Floods Washing the Character Out of Colorado Mountain Towns?

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Colorado Flooding
Brennan Linsley/The Associated Press

By Hannah Dreier

LYONS, Colo. -- The storms that raged through the Rocky Mountain foothills instantly remade the landscape and disrupted thousands of lives. They may have also changed the character of the funky mountain hamlets that dot the Front Range. The disaster hit rich and poor alike, but some residents will be able to afford to wait and rebuild, while others will not.

In Lyons, 20 minutes north of Boulder, two low-lying mobile home parks bore the brunt of the damage. Residents say their landlords have told them they will not rebuild, in part because a river now flows through a portion of the property.

"I don't think we'll ever be able to go back," said Holly Robb, a Lyons native whose grandfather was mayor and who lived with her husband and two young children in the River Bend Mobile Home park, which dates to the 1960s. "The people who've lived there, who've gone to school there, can't go back," she said.

The flood has accelerated a process that was already underway in the region's towns. Young, affluent families from places like Boulder and Denver have flocked here, attracted to the slower pace of life, bohemian flavor and pristine natural beauty. In Lyons, a quarry town turned tourist haven, the number of renters fell by half between 2000 and 2010, while the portion paying more than $1,500 a month quadrupled. The median price of a home rose by 71 percent to $340,000, according to the U.S. Census.

Newcomers have historically moved into the hills above Main Street, while the lower income residents lived in the flood plain below. When the storm came, it swept away mobile homes, but left the new cafes, sushi shop, and revamped high school intact.

A website for the town's mayor, Julie Van Domelen, a consultant for the World Bank, says she moved to Lyons four years ago. She did not respond to calls and emails from The Associated Press, but told the Denver Post she intends to build the town into something better than it was before.

Some resident fear there will be no place for the manual laborers, retirees and artists that have given Lyons its character. Carmel Ross, 66, an artist and caretaker for the elderly, thought about the town's future amid the splintered trailers that now surround the mobile home she rents for $430 a month. "Who rebuilds a trailer park?" she asked, laughing through tears. "Lyons is going to become a different story now. It's a loss of a way of life. The things could always be bought again, but there will no longer be any low-income housing in this town."

Former Mayor Tim Combs said the new Lyons might look more like Aspen, a tony, celebrity refuge that began as a working class hamlet. "It's going to upgrade the town. We're going to see nicer houses replace a house that wasn't so nice," he said. "Lyons is surrounded by protected open space, so there will be no place for the poor people to go."

Up the hill from the mobile home parks, beautiful homes sit essentially untouched, their soggy lawns the only evidence of the disaster that's crippled the region and re-routed its waterways. Some residents are planning to stay in these homes until the roads reopen.

Among them is David Tiller, a bluegrass musician who believes the home he owns will be condemned. He said he feels lucky to have a sturdy support system, and friends with guest rooms, especially when he thinks of his neighbors taking refuge in churches. "We have so many friends that are offering us places. We have an amazing community -- it's almost overwhelming," he said.

Lyons residents were told at a town meeting Thursday that it might take officials six months to restore drinking water and working sewage.

Robb, a caterer, and her husband, who installs wood floods, said that even if they could find a new rental in Lyons, they cannot afford to crash around for that long. For Robb, the realization that she could not go home dawned slowly in the hectic days after the flood. "It's really a second blow to a lot of people that live there," she said.

Residents of the even more remote community of Jamestown have been told it could be a year before they can return. When helicopter rescuers took Jamestown resident Meagan Harrington and her husband to a makeshift shelter in Boulder with no running water, they did not have to follow their neighbors inside and look for a bed. Instead, the couple sat in front of the school waiting for their ride. A college friend of Harrington's in Boulder had offered them a guest room. "We've got it made compared to other people in Jamestown," said Harrington, an industrial hygienist.

Ross, who spent the days after the flood dragging out her muddy carpet single-handedly while other flooded residents called private cleaning services, is unsure where she will go after the shelters close. Her friends do not have extra rooms for her to stay in, and she has no family in the region. Combs, the ex-mayor, said he feels for people like her, but believes that part of the town was already on the path to getting washed out. "Nobody wants to see those McMansions built that people live in only three weeks of the year," he said. "But it's the way this country works -- the poor people are always getting pushed out, without or without a flood."

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Disasters That Ruined Whole Towns
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Floods Washing the Character Out of Colorado Mountain Towns?

As we gear up for the height of the hurricane season (also a time when tornados, wildfires and floods are common), we're taking a look back at some of the worst natural disasters in recent memory and how they reshaped the affected regions. Entire towns have been wiped off the map, and you'll be as shocked as we were to see the before and after shots of areas that have been hardest-hit by storms and other natural phenomena.

When: April 27, 2011
Cost of damage: $2.2 billion
Casualties: 64

The powerful EF4 tornado that hit the quiet town of Tuscaloosa, Ala., was one of 358 that tore across the Midwest from April 25-28 in 2011 -- the largest tornado outbreak in U.S. history. The rows of suburban houses that you see here were suddenly blown away.

Source: The Weather Channel

Numerous homes were devastated, reduced to rubble. The tornado left a trail of destruction 80.7 miles long. It was the costliest tornado in United States history, until ...

Source: The Weather Channel

When: May 22, 2011
Cost of damage: $2.8 billion
Casualties: 162

The quaint town of Joplin was nearly wiped off the map when an EF5 tornado struck. About 2,000 buildings were destroyed in the storm, which reached sustained winds of over 200 mph. It beat the Tuscaloosa tornado to become the costliest twister in U.S. history.

