Colorado town still digging out from 'biblical' destruction as new flooding looms

A Colorado village that has faced an unusually long road to recovery from last September's catastrophic flooding is scrambling to complete the job before the spring melt can undo its hard-fought progress.

Glen Haven – unlike other areas of Colorado affected by the deadly floods in September – is a private, “unincorporated” town of about 400 people, without a homeowner’s association, that can only receive limited public assistance from the county and none from the federal government when it comes to repairing its infrastructure following a natural disaster.

When a deluge of rain struck the tiny, 100-year-old community, turning streams into raging rivers that washed away entire roads and buildings, residents received roughly $2.2 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Small Business Administration through "individual assistance" money – allowing for homes and some small businesses to be repaired, according to FEMA.

But because of Glen Haven’s unique status as an unincorporated town, the effort to clear a debris field that resembled “Armageddon” and rebuild roads has largely been a volunteer undertaking, led by members of the village’s volunteer fire department.


"We basically got no money from the government for infrastructure repair," said Tony Fink, president of the board of directors for the Glen Haven area volunteer fire department. Fink claims the state and federal governments have not fixed bridges and roads – including emergency access ones – because they are considered "private" and therefore not covered by taxpayer money.

"I can’t appropriately provide emergency access to the 200 residencies with my quarter-million-dollar fire truck," Fink said of the village, located 25 miles west of Loveland. "Our roads are impassable. In some places, roads don’t exist."

Of immediate concern to Fink and others is a rudimentary 3-mile stretch of private road that could well be wiped out by the spring run-off that is expected in May, when snowbanks melt.

"It could demolish the roads we’ve already done some repair on, as well as eliminate emergency access to people in the area," Fink said. "We’re willing to lose roads. We’re not willing to lose people."

"We’re all trying to do what we can with limited skills," said Fink, a retired physician. "I don’t know a thing about rebuilding roads. I’m just a person who cares. We’re doing everything we can to make sure we don’t become a ghost town. There’s a real possibility that could happen."

Eight people were killed in Colorado in September when a wall of water destroyed parts of the state, prompting evacuations in the hardest-hit counties, such as Larimer, Boulder and Weld.

Lori Hodges, director of emergency management and recovery for Larimer County, said the "biggest need" right now in Glen Haven is to repair private roads that received no public financial assistance because the unincorporated town has "no legal standing as a community."

Hodges is working to get assistance from municipal partners as well as non-government organizations, like the American Red Cross, to repair Glen Haven’s private roads and prevent further destruction.

"We’re really trying to figure out how best to help them with that," said Hodges.

"This was a catastrophic, historic event. The water was so intense it washed everything away in its path," she said, "but there’s only so much that we’re able to do, especially when it’s that widespread."

Larimer County Commissioner Steve Johnson said in an email to that a deal was worked out to bring in "7,000 cubic yards of material for private road repairs."

Johnson credited Hodges for the assistance, saying, "She was able to get the material donated from the Town of Estes Park" and also hired "10 dump trucks for 10 days from the Colorado Department of Transportation" to aid in debris removal. Fuel costs, he said, were paid for in part by the Red Cross.

"Private roads are not our responsibility and we have never helped with them," Johnson said. "But we are stretching everything we can to find ways to help the people of Glen Haven."

"Their destruction is truly biblical, far beyond what any private citizens could recover from alone," he said. "Helping them is the morally right thing to do in this case and we are doing it."

The $2.2 million provided by the federal government breaks down into $690,000 for 141 residents through FEMA’s "Individuals and Households Program." Nearly $1.5 million in low-interest loans were approved by the SBA for homeowners, renters and business owners, according to the government. In addition, FEMA claims that more than 29,000 in "public assistance" was allocated to "eligible non-profits" -- with  $23,122 going to the Glen Haven Area Volunteer Fire Department -- but that money did not cover the village's private roads.

Steven Childs, who owns the Glen Haven General Store along County Road 43, said he opted not to accept a loan from the SBA, telling that, "I would have had to pay back way more money than the place is actually worth."

"I don’t know any business owner who’s taken one," he said.

Childs said he’s in the process of slowly repairing the store with his own money and through funding from private donors.

Childs, however, noted that the county has been "really responsive" in getting business owners grant money.

Larimer County’s "Code of the West" warns residents of the obstacles they might face by living in such a rural part of Colorado -- an area that in some places does not receive newspaper or mail service.

The code, posted on the county’s website, states that, "…Many rural properties are served by private and public roads, which are maintained by private road associations."

"There are even some county roads that are not maintained by the county -- no grading or snow plowing. There are even some public roads that are not maintained by anyone!" the county code reads.

"Natural disasters, especially floods, can destroy roads. Larimer County will repair and maintain county roads, however, subdivision roads are the responsibility of the landowners who use those roads," according to the county. "A dry creek bed can become a raging torrent and wash out roads, bridges, and culverts. Residents served by private roads and/or bridges have been hit with large bills for repairs and/or reconstruction after floods."

Approximately 25 percent of Larimer County residents live in unincorporated areas. Glen Haven had the option of becoming incorporated but voted not to after a three-year battle ending in 2009.

Fink and others acknowledge the government’s limited role with respect to the town’s disaster relief, but say it does not ease their frustration.

"It’s not that our county commissioners don’t care – they’ve been bending over backwards to assist us – but I think their hands are tied because of these 'private' roads," said Fink.