Flooded Estes Park Greets Tourists as Locals Can’t Flush

The Rocky Mountain resort of Estes Park is back open for business after Colorado’s worst flooding in almost 50 years, even as some who work in the tourist industry are living without functioning gas and sewer service.

The village of about 6,000, located 75 miles (120 kilometers) northwest of Denver, is going ahead with its 15th annual Elk Fest, when business owners hope hotels, restaurants and shops will fill with wildlife lovers -- to the consternation of hundreds still in shelters, unable to go home because roads were destroyed.

“We understand there’s concern from residents that we’re inviting guests back at this time,” said Frank Lancaster, the town administrator, at a meeting on Sept. 20.

“We’re working around the clock to get roads and bridges open and rebuild sanitation lines and get evacuees back in their homes,” he said. “As a community, we want to make sure our small businesses survive.”

Heavy rains that began two weeks ago washed away the most direct route to Estes Park from Denver. The isolated town, at the eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, relies on tourism for its livelihood and at least half of its jobs.

September is typically among the busiest months as aspen trees turn brilliant yellow, orange and gold, and thousands of elk with long antlers descend from higher elevations to bugle and battle for mates. The town usually accommodates about 2 million guests annually and was on track for a banner year, posting record sales-tax revenue in July, until the floods hit.

‘Really Hurts’

“We are a town literally of small businesses -- we don’t have Wal-Marts, we don’t have Targets,” said Linda Wagner, owner of Linda’s Pet Care Services, who slept in her shop after being evacuated from her home. “For many, many people we make the majority of our income in three months -- July, August and September. This is the kicker and it hurts, it really hurts.”

Wagner’s business, which provides doggie daycare and boarding while owners are sightseeing, housed several pets for free last week. Some had been carried out on the backs of people whose homes were destroyed, and another was rescued by helicopter, she said.

As much as 17 inches of rain the week of Sept. 9 inundated almost 2,000 square miles (5,000 square kilometers) in 17 counties, according to the Colorado Emergency Management Office. The flooding killed eight people, destroyed about 2,000 homes and 200 businesses, damaged more than 16,000 homes and crippled 200 miles of state highways and 50 bridges. About 6,000 people were evacuated from mountain towns cut off by floodwaters.

Worst Floods

“The September 2013 floods may prove to be the worst natural disaster in the history of our state, and is likely the worst we shall ever see in our lifetimes,” Governor John Hickenlooper said in a letter to Congress seeking federal aid.

The destruction is being referred to as a 500-year flood, a standard used by state and federal agencies and insurers, meaning the flood elevation has a 0.2 percent chance of being equaled or exceeded each year, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Estimates show it will take $135 million to start repairing highways, roads and bridges reduced to chunks of asphalt and concrete by raging rivers in mountain towns and across the Front Range and eastern plains.

Among those roads was U.S. 36, which provided direct access to Estes Park from Boulder. Now, visitors who arrive at Denver International Airport face a three-hour drive over narrow, winding mountain roads to visit the town.

‘Extensive Damage’

“There is no doubt the major highways that are typically the shortest routes to Estes Park from the Front Range have sustained extensive damage,” said Brooke Burnham, director of communications for Visit Estes Park. “It will be an unknown amount of time until those open up.”

Estes Park, which starting Sept. 9 received as much rain in five days as it usually does all year, sits above the Big Thompson Canyon Other rivers also run through the town, which was heavily damaged in a 1982 flood that forced it to rebuild its central business district.

The 2013 flood’s capricious nature left some Estes Park merchants to rip out carpet, muck out tons of mud and tear down soaked sheetrock in a frantic effort to stave off mold and reopen before winter. Others suffered little damage.

Three businesses owned by Diane Muno took on water, including The Spruce House, a century-old cottage and Christmas store on the west end of town that sidles up to Fall River Road.

“The river went both directions up to our property there,” said Muno, who had to hike in to rescue her dog after being evacuated from her home. “Half of it took on water and half of it did not.”

Won’t Reopen

She won’t push to reopen the shop this year, she said. She’ll work instead to serve customers from a second Christmas-themed shop and a women’s apparel store she owns in downtown Estes Park, also located next to the Fall River.

Some of the city’s most recognized venues, including the YMCA of the Rockies, which hosts family reunions and conferences, remained closed for repairs. The 106-year-old facility plans to reopen on Oct. 4. The closing forced Yoga Journal to cancel a conference this week.

Other renowned businesses remain open including The Stanley Hotel, which inspired Steven King’s horror novel, “The Shining.” The 140-room property, which overlooks the town, plans two sold-out events the weekend of Oct. 25, the Murder Mystery Dinner and the Shining “Masquerade” Ball, which serve about 550 visitors combined.

Halloween Fete

Some visitors rescheduled their reservations, said Dan Swanson, the hotel’s vice president of e-commerce. He said few would drop Halloween plans centered around the venue’s elaborate events because some spend hundreds of dollars on custom-made costumes.

About 80 properties remain without natural gas and scores of homeowners are under “no flush” orders and must use portable toilets or five-gallon buckets while miles of sewer line upended by flooding is rebuilt.

The Upper Thompson Sanitation District, which is working to provide temporary service to some areas, has no estimate on how long it might take to permanently restore sewers to homes along Fish Creek, said Chris Bieker, the district’s manager, at a town hall meeting on Sept. 19.

“We’re still in the process of mobilizing construction crews to construct a temporary network,” he said. “Our backs are against the wall because of the time of the year. We have a major catastrophe on our hands.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.