2013 Flooding Still Dampens Colorado's Tourist Trade
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now for an update on a more recent disaster here in the U.S. In September of last year, heavy rain flooded large areas of Colorado, killing 10 people; damaging businesses, homes and roads. Many towns are still struggling to recover.
Grace Hood, from member station KUNC, traveled to two communities in northern Colorado that were among the hardest hit, to see how they are coping today.
GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: Six months ago, Estes Park's Main Street looked more like a river than a popular thoroughfare. Today, most shops have repaired and reopened, including Kind Coffee.
(SOUNDBITE OF COFFEE STEAMER)
AMY HAMRICK: Strategy so far has just sort of been day-by-day, you know, survival.
HOOD: Amy Hamrick owns the popular cafe, which suffered $75,000 in flood damages. It took her three months to fix and restock her shop, paid for in part by a Small Business Administration disaster loan.
HAMRICK: Between some loans - and maybe some grants - and the support of the community, we're just sort of looking for, you know, May 1st to get back to that cash flow position.
HOOD: When it comes to the Estes Park economy, everything is connected to tourism. And last year, it got a heavy one-two punch when flooding cut off the main roads to town. Then the partial government shutdown blocked access to Rocky Mountain National Park before the state stepped in to reopen it.
FRANK LANCASTER: Even today, we get questions from people, particularly out of state, wanting to know: Can you even get to Estes Park? Does it still exist?
HOOD: Frank Lancaster is town administrator. Despite double-digit declines in Estes Park's sales tax revenue during the fall, he says it could have been worst. But challenges remain.
LANCASTER: So there's a lot that we're concerned about, from a marketing standpoint, to let people know that northern Colorado is back.
HOOD: The town's marketing organization is ramping up its advertising this year, to bring in more tourists. They're hoping to replace the last images that most out-of-state people saw, which included miles of impassable mountain highways torn apart by floodwaters.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION MACHINERY)
HOOD: Today, all of the damaged roads have been temporarily repaired and reconnected, but there's still a lot of work to do. Now, the state is launching ambitious projects like this one, on U.S. Highway 36, that connects Estes Park to Colorado's more populated Front Range. Amy Ford is with the Colorado Department of Transportation.
AMY FORD: The reality is, full reconstruction and full recovery from an incident like this with the floods really will take years.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION MACHINERY)
HOOD: In this part of the canyon, heavy machinery is loading blasted rock onto trucks, to be hauled away. Ford says the goal is to move the road away from the river. That will help prevent future closures if the river floods again. Her organization hopes to complete before the summer tourism season kicks off.
FORD: So we're doing the most of it right now during the spring.
HOOD: Down at the other end of the highway, the small town of Lyons is in the midst of $60 million in repairs to its infrastructure. The town was so badly damaged that residents couldn't return home for six weeks. Today, the town is still recovering.
MAYOR JULIE VAN DOMELEN: You see life back in Lyons.
HOOD: Mayor Julie Van Domelen says the road to recovery for Lyons businesses may be longer, compared to that of Estes Park. That's because key attractions like river kayaking and camping are limited this year, due to severe flood damage.
VAN DOMELEN: So we're fearful for the summer, trying to come up with different events, trying to market Lyons in a different way.
HOOD: All this adds up to complicated financial puzzle for Lyons store owners Neil and Connie Sullivan. The couple shelled out tens of thousands of dollars to repair and restock their deli, the St. Vrain Market. They also deferred loan payments for several months.
NEIL SULLIVAN: So many businesses - like us - that were able to defer debt are now facing - I hate to use this word but a second flood, a flood of debt that's now coming due.
HOOD: The Sullivans have to make their first loan payment this month. Then come taxes.
CONNIE SULLIVAN: I mean, all those taxes come due in April, and it really depends on how March goes.
HOOD: The town of Lyons is stepping up efforts to attract in-state visitors this spring. And Connie and Neil Sullivan remain fiercely committed to staying open. Like other businesses, they say every season after the flood seems to bring its own set of new challenges.
For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.