Colorado highway workers plan to build a creative array of band-aid passages — deploying temporary bridges above severed highways and perhaps clearing rugged land to lay fresh detours — as they fight the seasonal clock to reconnect clusters of one-road, flood-blocked towns in the mountains and foothills northwest of Denver.
With snowy, high-country weather looming in autumn, the Colorado Department of Transportation is considering all options. “We are open to all possibilities and everything is on the table,” including erecting pontoon bridges where feasible, said Amy Ford, a CDOT spokesperson. Work on permanent replacements will commence soon as well.
“Our primary focus is going to be on those communities that, frankly, only have one way in and out,” Ford said Monday in a telephone interview. “Obviously, you're constrained in some of these canyons where people live, and that’s where our engineering teams will be looking carefully to determine what makes the most sense in the time frames we have."
When temperatures eventually plummet low enough, workers will be unable to properly pour concrete or set asphalt — the basic foundations for new bridges or for replaced stretches of pavement. "Literally, some of the fixes you can not deploy in cold weather," Ford said.
“There's a short window here before winter kicks in,” she added.
In Boulder County alone, officials estimated the recent deluge knocked out 35 bridges and mangled or destroyed at least 100 miles of roads. State transportation engineers expect to have final damage assessments in the next day, Ford said.
But they already know, via news reports and amateur YouTube videos, that remote roads have been torn away and that hundreds of residents have been airlifted or trucked to safety from the cut-off towns of Lyons (population 2,067) and Jamestown (population 280).
While back roads are allowing supplies to reach Estes Park (population 5,976), the floods have unhinged U.S. Highway 34, the main access route to that town, nestled on the fringe of Rocky Mountain National Park. At present, reaching Estes Park requires a 140-mile detour, USA Today reported. And seven miles northeast of Estes Park, in the town of Glen Haven — home to a general store, 165 residents and just one primary highway — there is massive damage, according to The Associated Press.
As Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper reassured locals on Monday that “our bridges are broken, our roads are broken, (but) our spirits are not broken," his transportation team simultaneously worked to tamp unease as to whether residents sheltering in villages currently without exits will face a winter of complete seclusion.
“No. Absolutely not,” Ford said. “It is going to be months, not years, for us to recover from something like this, but it is going to be as efficient as we can make it ... The fear piece of all of this is going to start bubbling up. People want to know: How are you going to help us? That’s a fair question to ask.
“We will be looking at all of that in collaboration with (the Federal Emergency Management Agency). And we will figure something out. That’s the best way to say it: We will figure something out,” Ford added.
In designing and building all those temporary passages and bridges, however, state engineers also will ensure the replacement routes are safe through all weather conditions, Ford said.
“People will be able to come and go, period. That is our first priority — to restore access,” she said.
While forecasts call for generally sunny skies in the flood-bashed region through the middle of next week, September snow storms are not a rare occurrence in Colorado’s Front Range mountains and foothills.
“Given our luck right now,” Ford said, "there will probably be a blizzard on Sunday. But let’s knock on wood that it will be nice.”
First published September 17 2013, 8:53 AM