by Rick Langenberg (related cover story)
Emergency help may soon arrive for Hwy. 24 motorists, commuters, gamblers and tourists, along with local business owners and civic leaders, in the form of some serious, multimillion-dollar flood prevention work.
However, the Ute Pass relief efforts may not be enough to mitigate the financial devastation for 2013, known as the summer of disasters. Both the tourism and gaming industries have taken a beating from frequent Hwy. 24 closures due to flash floods across the Waldo Canyon burn scar. This scenario reached a peak several times in July and August, sweeping away numerous cars and killing a popular Divide resident.
Late last week, officials from the Colorado Department of Transportation and the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments held an emergency meeting and authorized $8 million in federal funds for repairs in the Waldo Canyon burn scar area. This funding comes in the wake of a series of federal and state moves to assist 17 flood-ravaged areas in Colorado. The flash floods have put Colorado on the national map as a disaster-inflicted state, with more than 20,000 structures and homes either destroyed or seriously damaged.
The $8 million in the Ute Pass will be used for replacing smaller culverts with larger structures along Hwy. 24 to capture flood water and for significant slope stabilization work, such as firming up banks washed away from floods. In addition, part of the money will be spent on high technology for providing earlier flood detection. “They (CDOT) will be able to know what’s happening without having somebody sitting on a hillside,” said Dennis Hisey, chairman of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments.
Currently, Hwy. 24 in the Ute Pass is being monitored 24 hours a day, and a section of the road between Cascade and Manitou Springs and sometimes even the west section of Colorado Springs is shut down for a mere flood watch alert or rain storm. This has posed many inconveniences for commuters and Hwy. 24 motorists, who must either wait several hours until the road reopens or try their luck across lengthy alternative detours, via Denver or Canyon City. To make matters worse, the first several weeks of September has produced a much higher level of precipitation than during normal years.
The new construction is expected to help in mitigating the flooding problems, created from the devastating Waldo Canyon fire of 2012 that destroyed thousands of acres of trees and soil that normally slow down waters from rain storms. On the downside, local motorists may have to prepare for traffic delays shortly. Construction on the Hwy. 24 mitigation may get underway within the next week. As a result, construction delays are likely, according to Hisey. Traffic will be reduced to one lane in each direction of Hwy. 24 for a several mile stretch. And on certain occasions, barricades will be set up and Hwy. 24 will be reduced to one lane, according to authorities.
However, no local leaders are complaining. The floods and Hwy. 24 closures have had an adverse effect on business, commerce and consumer confidence in the local region. Cripple Creek and Teller County was gearing up for a banner summer, until the floods and associated road closures. Local gaming operators say many regular customers aren’t frequenting casinos as much due to fears of not making it down the Pass, if the chance of rain is prevalent. Casino winnings and overall gambling-related bets have declined from last year at this time. Also, many visits in the high country are shortened when gamblers or tourists notice dark clouds.
At the same time, local leaders are expressing much relief over dodging the latest disaster bullet. The storms that ravaged northern Colorado, devastating sections of Boulder, Greeley, Aurora, Lyons and Jamestown, left the Ute Pass and Teller County relatively unscathed. In addition, the Waldo Canyon burn scar didn’t get hit that bad.
Still, the flood damage financial toll is expected to soar into the hundreds of millions. As part of the state-wide recovery effort, Governor John Hickenlooper appointed Jerre Stead, a former CEO of a Colorado company called IHS, as the chief recovery officer to head rebuilding efforts. Hickenlooper also has cut the strings loose for $20 million more in new flood recovery funds and is looking for ways to assist local communities in coming up with matching funds. In addition, the governor may ask for an emergency relief package, similar to the one the East Coast area of the U.S. received in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
President Obama declared much of Colorado, including El Paso County, a disaster area, making it eligible to receive monies from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. These dollars pay for 75 percent of the flood repair work, but coming up with the remainder of the monies is sometimes a challenge for smaller communities.