Floodwaters leave behind scars in Colorado
September 22, 2013 1:30 AM
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JAMESTOWN, Colo. — In the Colorado mountains, the floodwaters struck James-town like an invading army. Houses tumbled into the churning Little James Creek. A torrent of rocks and mud crushed Joey Howlett, 72, in his home.

People rushed into the rain in pajamas, children in their arms, to shouts of “Get out! Get out!”

About 50 miles downstream in the blue-collar city of Evans, the flood filled up poor neighborhoods like a stoppered sink. The rain-swollen South Platte poured into enclaves of Hispanic immigrants. It filled trailers with raw sewage and mud. As the police pounded on doors, families rushed around inside amid the encroaching sludge, desperately trying to locate green cards and work papers.

Jamestown and Evans. One, a 280-person town of Victorian homes, string musicians and organic gardeners. The other, a 20,000-person city on the plains, where families have journeyed from Mexico to work at the meatpacking plant and in the oil fields. Now they are bound together by Colorado’s worst flood in a generation, two communities among dozens confronting urgent questions about how long it will take to recover.

As the water has drained from the mountains to the plains, it has left a trail of devastation that state officials say will take years to wipe away and that one estimate has put at $2 billion. In the mountains, entire roads have vanished, cutting off remote communities from the rest of the world. Nearly 18,000 homes have been wrecked or damaged. At least 50 bridges are gone. Hundreds of miles of highway are cracked and buckled.

“It chewed us up,” said Jake Brotherton, 21, a glass blower who grew up in Jamestown and stayed behind with his family as other residents were evacuated by helicopter.

The flooding hit 17 counties in northern Colorado, ravaging an area four times the size of Los Angeles. It snatched up cars and couches, family photos and farm animals. Officials believe it swept away at least 10 people — an 80-year-old woman who drowned at home, a 79-year-old woman lost in the Big Thompson River, a teenage couple swamped after they left their car.

Tourist towns like Lyons and Estes Park, which sit at the doorway to Rocky Mountain National Park, are bracing for months of economic pain. Residents are beginning to return, but the main roads leading into both towns are likely to be closed for months. Estes Park has canceled its Autumn Gold Festival.

In Jamestown, the residents who stayed behind have turned to one another. They cooked pancakes and bacon at the Mercantile Cafe as the waters rose, and sang “This Little Light of Mine” when the body of Howlett, a beloved local figure, was carried out of his ruined home. To reconnect neighborhoods separated by rushing waters, they built bridges with a resident’s donated lumber.

“We couldn’t leave each other,” said Anne Breiler, a retired nurse whose home survived the deluge.

The floods and landslides began late on Sept. 11 and worsened as a foot of rain pounded the town. The swollen creek burst through bridges, gutted roads, knocked some homes into the water and ruined many more.

On Sept. 13, Jyoti Sharp woke up to find that half of her home was dangling above the roaring creek.

“We were surrounded on all sides,” she said. Though she had flood insurance, Sharp said the $250,000 policy would not be enough to cover the extent of the damage.

Water mains were destroyed, phone lines are still down and the main road to Boulder lies in shards. Winter’s approach will make life only harder for people who are now lugging buckets of creek water to flush their toilets.

Residents have vowed to rebuild the town they treasure, and can already envision the celebration in the town’s small park. But between now and then, there are heaps of rocks, houses listing into the water and months and months of work.

As the water streamed down from mountain communities like Jamestown, it raced toward lowland cities and towns like Evans.

Near the banks of the South Platte, trailer homes are a tally of hard-earned livings washed away. Gone or ruined are green cards and work papers, stereos and statues of saints, bicycles and worn photographs of Mexican men in cowboy hats.

When the river flooded Sept. 13, it shot more than 5 feet up the sides of single-wides, ripping some off their foundations and sending terrified families scrambling to the rooftops before rescue teams and neighbors could get to them.

“There was a policeman at our door,” said Iliana Palacios, 20, a student at the University of Northern Colorado, who lived with her father in a trailer. “He said: ‘You need to get out! There’s no time!’”

She added: “I’m angry, I’m frustrated, I’m sad. That was my home. I don’t have anything left.”

In the days after the river swept over Evans, dazed residents wandered through the Eastwood Village mobile home park, slogging through pools of water blackened with sewage toward columns of homes left twisted by floodwaters and debris.

“All of those years here are gone,” Araceli Hernandez said in Spanish as she picked through the wreckage littering the trailer where she, her husband and their five children have lived for almost a decade.

As with other homes in this ramshackle neighborhood, where the lives of Mexican-born immigrants have melded with their Americanized children, a slick of putrid mud caked everything: crosses, a Denver Broncos helmet, a framed inscription of the Serenity Prayer, a teddy bear from Chuck E. Cheese’s.

“Some people have lost truly everything they own,” Evans Mayor Achziger said. “It seems like the people who would have the most difficult time recovering from this got hit the hardest.”

“Waking up here, being able to get my kids ready for school,” Hernandez said, recalling how her husband had remodeled the trailer himself so it could weather the frigid Colorado winters. “This was our community. This was home.”

Community meetings were being held across the state to help immigrants apply for disaster aid.

“Some people have lost truly everything they own,” Achziger said. “It seems like the people who would have the most difficult time recovering from this got hit the hardest.”

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