Floods Washing the Character Out of Colorado Mountain Towns?


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Brennan Linsley/The Associated Press

By Hannah Dreier

LYONS, Colo. -- The storms that raged through the Rocky Mountain foothills instantly remade the landscape and disrupted thousands of lives. They may have also changed the character of the funky mountain hamlets that dot the Front Range. The disaster hit rich and poor alike, but some residents will be able to afford to wait and rebuild, while others will not.

In Lyons, 20 minutes north of Boulder, two low-lying mobile home parks bore the brunt of the damage. Residents say their landlords have told them they will not rebuild, in part because a river now flows through a portion of the property.

"I don't think we'll ever be able to go back," said Holly Robb, a Lyons native whose grandfather was mayor and who lived with her husband and two young children in the River Bend Mobile Home park, which dates to the 1960s. "The people who've lived there, who've gone to school there, can't go back," she said.

The flood has accelerated a process that was already underway in the region's towns. Young, affluent families from places like Boulder and Denver have flocked here, attracted to the slower pace of life, bohemian flavor and pristine natural beauty. In Lyons, a quarry town turned tourist haven, the number of renters fell by half between 2000 and 2010, while the portion paying more than $1,500 a month quadrupled. The median price of a home rose by 71 percent to $340,000, according to the U.S. Census.

Newcomers have historically moved into the hills above Main Street, while the lower income residents lived in the flood plain below. When the storm came, it swept away mobile homes, but left the new cafes, sushi shop, and revamped high school intact.

A website for the town's mayor, Julie Van Domelen, a consultant for the World Bank, says she moved to Lyons four years ago. She did not respond to calls and emails from The Associated Press, but told the Denver Post she intends to build the town into something better than it was before.

Some resident fear there will be no place for the manual laborers, retirees and artists that have given Lyons its character. Carmel Ross, 66, an artist and caretaker for the elderly, thought about the town's future amid the splintered trailers that now surround the mobile home she rents for $430 a month. "Who rebuilds a trailer park?" she asked, laughing through tears. "Lyons is going to become a different story now. It's a loss of a way of life. The things could always be bought again, but there will no longer be any low-income housing in this town."

Former Mayor Tim Combs said the new Lyons might look more like Aspen, a tony, celebrity refuge that began as a working class hamlet. "It's going to upgrade the town. We're going to see nicer houses replace a house that wasn't so nice," he said. "Lyons is surrounded by protected open space, so there will be no place for the poor people to go."

Up the hill from the mobile home parks, beautiful homes sit essentially untouched, their soggy lawns the only evidence of the disaster that's crippled the region and re-routed its waterways. Some residents are planning to stay in these homes until the roads reopen.

Among them is David Tiller, a bluegrass musician who believes the home he owns will be condemned. He said he feels lucky to have a sturdy support system, and friends with guest rooms, especially when he thinks of his neighbors taking refuge in churches. "We have so many friends that are offering us places. We have an amazing community -- it's almost overwhelming," he said.

Lyons residents were told at a town meeting Thursday that it might take officials six months to restore drinking water and working sewage.

Robb, a caterer, and her husband, who installs wood floods, said that even if they could find a new rental in Lyons, they cannot afford to crash around for that long. For Robb, the realization that she could not go home dawned slowly in the hectic days after the flood. "It's really a second blow to a lot of people that live there," she said.

Residents of the even more remote community of Jamestown have been told it could be a year before they can return. When helicopter rescuers took Jamestown resident Meagan Harrington and her husband to a makeshift shelter in Boulder with no running water, they did not have to follow their neighbors inside and look for a bed. Instead, the couple sat in front of the school waiting for their ride. A college friend of Harrington's in Boulder had offered them a guest room. "We've got it made compared to other people in Jamestown," said Harrington, an industrial hygienist.

Ross, who spent the days after the flood dragging out her muddy carpet single-handedly while other flooded residents called private cleaning services, is unsure where she will go after the shelters close. Her friends do not have extra rooms for her to stay in, and she has no family in the region. Combs, the ex-mayor, said he feels for people like her, but believes that part of the town was already on the path to getting washed out. "Nobody wants to see those McMansions built that people live in only three weeks of the year," he said. "But it's the way this country works -- the poor people are always getting pushed out, without or without a flood."

More about natural disasters:
What Renters Should Do Before Natural Disaster Strikes
America's Top 10 Disaster 'Safe Zones'
Preparing for Hurricane Season Includes Filling These Financial Gaps

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