Raw sewage was seeping around Elizabeth Repola’s boots as she walked over a makeshift bridge near her home in Estes Park, Colorado. “It ... smells,” she said, during a phone conversation that was interrupted a half dozen times by the rumble of Black Hawk helicopters and rushing water. It sounded like she was in a war zone. In some ways, she was. “You can’t imagine it,” said Repola, a relative of mine. The flood, which spans 2,500 square miles, has damaged roughly 18,000 homes and left at least six dead.
Colorado, which is so often suffocated by summer wildfires, welcomed the unusually wet August and September with open arms. “Maybe now we’ll have a flood!” a friend had joked to Repola a few weeks earlier. But when a particularly rainy September 11 led to another rain-filled day, and then another, Colorado began to worry.
“It was this rain that never stopped,” Repola told me. “It just kept raining. And raining. And raining.” Inside the house that she built less than a year ago with her husband, Randy, the Deputy Chief of Police at UC Boulder, she watched “a little stream” in their backyard morph into a “raging river.” After receiving a 4 a.m. automated call from reverse 911 instructing her to evacuate, she stayed put. Walking down the road, she watched in horror as a house across the street became immersed in water. Her home, barely saved by a small patch of raised ground, was safe. As rain began to fall again on Sunday, she decided to evacuate—at least temporarily.
When the sunshine finally came out a few days later, exposing newly impassable roads and demolished bridges, she did what mountain people do best: hiked home. Embarking on an “un-evacuation,” she joked. Less than a week later, Repola (and hundreds of others in Colorado) was living without heat, hot water, or electricity. “It’s a ‘no-flush zone’ so ... there’s that” she said. Surviving on Diet Pepsi, cookies, and any other food she can backpack in, she is basically camping in her own home. Many others are too.
While the rain has stopped, for many in Colorado, the real storm has just begun. With roads torn in half, businesses and schools submerged in sewage, cars rendered useless, and electricity lines destroyed, the Centennial State is a colossal mess. A fact that’s further complicated by the roughly 500 people still unaccounted for. Until every person is found, safety will remain the No. 1 priority. The mess, officials said, will have to wait.
“We are just beginning the operations for this disaster, we’re still in response mode,” Micki Trost, public information officer for the Colorado Department of Public Safety, told The Daily Beast. “Right now we have five FEMA search and rescue teams.” Together with the Colorado and Wyoming National Guards, FEMA was scouring 17 counties across the state for survivors. By Tuesday night, the team had completed 225 air rescues, 120 animal rescues, and an estimated 1,200 evacuations.
Whether the death toll (which stood at six after two individuals statuses were changed to missing on Tuesday) would rise was unclear. “We hope the number stays down but I don’t know if that will happen,” Trost admitted. In Boulder County alone, she told me, 500 people originally listed as missing have been connected with their families. “We hope that’s the continuing trend,” she said.
Colorado residents hope so, too. Those still missing loved ones were waiting for a phone call, or word from the Red Cross’s safe and well page, which allows family and friends to search for loved ones who are missing.
But as the rescue operations continued for those trapped on mountainsides, some Colorado residents were fighting to stay where they were.
Repola was one of them. Despite local emergency management team's warning to evacuate, she and her neighbors came back, and they said they were staying put. “People are rugged in Estes Park,” she said. “These are tough old birds that use propane, have their own wells, and ride horseback to the grocery store. FEMA has no idea they’re dealing with mountain people.” Part of the concern of leaving their homes vacant is the prospect of looters. The other part is simple: they don’t want to. “A lot of them have just decided, ‘we’re not leaving,’” she said.
For a town like Estes Park, where a temporary ban on tourists by the National Guard will mean a crippling loss of revenue, local consumers will be critical. For business owners in downtown Estes, however, where nearly every building is flooded, there were even bigger problems. Megan Platz, Repola's daughter, works at a restaurant in Estes that flooded. Now they're paying her to rip up carpet. Still, despite the damage, some businesses are already open—hoping the town will soon allow tourists.
In the midst of unfathomable destruction (and stench), Estes Park—and many more towns in Colorado—was standing strong. “There’s a lot of humor,” Elizabeth Repola said. “It’s an amazing community, and we’ve gotten to really know each other.” At the first Little Valley neighborhood meeting where they planned to have a discussion about the damage, she showed up to find a table filled with “more booze than a bar,” gathered by everyone in her neighborhood (most of whom are retired). A few days later, when construction workers patched together a makeshift bridge to save miles of hiking, the neighborhood repaid them with “the best food and drinks we had.” Now, utilizing the makeshift bridge regularly, the neighborhood has turned it into a beer toll booth (1 beer per trip).
Amy Ford, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Office of Transportation (CDOT), echoed Estes Park’s positive energy. “We have an extraordinary sense of urgency, especially for communities that only have one way in and out,” she said. Over the next few years, CDOT will orchestrate the restructuring of all roads, state highways, and interstates that have been damaged in Colorado. It’s a two-step process that will begin with quick, temporary fixes to roads then later, long-term rebuilding. With $5 million in funding from the Federal Highway Administration already awarded and an estimated $100 million from the transportation commission on its way, the recovery got off to a positive start. “Our goal is to get it done before the snow comes ... although it’s not unlikely to have snow in September,” she said. “Knowing our luck we would get a blizzard.”
Ford was aware of the short time table, but seemed optimistic that it could be done, repeatedly using the word “instantly” to describe when the work would begin. “We’re in a sprint right now,” she said of Colorado’s rescue and relief workers. “At some point we’ll shift to marathon speed. But for now, we’re running as fast as we can.”