FEMA or government employee that comes her way, she hopes the subdivision will get the help.
    
"We kind of got the feeling from those bosses that they've got a heart for us," she said.
    
At the palpably joyous opening of U.S. 34 on Thursday, Hickenlooper pledged that the road's restoration would be the first of many for the canyon that will likely cost the state and Larimer County millions. CDOT has yet to tally the cost of all road repair projects throughout the state, officials said.
    
From the start, CDOT's Hunt knew that rebuilding post-flood was bound to be costly. CDOT received help through a federal highway reimbursement program, but eventually between 10-12 percent of those funds will have to be repaid, he told the committee of lawmakers in mid-November.
    
"I will be the first to admit that when you are in a disaster situation cost containment cannot be your first priority," he said.
    
Whether governments should continually help rebuild communities in disaster-prone zones is a controversial subject in the recovery world, said McCaffrey. Disaster victims expect the government to aid them, McCaffrey said, but after a year of catastrophic fires, floods, and hurricanes, rebuilding communities from Colorado to the New Jersey shore will be expensive.
    
"This is the big question. It comes up with hurricanes, it comes up with earthquakes," McCaffrey added. "Do we let them live there? Why do we help them rebuild there? Why am I living in the Midwest but funding people on the East Coast?"
    
For Daniel Aldrich, a professor at Purdue University who studies disaster recovery, the answers come down to politics. Humans have always lived in disaster zones and likely always will, and their governments support that choice with money, he said.
    
"Governments around the world will help subsidize homes for people living in these dangerous zones," Aldrich said. "The government subsidizes our choices. Why? Basically there is political will to help a bunch of people."
    
Refusing aid to disaster victims or taxing them based upon where they live are dangerous decisions for state politicians to make, Aldrich said. "These decisions can damage political careers," he added.
    
In his research, Aldrich has noticed a correlation between disasters and election years. Often, communities struck by disaster will receive more aid during an election year, he said.
    
Some states have considered what Aldrich says is an obvious solution - barring or restricting people from living in disaster-prone areas.
    
In parts of California, people who live in wildfire zones pay extra taxes. Hickenlooper's Wildfire Insurance and Forest Health Task Force proposed this fall a similar tax for Colorado residents. Across the world, some rural residents in New Zealand have been told that firefighters will not be deployed to fight a wildfire where they live.
    
But imposing new restrictions on a small group of homeowners will likely raise more of a rumpus than taxing many to help support the few, Aldrich said.
    
"If you tell homeowners they can't live somewhere, they will mobilize," he added.
    
Taxing or restricting homeowners in disaster zones is not fair until it's done across the board - from the California coast, through the wildernesses of Colorado, to the New Jersey shores, Aldrich said. Until a nationwide resolution is reached, disasters must be cleaned up and paid for.
    
"People go live off the grid until disaster strikes. Off the grid in some ways is very much on the grid in others," he said. "Most of us don't think of the additional costs."

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