The tornado grew to a width of over 1 mile as it made its way through the southern part of Joplin.

This Joplin neighborhood was rendered unrecognizable after the tornado hit.

But it returned to some semblance of normalcy a year later, after ongoing recovery efforts to rebuild.

When: December 2010-January 2011
Cost of damage: $30+ billion
Casualties: 38

Brisbane, the capitol city of Queensland in Australia, was one of the most affected areas in a massive flood that began in December 2010. Half of Queensland, which is more than 715,000 square miles large, was affected.

Source: NearMap

At least 70 towns and over 200,000 people were affected by the rising waters. In Brisbane, residents of 2,100 streets were ordered to evacuate. The flood waters peaked at 14.6 feet, the 10th highest in the city's history.

Source: NearMap

What Brisbane looked like before the flood.

Source: NearMap

And what the area looked like after the flood.

Source: NearMap

Date: August 23-30, 2005
Cost of damage: $108 billion
Casualties: 1,833

The Superdome arena in New Orleans became one of the most well-known symbols of the storm's devastation when Hurricane Katrina rolled through the area. Katrina was the most destructive hurricane in U.S. history and the deadliest since 1928. The Category 3 hurricane caused New Orleans' levee system to fail, sending floodwater into 80 percent of the city. This is the Superdome before the storm.

After Katrina, the Superdome was used to house 26,000 people who were unable to evacuate the city before the storm. The National Guard delivered truckloads of food and water for the evacuees. After the storm, it took $185 million to repair and refurbish the stadium, which was reopened in 2006 in time for the New Orleans Saints' opening game of the season.

New Orleans was a majestic city before Katrina struck.

But much of the city became submerged after its levees crumbled under Katrina's force.

When: January 12, 2010
Cost of Damage: Estimated $14 billion
Casualties: 316,000 (Haiti government estimate)

The National Palace in Haiti's capitol of Port-au-Prince was a beautiful property where the Haitian president lived. But its beauty crumbled under a devastating magnitude-7.0 earthquake -- one of the deadliest in history. In addition to the horrific number of deaths, the earthquake injured 300,000 people, and 1 million people lost their homes.

Photo: Michelle W. Eriksson via CC 2.0

The National Palace was reduced to rubble after the earthquake. The Haitian government estimated that the quake damaged 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings. Even six months after the earthquake, as much as 98 percent of the rubble remained uncleared. By May 2010, enough money had been raised worldwide to give each displaced family $37,000.

In January 2012, it was reported that 500,000 Haitians still remained homeless.

When: March 11, 2011
Cost of damage: $235 billion (World Bank estimate)
Casualties: 15,861 confirmed by Japan's National Police Agency

The Sendai region of Japan was almost wiped off the map when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake rocked the country. A nuclear reactor was crippled by the quake and went into meltdown, causing a radioactive catastrophe.

The National Police Agency reported that 129,225 buildings completely collapsed in the quake; 254,204 "half collapsed"; and 691,766 were partly damaged.

The city of Natori before the earthquake ...

... and after, nearly completely destroyed.

When: August 2011
Cost of damage: Estimated $15.6 billion
Casualties: At least 44

Bill Stinson's family ranch, a waterfront property in Nags Head, N.C., became an iconic image related to Hurricane Irene's destruction. The storm made nine landfalls, starting in the Caribbean and making its way up the East Coast to New York City. The flooding that Irene caused was widespread, leading it to become the sixth-costliest hurricane in U.S. history.

Stinson's home, which he shared with his wife, Sandra, and daughter, Erin, was completely blown away by Irene, leaving nothing behind but the staircase. The home had been in his family since 1963. Sandra had told North Carolina's Our State magazine in 2010: "God has really protected it [the home]. ... We have had so many storms, and really, inside, we've only had damage one time since Billy's family has owned it."

The town of Rodanthe before Irene's wrath ...

... and what remained after the storm.

When: September 2008
Cost of damage: Estimated $29.6 billion
Casualties: At least 195

After slamming into Cuba as a Category 4 hurricane, Ike moved along the Gulf of Mexico, devastating areas from the Louisiana coast all the way to Kenedy County, Texas, near Corpus Christi. Crystal Beach, Texas, was hit particularly hard. This is what the waterfront town looked like before the storm.

The town was devastated, with most coastline properties wiped away.

When: Feb. 22, 2011
Cost of damage: Estimated at around $23 billion
Casualties: 185

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Christchurch was considered the finest renaissance-style building in New Zealand. But all that changed when a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the region. Damage to Christchurch was extensive, primarily because another earthquake that had struck six months earlier had already weakened many of the city's structures. This is the cathedral before the earthquake ...

... and following the disaster. The two bell towers collapsed in the quake, and the building's dome was destabilized. The dome was eventually removed. It is yet to be determined whether the cathedral will be restored or demolished.

The historic Christchurch Cathedral was built in the second half of the 19th century, but the earthquake changed it considerably. ...

... as the spire and part of the tower of the church was destroyed in the quake. Work to demolish the building began in March 2012, and a temporary cathedral is being built.

When: June 26, 2012
Homes damaged: 347 houses
Casualties: 1

A fire sparked in the Waldo Canyon in Colorado Springs jumped firefighters' perimeter lines and quickly spread, devouring 347 homes. More than 9,000 residents were forced to evacuate.

The fire left several homes completely burnt to the ground.

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