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Colo. tourist destination suffers ‘double whammy’ of floods, government shutdown

October 8, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In spite of devastating floods that damaged major roads and infrastructure, residents of Estes Park, Colo., have been working around the clock to prepare for fall tourist season in hopes of some financial recovery. But the NewsHour's Mary Jo Brooks reports their efforts have been hampered by the government shutdown.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: how the government shutdown is affecting one Colorado community still recovering from last month’s devastating floods.

The NewsHour’s Mary Jo Brooks has our report.

MARY JO BROOKS: The floodwaters that swept through Estes Park a month ago damaged hundreds of buildings and destroyed the two main roads that led into town.

The sewage system was so broken that a third of the residents still must use port-a-potties that have been set up throughout the neighborhoods. In spite of all that, folks here have been working round the clock to get their town back in shape for the throngs of tourists who come every year to view the spectacular fall colors.

Estes is the gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park, which draws more than three million visitors a year. The town of 6,000 people depends on the park for its livelihood, and residents were hopeful that a strong October tourist season could help with their financial recovery. They managed to get 90 percent of their shops and restaurants back open, and then came the government shutdown.

FRANK LANCASTER, Estes Park: It’s a double whammy with the park being closed.

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MARY JO BROOKS: Frank Lancaster is the town’s administrator. He says the closure of Rocky Mountain National Park is devastating.

FRANK LANCASTER: Sixty-five percent of our revenue comes from tourism dollars. And about 45 percent of the jobs here in town are based on tourism dollars. We’re already seeing some businesses having to lay some folks off because of that. And it’s a combination of the flood, the roads being closed and then the park being closed. It’s tough. It’s kind of a trifecta of disasters here.

MARY JO BROOKS: Tricia Jacob considers herself one of the lucky ones. She and her husband manage Kirk’s Fly Fishing Shop. The store suffered only minor damage, but news of the flood caused many fishing trips to be canceled and some employees to be laid off. The closure of the park has meant even more cancellations.

TRICIA JACOB, business owner: A lot of us feel like we were down as was, and then somebody just kicked us while we were down. They took everything away from us by closing the park. Last week, we had fewer people, but there were still people in town. This week, it’s just way different, I mean, hardly anybody.

MARY JO BROOKS: And Jacobs says those who do come are confused, especially tourists from abroad.

TRICIA JACOB: The Europeans don’t understand why — with a disagreement in Washington, why they would shut down the parks. And I have to say that even the Americans don’t understand it because those parks are for us.

MARY JO BROOKS: Julie Pieper is one of those who’s been vexed by the closure. She and her husband own two restaurants in Estes that were heavily flood damaged. They are~ racing to reopen one in the next few days to take advantage of the fall season. She says the closure of the park has been more than just a financial setback for small businesses and for the 200 park employees who have been furloughed. It has been an emotional blow.

JULIE PIEPER, business owner: The day the park closed down, I think everybody kind of had a little mini-meltdown, because that was the place we could all go to get away from debris and to get away from the reality of mold and wet carpet. And you could get outside and you could blow off a little steam, and we can’t do that now. And that’s been hard.

MARY JO BROOKS: The one thing that hasn’t yet been affected by the government shutdown is emergency disaster aid from federal agencies. FEMA still has more than 1,000 workers on the ground in Colorado. And 150 Colorado National Guardsmen who were to be furloughed were kept on the job last week when Governor John Hickenlooper announced he would use state money to pay for them. It’s likely to cost more than $50,000 a day.

The Guardsmen are working with the state’s Department of Transportation to repair the numerous roads and highways that were damaged in the flood. Administrator Lancaster says he’s grateful that help is continuing, but says it’s hard to move forward with long-term planning when federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Forest Service are shut down.

FRANK LANCASTER: The emergencies are taken care of. The FEMA folks are here. We have Coast Guard people here helping with us hazardous waste problems. But when it comes down to the ongoing recovery and getting back on our feet, the folks that we need to help aren’t working. They have been furloughed.

MARY JO BROOKS: Governor Hickenlooper hopes to help with that process. He’s applied for waivers to allow state workers to carry out some of the duties of furloughed federal workers until the shutdown has been resolved. So far, the governor has received no answer.