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As U.S. Highway 34 Reopens, Flood Damage Still Visible

Grace Hood

Governor John Hickenlooper was in the Northern Colorado town of Drake Thursday to officially reopen U.S. Highway 34, effectively rejoining the communities of Loveland and Estes Park.

The road has been closed since September after flooding destroyed key stretches of the highway. 

Johnny Olsen oversaw much of the repairs for the Colorado Department of Transportation.

“When you think about it and you drive it, you won’t see it because they did such an amazing job. But about 60 percent of our roadway was lost,” he said.

In some ways the repaired road looks better than it did before—both lanes completely accessible and fully paved. But alongside the road you can see just how destructive the floodwaters were. Homes like this one are still severely damaged.

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC
A damaged home in the Big Thompson Canyon on Nov. 21, 2013.

And random artifacts litter the side of the road including an upright piano and destroyed cars.

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC

In fact, very few residents of Drake have moved back home. Eileen Boege and her husband Bill live in the nearby Hayden subdivision. Power was only restored about 3 weeks ago. But they still don’t have phone service.

“It upsets me because we have no cell service, we have no phone,” said Boege. “We are the only ones up there and if there was an emergency, I worry what would happen.”

She considers herself lucky. Only her garage was damaged while several of her neighbors completely lost their homes. She says some want to move back to make repairs, but can’t for other reasons.

“A lot of these people rented homes because Federal Emergency Management Agency wanted them to get a home. And so they were roped into a year lease. Now they can get back to their homes, and a lot of the landlords won’t break their leases,” she said.

It’s been a mixed bag for businesses too.

Credit Grace Hood / KUNC
For Ellis Ranch, it's been a struggle to let customers know they're open for business west of Loveland.

Down the road in Loveland, Shawn Ellis is finishing up work on a bench for his event center and wedding ranch.

While it’s a slow time of the year, Ellis has used the winter months in the past to show his property to brides and grooms looking to book weddings for next summer.

"The restaurants are open, the stores are open, and we're ready to celebrate the holidays."

“I’ve heard from millions of people, they think Ellis ranch is under water,” he said, noting that he’s open for business.

It doesn’t help that his property is only accessible by driving briefly on South County Road 29—which right now has a big “road closed” sign.

In Estes Park, Mayor Bill Pinkham says business has been slow at his end of the canyon, too.

That’s despite the state paying to keep Rocky Mountain National Park open during the government shut down.

For now, Pinkham is focusing on the positive—and the future.

“The restaurants are open, the stores are open, and we’re ready to celebrate the holidays,” he said.

During this morning’s ceremony Hickenlooper and other local leaders painted part of a yellow stripe on the road. The highway reopening is especially welcome news for Estes Park, which is hoping to boost visitations during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

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