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Nation & World

In flood-damaged Colorado, a race against winter

LYONS, Colo. — Six weeks after floods ravaged Colorado, this small town at the foot of the snow-covered Rockies was still without utilities, with 20 percent of homes damaged, most businesses shuttered and all roads in closed to the general public.

One of the few businesses that reopened was St. Vrain Market, Deli & Bakery, named after the nearby creek that overflowed its banks. Still, prospects are dim: 80 percent of inventory lost, staff reduced from 16 to four. And no flood insurance.

“We can get back up to operations, but what do you do if you don’t have the traffic, people coming through to Estes Park, which is significant, even in the off season,” said one of the owners, Connie Sullivan, 44.

Estes Park, about 20 miles northwest in a valley near Rocky Mountain National Park, is a draw for tourists across the Front Range that benefits the rest of the region. Lyons will depend on it to recover.

The Diamond Shamrock gas station in Lyons was one of the busiest in the state, driven in part by Estes Park traffic — 35,000 cars a day at peak season, said Rick England, a surveyor and part owner of Spirit Hound Distillers next door. The distillery lost some of that business, and its flood insurance covered only the building, so it lost about $130,000, he said.

England, 53, who has lived in Lyons for 20 years, drove around town last week pointing ruefully to washed-out bridges, flooded streets and closed businesses: the Black Bear Inn, Barking Dog Cafe and Red Canyon Art Company.

“We depend on Estes,” he said.

The floods that started during the second week of September damaged or destroyed 26,000 structures statewide, according to Micki Trost, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Office of Emergency Management.

Flood-damaged state roads will require $450 million in repairs, including the main highways into Estes Park and Lyons, and the state will be reimbursed by the Federal Highway Administration, said Colorado Department of Transportation spokeswoman Amy Ford.

“They likely will be paved in both directions, but they won’t be what people are used to — there may be gravel in some places; the guard rails and the barriers may be more temporary. Going forward we will look for more permanent repairs, but the important piece is they will be safe and passable for winter,” Ford said.

Although other parts of Colorado see a winter boom in tourism, this area near Rocky Mountain National Park sees more visitors in summer and fall. Many businesses lost fall traffic because of flooding and have been forced to close while they make repairs in anticipation of a summer boom — if tourists return.

“The challenge for us is we were an emerging town — we’re small, unlike the Jersey shore” after Superstorm Sandy, Sullivan said.

Access to Lyons, a town many tourists pass through on their way to Estes Park, has been limited to its 2,000 residents, local workers, insurance adjusters and those making repairs.

Signs on one road into town warned “Highway 7 and 36 Lyons to Estes Park closed” near a pile of cracked concrete and “No access to Estes Park” as National Guard crews worked.

At a town disaster meeting Oct. 24 that drew more than 700 people, the mayor said that scores of drivers headed to Estes Park had been turned away from a sheriff’s checkpoint on the one road leading into Lyons.

The governor’s office announced earlier in the week that 77 percent of flood-damaged roads had reopened, with the rest scheduled to be repaired by Dec. 1. Officials announced this week that Highway 36 will reopen Monday, weeks ahead of schedule.

One major road into Estes Park already has reopened: Highway 119 through Boulder Canyon.

But taking the scenic “Peak to Peak” route on Highway 119 is still perilous, with lanes closed in places as crews make repairs. Because it takes an added hour to drive that way from some nearby cities, business owners fear it may deter day trippers.

Estes Park is home to nearly 6,000 people, and about half its structures were damaged by flooding, a town spokeswoman said. Elk Fest at the end of September saw smaller crowds than usual, and it’s unclear whether the annual Christmas parade will draw the usual 20,000 people.

“Everybody’s hoping roads will be passable and that can come off again,” said Steve Mares, 64, a carpenter still without sewer service last week. “For some businesses, it will be a question of whether they can make it through the winter.”

Downtown businesses were still closed last week, including Kind Coffee, Rocky Mountain Gifts & Tobacco and Poppy’s Pizza & Grill.

Poppy’s owner Julie Pieper, 47, and her husband combined the menu and remaining staff with their other nearby restaurant, Mama Rose’s, while they make repairs. They hoped to have a busy enough winter to keep their staff, which has already been halved because some people were unable to commute from places like Lyons.

“The two towns are very close — a lot of people live down there and work up here and vice versa,” she said.

The first light snow came the week before. In Lyons, England stopped to talk to the mayor at a temporary town hall and disaster center in the elementary school, vacant since the flooding.

“Our plea is going to be, ‘Save small-town America.’ It takes people coming here and spending money. I’m just worried it’s not going to be enough,” said Mayor Julie Van Domelen, a former economist with the World Bank. “We are the quintessential small town. That can die without support.”

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