In September 2013, historic flooding fundamentally changed Jamestown, Colorado. Landslides triggered by massive rains destroyed homes, buried the town’s fire station and left one resident dead.
What happened next was what some call the most ambitious recovery project in the town’s history. The effort is finally wrapping up this fall, leaving residents with a big question: Where do they go from here?
Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, Jamestown sits about 12 miles northwest of Boulder. It’s divided by the James Creek. Three bridges connect the north and south sides of town.
The Lower Main Street Bridge holds a harrowing memory for resident Tara Schoedinger. At the flood’s peak she and a few others were crossing it in a pickup truck on their way to the helicopter evacuation site.
Just as they got to the other side, water started rushing over an embankment.
“And we started hydroplaning down main street,” she said, standing at the foot of the bridge. “And all the water was going down a driveway to a lower point that would have then taken us into the creek and somehow David caught his wheels and we were able to make the turn up the hill.”
The bridge was severely damaged while the other two were washed away.
Watch how flooding changed Jamestown
Afterward, 90 percent of Jamestown’s roughly 300 residents moved away. It took tens of thousands of volunteer hours and nearly $30 million for most of the damage to be fully repaired.
David Mans was the one driving the truck when the bridge gave way. After the flood, he became the co-fire chief of the town’s volunteer fire department.
“If it happened again I think we'd be more prepared,” he said. “We've got a lot of extra resources. We have a better communications tower. We're in good shape here.”
Nearly everything had to be replaced after mud and rocks broke through the back wall of the old firehouse. But, Mans said, there is still an uneasy feeling among him and his crew. And one of the rooms at the firehouse is now occupied by a licensed counselor.
“PTSD is one of those words that's thrown around,” he said. “It's something I always, until quite recently, understood as a war thing. But I think it's a valid term for all kinds of trauma. This was a pretty traumatic thing.”
You’ll hear the same sentiment from those with ties to Jamestown at the Mercantile, known locally as the Merc. It’s the only bar and restaurant in town.
Singer Kate Farmer grew up here but lives in Boulder now.
“We played music here before the flood, so I think that playing music here after — it feels kind of similar in a way that other things don't,” she said.
Her mom moved away from Jamestown after her home was destroyed. She’s since come back like many other residents.
“But a lot of people moved away, and the newcomers are really nice people and everything, but it’s different,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to put into words.”
Every Thursday night the Merc’s owner, Rainbow Schultz, cooks a big dinner from scratch.
“(The Merc) has always served as our town meeting place and somewhere where we gather before and after funerals or when there's a birth or when there’s any town event,” she said.
It’s also where the United States Army Corps of Engineers and local first responders set up a base camp during the flooding. In the days and weeks following the event maps covered the walls and the doors stayed open 24 hours a day, she said.
Back then, imagining that the town - and the Merc - would ever get back to normal seemed impossible, she said.
“A lot of the initial experience was really, really painful,” Schultz said. “Now to have gone through that and have gotten our town back due to Tara and all the help she was able to get, I mean we’re so much better for it.”
In fact, a lot of people credit Tara Schoedinger. Not only is she the former mayor of Jamestown, she’s now the flood recovery manager.
“I had no idea how long it would take,” she said, laughing. “I’ve never done something like this before.”
See Jamestown's recovery over the years
Today, the debris is gone. The town’s new bridges are higher and stronger. But there are some losses, she said, that can’t be rebuilt.
“I think (the flood) is something that our community has begun to really put behind us,” she said. “But it’ll never go away.”
For one, the community lost longtime resident Joe “Joey” Howlett.
“We’ll always miss him,” Schoedinger added, tearing up.
As for the lower main street bridge — it’s one of the last things to be completed.
In conjunction with a few final road paving projects and home repairs, work on the town’s infrastructure is expected to wrap up by November at the latest.
Once the work is finished, Schoedinger said the community will be able to relax more. It will also mean not living in the middle of a construction zone, she added.
“And I think that will just help everybody sort of settle and just, I don't know, feel a sense of peace around where we've been over the last five years and be able to look forward again,” she said.