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 checkmarks next to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), 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 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, 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.
Myers, 52, and her husband, Mike, moved into an old family cabin in Big Thompson Canyon last fall. Myers had grown up at the summer cabin. 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. In September, it was a Black Hawk that evacuated the Myerses, 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
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.
“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. She 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.
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.
Whether governments should continually help rebuild communities in disaster-prone zones is a controversial subject in the recovery world, said McCaffrey. “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.”
Should we keep people from livingin areas that are prone to disaster?
Some states have considered barring or restricting people from living in disaster-prone areas.
California • In parts of the state, people who live in wildfire zones pay extra taxes.
Colorado • Gov. John Hickenlooper’s Wildfire Insurance and Forest Health Task Force proposed this fall a similar tax for Colorado residents.
New Zealand • Some rural residents have been told firefighters will not be deployed to fight a wildfire where they live.
Is it fair? • Daniel Aldrich, a Purdue University professor who studies disaster recovery, says taxing or restricting homeowners in disaster zones isn’t fair if it’s not done across the board — from the California coast, through the wilderness of Colorado, to the New Jersey shores. Aldrich says until there’s a nationwide resolution, disasters must be cleaned up and paid for.