January 18th 2022
LYONS — Just 30 feet beyond Linda Hubbard’s kitchen window is the river that upended her life nearly a decade ago.
It was 2013 and the North St. Vrain River — swollen angry with too much water in too little time — hurled boulders, propane tanks and tree limbs into Lyons on a dark September night. A pedestrian bridge just upstream became unmoored from its foundations and swiveled hard into Hubbard’s black walnut tree, catching there and forming an unwanted diversion dam.
“When it did that, it re-routed the river right into the house,” said Hubbard, now 72.
From there, mud, silt and debris poured into the home she’d owned since 1981, sending Hubbard and hundreds of her fellow residents in Lyons packing for higher ground. Just a few blocks away, Donna Boone watched the water rise and rise that same September night from inside her trailer at the Riverbend Mobile Home Park.
“When I started loading the car, the water was up to my ankles,” she said. “When I was finished loading the car, it was up to my knees.”
While the same raging river hit both homes with the same destructive force nearly 8 1/2 years ago, what happened next to Boone and Hubbard couldn’t have been more different. Boone now lives in Loveland, with no plans to return to the town she called home for 36 years. Hubbard is back in her 4th Avenue house, rebuilt bigger and elevated nearly five feet off the ground.
“I owned the land, I’d been there a long time,” she said. “I wanted to rebuild and be back home.”
The choices the two women made following the 2013 Colorado floods will be echoed over the coming months — and years — by the nearly 1,100 families in and around Louisville and Superior who lost their homes to the Marshall fire on Dec. 30.
Build or walk away, pull out stakes or dig in deeper, stay or go. Andy Rumbach, a professor at Texas A&M University and a faculty fellow at the school’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center, worked closely with flood survivors in Lyons when he was teaching at the University of Colorado Denver.
“For a lot of folks, they want to be a part of their community — they want to plug back into their networks,” he said.
There’s no neat plug-in formula to determine who rebuilds and who moves on after a natural disaster, Rumbach said. That decision depends on a multitude of factors that vary with every person impacted — the level of insurance coverage in force, the cost to rebuild, proximity to retirement age and the sense of belonging within a community.
But many in Boulder County will fight the red tape and endure the delays to put their lives back together right where they were before, Rumbach said.
“There’s a stickiness to place,” he said.
The 2013 flood destroyed or damaged approximately 200 homes in Lyons — or about 20% of the housing stock in the town of 2,000. The town’s infrastructure and utilities sustained around $75 million in damage from the rushing waters of both the north and south forks of the St. Vrain River, which come together in what turned out to be a devastating confluence at the west end of town.
More notable was the flood’s impact to Lyons’ already constrained supply of affordable housing. Because the mode of disaster was water rather than fire, the Federal Emergency Management Agency bought up dozens of lots in the town’s floodway and placed them off limits to future habitation.
That included two low-lying mobile home parks with 50 homes between them.
“We did lose nearly 100% of our affordable housing,” said Lyons Town Administrator Victoria Simonsen, who’s been in the position for more than a decade. “And what it’s done is totally gentrify the community and not allow anyone in who needs affordable housing.”
Median home prices in Lyons, she said, have leaped from around $350,000 in 2013 to more than $800,000 today.
For Boone, 76, returning to Lyons wasn’t an option once her trailer was totaled by the flood. Not only would Riverbend Mobile Home Park soon be no more, but home prices were on an inexorable rise across the entire region. The former hairdresser used FEMA funds to settle in a mobile home park in Loveland.
“I couldn’t afford to live there anymore,” Boone said. “It feels more like Boulder today than Lyons. It doesn’t feel like home anymore.”
Rumbach, at Texas A&M, said Lyons became “less diverse” and “richer” in the wake of the flood. That’s evident to Simonsen, who said she ran into three families over the holidays who had just moved to town from New York City. And the steady list of utility shutoffs she used to receive on a monthly basis has shrunk to just a handful.
“That’s telling me we don’t have people having needs in that area,” Simonsen said.
Hubbard, who waited five years to rebuild her home in the confluence area of town, said there’s been “an influx of people” into Lyons in recent years.
“The people who are coming in want to Boulder-fy Lyons,” she said, noting her distaste for a recently proposed 50,000-square-foot hotel downtown. “Things that used to be on Main Street are there no more.”
