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Estes Park vows to rebound from ravages of flood

7:21 PM, Sep 17, 2013   |    comments
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ESTES PARK - An unsettling quiet descended on Elkhorn Avenue on Monday afternoon.

Wind sent clouds of dust swirling down the empty street, which normally would be busy with tourist traffic headed to this town's many shops or Rocky Mountain National Park.

But the street and most of its shops were closed as merchants scraped or washed mud left over from the fierce flood that ravaged Estes Park last week. After brief a pause, the sound of shop vacuums and heavy equipment - the sounds of recovery - filled the cool mountain air.

"We'll bounce back," said Lisa Plume, owner of Lithium 517, a skateboard and clothing shop. "We're not done. This community is going to come through this stronger."

Plume watched in horror Friday as a torrent rushed down Elkhorn Avenue and slammed into two stores she owns on the street.

"It was unbelievable," she said. "It was like the Mississippi was going through town."

Water surged under the store's front door, filling it shin-deep. Workers opened the back door to let the water pass through.

Since then, employees have worked hard to clear the store of mud and start the process of drying out. Sodden carpet was torn up and dumped in the street for removal.

It was the same story up and down the street, with shop owners working together to clean up.

The businesses aren't covered by flood insurance, said Dave Callahan, owner of the Irish pub Lonigans. Past floods in the town, including the devastating Lawn Lake flood of 1982, make flood insurance impossible to buy, he said.

Businesses are on their own to shoulder the costs of cleanup until they learn what, if any, aid might be available. But of greatest concern to businesses is how tourists, the lifeblood of the town, are going to reach Estes Park.

U.S. Highway 36 from Boulder and U.S. 34 from Loveland were severely damaged in the flood. How long before they can be repaired and opened is anyone's guess, Callahan said, but the repairs will certainly take many months.

The final month of prime tourist season, when many visitors usually come to town to experience festivals, fall colors and elk bugling in RMNP will likely be lost. Businesses rely on a solid tourist season to make it financially through the year, Callahan said.

"It's going to be a long, hard winter," he said. "A lot of us are worried about how we are going to get through this."

Callahan is waiting for city building and county health inspectors to come check out the bar to make sure it is fit to operate. Once it's cleared to reopen, the bar will likely offer menu specials to keep locals coming in.

"We're all helping each other out and pulling together," he said. "We've been through this a couple of times before, and we'll just do it again. I'm proud to be part of this community."

Estes Park officials share the concern of businesspeople about how the town will be accessed. The only ways into the town now are over Trail Ridge Road through RMNP from the west and Colorado Highway 7 from the south.

Reaching Colorado 7 from the Front Range requires driving through Central City or Black Hawk on highways 119 and 72. That's a long way for supplies and visitors to come, said Town Administrator Frank Lancaster.

The drive from Fort Collins takes about 3½ hours with relatively light traffic.

For the time being, troops from the Colorado National Guard check vehicles as they reach the intersection of Colorado highways 7 and 72 to ensure they are allowed to be in the Estes Park area.

Further screening is done at the entrances of evacuated areas.

The scope of the flood can be seen along Colorado 7 heading into town. In Allenspark, a pool of murky water surrounds the base of the landmark St. Catherine of Sienna chapel at the St. Malo Retreat Center.

A massive mudslide scars a hillside near the Aspen Lodge.

Some of the worst damage to infrastructure in town is along Fish Creek, which tore apart much of Fish Creek Road, cutting off hundreds of residents. All nine culvert/bridges across the creek were destroyed.

The flood also damaged sewer lines, meaning raw sewage is going down the creek and into the Big Thompson River, Lancaster said.

"The sanitation issue is the biggest concern from a public safety point of view," he said. "We're working hard to get that repaired."

Residents are weighing options on whether to stay or go. Power and water service has been restored to the town but not to all sections.

During a town hall meeting Monday, Lancaster said residents who choose to leave should plan on winterizing their homes, because they might not be able to come back.

The town is working hard to keep its spirits up, said Lou Otis, owner of The Red Cup coffee shop.

Monday morning, Otis used a hose to clear mud from the plaza behind her shop that was inundated when the Big Thompson River left its banks. The water broke through the doors of many businesses along the Riverwalk section of town and pushed through to Elkhorn Avenue.

Businesses hope tourists will not give up on the town, she said.

"We want people to know that we are going to be up and ready so they come back," Otis said.

(Copyright © 2013 Fort Collins Coloradoan, All Rights Reserved)

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