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Some Residents Find ‘Nothing Salvageable’ in Flood-Ravaged Colo. Communities

September 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Flooding in some Colorado communities wiped out infrastructure, rendering many homes uninhabitable and stranding citizens. Displaced Coloradans now face the challenge of finding temporary housing and the "enormous task" of clean-up and rebuilding. Special correspondent Mary Jo Brooks takes us to the scene of the wreckage.

GWEN IFILL: We return to the flooding and the heartbreak in Colorado.

As the waters finally recede, the toll has become clear, with about 1,600 homes destroyed statewide. And many Coloradans are suddenly faced with trying to rebuild their lives.

NewsHour’s producer Mary Jo Brooks reports from one of the harder-hit counties.

MARY JO BROOKS: It’s breakfast time at this home in Longmont, Colo. And the place is a beehive of activity.

Several families who evacuated from the nearby mountain town of Lyons have come to their friends’ house in search of shelter and food after being trapped in their homes for two-and-a-half days. Lyons, one of the hardest-hit communities in the flooding, had been cut off from the rest of the world when two small rivers exploded over their banks, swamping the roads in and out of town.

JEM MOORE, flood victim: Everybody’s relieved to be safe. The first day, it was a little giddy, actually. It was weird coming out and seeing the world continuing as normal. Now, after we have had the chance to process, there’s some grief coming up and a little bit of kind of PTSD.

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GWEN IFILL: Documentary filmmaker Jem Moore and his family were able to drive out of Lyons on Saturday afternoon once the water began to recede. Many other residents were airlifted by National Guard helicopter.

Officials have told everyone to leave, even if their houses were intact, saying unstable roads and bridges and the complete lack of sanitation and electricity make the town uninhabitable. Most of the town’s 1,200 residents have followed those orders, leaving behind hundreds of homes and businesses that are damaged or destroyed.

JEM MOORE: Everybody’s just trying to find housing. As you might imagine, the whole housing market has completely filled up with evacuees from the mountain towns. So it’s going to be really difficult to find temporary housing.

MARY JO BROOKS: David Tiller is also on the hunt for housing. A musician, he watched as the floodwaters destroyed his home and recording studio.

DAVID TILLER, flood victim: When I actually saw the face of my house, my gut just went through my feet, seeing the face of the house just blown open and realizing that there was nothing salvageable, really, nothing of the house I could tell that was maybe salvageable. You know, I — I don’t even know how to describe it.

MARY JO BROOKS: The town is eerily quiet, still under lockdown by National Guard troops. There are downed power lines and water leaks everywhere, and the sewage treatment plant is surrounded with mud.

A brand-new river has been carved out where once were ball fields and parking lots, and large chunks of collapsed road for asphalt waterfalls. Officials are only just beginning to arrive to assess the damage to infrastructure, so there’s no word on when residents might be allowed to return.

JEM MOORE: They’re just guessing at this point. They’re saying two to four weeks minimum, and then the maximum, nobody knows. With the sewage treatment plant out, all the gas lines up, all the power lines up, there’s huge infrastructure damage, bridges, roads. As you might imagine, it’s going to be an enormous task.

MARY JO BROOKS: Tiller isn’t sure if he will even be allowed to rebuild.

DAVID TILLER: I don’t think there’s going to be any insurance company that’s going to cover us. All we have is this chunk of land that’s now part of a river. The river rerouted itself. So I don’t know what we’re going to be able to do with that.

MARY JO BROOKS: Betsy Burnett and Mike Whipp are luckier than most. They have managed to stay in Lyons, since they have their own source of water and electricity. They own a tiny farm which hosts wedding receptions and dinners.

Those have all been canceled for the rest of the year. But since they have goats and chickens to tend, they are going to stay put.

BETSY BURNETT, flood Victim: It’s going to be ghost town-like, except for the maintenance workers, the National Guard and stuff. They won’t be here for too much longer, I’m sure. But it’s just going to be very, very different.

MARY JO BROOKS: They also owned a mobile home trailer park which was completely wiped out. But it’s not the financial loss that troubles them.

BETSY BURNETT: One of the most devastating things to us in the town are the people who are displaced.

MIKE WHIPP, flood victim: Yes.

BETSY BURNETT: And the trailer park, there’s 32 families that were displaced in the middle of the night. And that’s a heartbreaker.

MIKE WHIPP: Our town is going to change entirely, especially economically. We have — like many times, it’s the lower-income people who are the most displaced, it seems like. And that’s going to change the complexion of our community for a long period of time.

MARY JO BROOKS: Although residents know that a great deal of change and hard work lie ahead, they are optimistic that both the town and its residents will return in the coming months.