Wed November 20, 2013
Colorado Flood

For Some Flood Survivors, A Long Wait To Return Home

Thousands of people were displaced from their homes in September’s floods, including hundreds who were airlifted out of mountain towns cut off by the raging waters. For those evacuated from the secluded mountain community of Big Elk Meadows, it’s not clear when they will be able to go back home.

Erin O'Toole talks with flood survivors Collin Isenhart and Kerry Grimes for Morning Edition.

Collin Isenhart, along with his wife Christa and their two children, Shannon and Devin, has lived in Big Elk Meadows for 20 years. He says those who live there affectionately refer to it as ‘The Meadows.’

"It’s five miles back and it’s surrounded by national forest, so it’s kind of like a little summer camp," he says. There are about 150 homes there, about half of them occupied year-round, while the rest are mostly summer cabins.

"We don't know when they're coming for you, but when they do come, you will need to decide. Do you want to stay for an indefinite period of time... or do you want to go?"

When it became apparent the flooding was dire, the Isenharts decided to evacuate – although they didn’t have a lot of time to ponder the decision.

"My wife and I are on the fire department, so we got the initial call, and we were up and working all that night," Isenhart says. "The next morning we found out a sheriff’s deputy had gotten trapped up there with us. And he told us we would need to evacuate in the coming days. He said 'we don’t know when they’re coming for you, but when they do come, you will need to decide. Do you want to stay for an indefinite period of time, or do you want to go?'"

After being airlifted to Fort Collins because the main road washed out, the family stayed with a few friends before settling into a rented townhouse in Longmont -- which took them two months to find.

Although their home survived the floods, it’s unclear when they will be able to return. The washed-out road isn’t the only factor; in fact, Isenhart says it isn’t even the primary reason their return likely won’t happen until April.

"The hard part is going to be the water," Isenhart says. "Our water all was pulled out of a lake called Mirror Lake. It was our water source. That lake is gone… there’s now just a little stream that’s going through there, because the dam was washed away."

Thursday morning: Mirror Lake, before the dam broke. Sep. 12, 2013, 7:10 a.m.
Credit Collin Isenhart

The floods caused $5.4 million in damage to 27 dams across Colorado, including five earthen dams washed away in Big Elk Meadows.

Isenhart says much of the water distribution system was damaged and will need to be fixed or replaced. Some of that work will be eligible for federal assistance; but at this point, it doesn’t appear that will be the case for rebuilding the Big Elk dams – which are on private land, and therefore don’t qualify for FEMA aid.

County Road 47 is open to residents for a few hours each day when crews aren’t working on it, although Isenhart says without 4-wheel drive it’s not easy.

As for their house, Isenhart says it is "mostly okay," although they lost some items stored in a crawl space. One of their primary concerns is the security of the house over the winter.

"Is it going to freeze, if it hasn’t already frozen – will the pipes freeze? Is it going to continue to deteriorate up there?" he wonders. "Vandalism is obviously an issue that we worry about, although we have lots of neighbors around who are roughing it out up there and looking out for the place."

Their other focus is on making a life as best they can, getting through the coming weeks and months, including the holidays.

"It’s an emotional thing, and it’s hard for kids," he says. "They don’t deal with it the way adults do. So it’s tough."

The children have been able to attend school with their regular teachers and friends, although their classrooms have temporarily moved to a rented facility in Longmont.

Bianca, Shannon and Devin provide perspective from a wash
Credit Collin Isenhart

"To be there with the other kids that are going through the same thing that you are, or even worse than you are, it helps to put a perspective on it and get things back to normalcy," he says.

The Isenharts went through 2002's Big Elk Fire, but they say neither the fire nor the flood has dampened their enthusiasm for living in The Meadows.

“It’s absolutely beautiful up there. Everybody’s friends, you wave to everyone, you take care of each other; it’s a real community," says Collin Isenhart. "And where do you get that anymore?”

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