Only now is affordable housing set to go up in Lyons — a 40-unit project off of Carter Drive. It comes nearly seven years after voters in the town rejected setting aside land in Bohn Park for replacement, low-cost housing after the flood.
Lori Peek, a University of Colorado at Boulder sociology professor and director of the university’s Natural Hazards Center, said natural disasters have the greatest impact on the poor, people of color, single mothers, people with disabilities and renters.
“What we have seen in disaster after disaster, those who were most vulnerable at the time of the disaster experience the most complicated and protracted recovery processes,” she said.
Sixteen years after Hurricane Katrina, Peek said New Orleans still has 25% fewer residents than it had before the storm and those who remain are more likely to be white and more likely to be homeowners than renters. While the neighborhoods destroyed by the Marshall fire didn’t face anywhere near the socioeconomic challenges that the Crescent City faced before Hurricane Katrina hit, that doesn’t mean there won’t be residents of Louisville and Superior facing pressure to leave.
“Even people who are insured, they often struggle with disasters because they may soon learn they are underinsured or not insured for the disaster that happened to them,” Peek said. “Sometimes people end up giving up.”
Recovery isn’t made any easier by the seemingly endless rise in home prices along the Front Range. Seattle-based Zillow is calling for a 17.5% gain in metro Denver home values over the next 12 months, which comes on top of a record-setting 22.1% gain in 2021, according to the company.
“You can look at the real estate prices from 2013 and now in Lyons and the prices have tripled,” said Scott Kelly, who moved to Loveland after the flood took out his home in Lyons.
Kelly hasn’t completely left Lyons in the rearview mirror. He still runs his Gateway Auto Service shop on 5th Avenue in town but he said Lyons didn’t feel the same after 2013.
“It’s changed,” he said.
Suzanna Long, an engineering professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology who studies natural disasters, said a major part of recovery has little to do with insurance coverage or the cost of materials.
“There needs to be targeted efforts to restore trust and confidence,” she said.
She points to the success of the recovery effort in Joplin, Missouri, where a tornado ripped through town in May 2011, killing 161 and injuring more than 1,000 others. Total damage from the event: $2.8 billion.
Long said the community, including hundreds of volunteers, banded together to bring the city back. A Citizens Advisory Recovery Team formed to help guide the rebuilding effort. Structures in the city were built back to more rigorous building standards. And a few years after the disaster, many pointed to Joplin’s efforts as the way to come back from tragedy.
“If you take a look at a community like Joplin and look at satellite imagery and chart the progress, it’s like new growth after the winter,” Long said. “There’s every reason to be hopeful and confident in regions of Colorado that have been impacted like this.”
But it won’t come without bumps and challenges. In Lyons, friction developed between the town and its residents during the rebuilding effort. Residents of Superior and Louisville should expect things to get worse before they get better, Simonsen said.
“It will start happening around Valentine’s Day,” she said. “I think people are going to start getting very frustrated. Anger will start, then resentment will start to bubble. What happens is everyone wants to rebuild back now.”
Hubbard remembers the confrontations with federal and local officials as residents desperately tried to pull the proper permits to proceed with construction and restoration. She remembers meeting weekly with her neighbors and making sure they presented a united front before the town.
“We walked to town hall as a group — all 30 of us,” she said. “It was probably intimidating.”
But the recovery continued and the town is now stronger for it, with better-designed bridges spanning the St. Vrain and many houses in town now elevated on concrete pads. The town is readying construction of a new pedestrian bridge over the north fork of the river to replace the one demolished by the flood.
Peek, the CU professor, said neighborhoods torched by the Marshall fire may have a few cards in their pocket that other disaster areas didn’t have.
“The fact that schools weren’t destroyed, or as many businesses weren’t destroyed, more people might decide to stay,” she said.
And the work-from-home revolution brought about by the pandemic could allow displaced Marshall fire families to temporarily relocate to rental properties while their homes are rebuilt, making the transition from disaster easier than it might have been in the past, Peek said.
But Hubbard counsels patience to the thousands displaced by the Marshall fire.
“Be patient, because it isn’t going to happen overnight,” she said.
For her, she started out post-flood in three emergency shelters, then an assisted living facility in Boulder, then a rented home in Lyons and finally back to her property, where she camped in a 27-foot RV for the next 2 1/2 years watching her home go back up. Now she looks across her spacious living room to the picture window, outside of which the St. Vrain continues on its course.
“It’s still home,” Hubbard said.