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Uncertainty Follows Floodwaters For Tourism Dependent Estes

The town of Estes Park was dealt a harsh blow in the recent rain and subsequent flooding that hit Colorado’s Front Range. The town is still essentially cut off, with few ways in and out. For a town dependent on tourism, limited access means fewer dollars being spent.

Major highways will take months or even a year or more to restore. That leaves this tourist-dependent community in dire straits at the beginning of fall, leading into the winter.

Highway 7, reached by traversing through Black Hawk and Nederland, is one of two options into Estes. To get all the way to Estes, you also have to get through a National Guard checkpoint. The other route is Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountains National Park, though it is only open to commercial vehicles and emergency workers.

"Whatever we have to do to keep it going, is what we're going to do..."

The town held a media tour Tuesday, to explore some of the damage in places where the Big Thompson River altered course and smashed into condominiums and hotels.

Floodwaters entered hundreds of buildings in the Estes Valley. Dozens of bridges damaged or destroyed. Mudslides and rockslides pummeled roads. There were so many roads and bridges closed, the town actually ran out of barricades and had to put up cones and caution tape.

“For a lot of people it’s not going to be life as normal for quite a while. But the town is going to be back on its feet very quickly,” said town administrator Frank Lancaster.

Crews are making quick work on Highway 7, cleaning up rocks and patching up where the road had sloughed off cliffs. There’s enough progress that the town’s hoping for a quicker opening to outside visitors. No date has been set, but once crews give the go-ahead for public safety, tourists can return via the winding mountain road.

Still, the town’s main arteries, Highway 34 through Big Thompson Canyon and Highway 36 along the St. Vrain River, are months from being fixed.

Credit U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Jonathan C. Thibault/Released
Road damage like this is common now in the flood ravaged canyons. Large portions of Highway 34 in the Big Thompson Canyon are heavily damaged.

That’s little solace to some of the town’s business owners. Toni Miller runs a small store that sells Native-American crafts. The floodwaters barely touched the inside of her store. In a few weeks, she’ll leave Estes Park for the winter. The fate of the store, like many other businesses, is uncertain.

“Whatever we have to do to keep it going, is what we’re going to do, I don’t know what that is,” Miller said. “It’s very frightening to not know.”

It’s not the flood damage in Estes Park that’s causing Miller to worry. It’s the leveled highways that feed tourists into town. The community has built itself on visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park. Without an easy way for them to access the shops, restaurants and hotels, the whole town could suffer.

Estes Park elementary teacher Edie Keller has already seen the flood’s effects in her classroom.

“We had a child picked up by his parents and both parents were laid off by their jobs today. And these parents work two and three jobs at restaurants and housekeeping and if visitors aren’t coming, their employers aren’t going to need them,” Keller said.

Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC
Joseph Curtin looks at his home, now in the middle of Fish Creek.

Parents who’ve been evacuated are already enrolling their children in Front Range schools, without knowing when they’ll be able to return to Estes Park.

The rebuilding will begin soon. Floodwaters are receding and when they do, Fish Creek homeowner Joseph Curtin will begin drying out his log-cabin style house. It used to be on the banks of the creek and is now right in the middle.

“There’s a lot of work needs to be done. But hopefully we’ll get some resources in here and make some emergency repairs so that folks can at least get back in,” Curtin said.

At this point, main access roads take priority. Town officials say when the roads are secure, in the next week or two, those extra resources, and maybe even a few tourists, can pull into town.

Raw aerial footage of Estes Park, Sept. 17  via 7News

As KUNC’s managing editor and reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I edit and produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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