IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Colorado floods: A month later, mountain towns 'spooky' and deserted

By Tony Dokoupil, Senior Staff Writer, NBC NewsGLEN HAVEN, Colo. – Flanked by a boom mic and an American flag, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper praised his state for rebounding after last month’s historic flood. “You can’t help but be inspired,” he told the Loveland Chamber of Commerce this week, celebrating a “spirit of recovery” that has opened most roads and emptied every temporar
Get more newsLiveon

By Tony Dokoupil, Senior Staff Writer, NBC News

GLEN HAVEN, Colo. – Flanked by a boom mic and an American flag, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper praised his state for rebounding after last month’s historic flood. “You can’t help but be inspired,” he told the Loveland Chamber of Commerce this week, celebrating a “spirit of recovery” that has opened most roads and emptied every temporary shelter.

But while the bigger cities of central Colorado — from Boulder to Loveland to Fort Collins — are bustling again, at least two once-gleaming villages in the foothills are virtual ghost towns, isolated by gaps in the asphalt and rivers that undid a century of civilization in a week of heavy rain. In Glen Haven, a 400-person jewel box on the road to Rocky Mountain National Park, an estimated 80 percent of the homes are empty and every business downtown is closed or totally gone — swept seven miles into the town of Drake, a thousand-person tourist draw that’s also now obliterated and empty except for a handful of holdouts who refused to be evacuated.  

“We saw the whole town kind of explode,” said Bob Smallwood, Glen Haven’s assistant fire chief, and one of ten people left in a 200-home neighborhood called The Retreat. 

The water that cascaded out of the Rockies last month ripped through 24 counties, killing nine people and dampening 2,500 square miles in the heart of Colorado. But the communities of Glen Haven and Drake may be the most devastated, deserted areas left — as well as the most at risk of becoming genuine ghost towns before the “spirit of recovery” finds them too.

“There’s been a lot of talk and a lot of meetings but not much action,” said Steve Childs, owner of the Glen Haven General Store, which was knocked sideways in the flood by a Ford Bronco and the remnants of Town Hall.  

Though still officially closed by the county, with roads blockaded to discourage mischief and buildings nailed with red signs reading “UNSAFE,” NBC toured Glen Haven and Drake this week with a pass from the sheriff and the good will of locals. The result, coupled with interviews with more than a dozen residents, was a tour of two map-dots that feel forgotten by the relief effort — and the locals are fighting to make sure they aren’t forgotten by history. 

“I need help,” said Jason Gdovicak, chief of Glen Haven’s volunteer fire department. “I need to know what the plan is, you know, the long-term recovery plan.”

For weeks the Glen Haven native has been leading an all-volunteer clean-up, taking a leave of absence from his real job as a building manager with the YMCA in Estes Park, the comparatively untroubled city seven miles south. For 36 days he says he saw no county or state road crews in Glen Haven, a delay that Larimer county (which has responsibility for Glen Haven) says was unavoidable given the magnitude of damage in the area.

Whatever the reason, it slowed the return of other services, trapping at least half the town in the 18th century: high on the mountain without phone or power, or a way down that doesn’t involve a backpack and very sore feet. A county crew materialized at the top of the road Thursday and another continued to nibble westward along County Road 43 from Drake, aiming to access a side road into the most isolated neighborhood of Glen Haven. But huge tracts of roadway between the two towns are scoured to bedrock, and expected to stay that way until at least 2015.

It’s a similar scene in Drake, where U.S. Highway 34 has been returned to canyon in places and a bridge washed out, cutting off access to the mountain. The difference in Drake is that the road work is booming, as the state shells out to restore access to Estes Park, the headquarters to Rocky Mountain National Park. But the progress comes at a cost: The road is closed indefinitely during construction, and residents get only one four-hour window a week to work on their homes or welcome damage assessors, before abandoning town again as the road re-closes. 

The result is “a barren wasteland,” says Drake resident Susan Egloff, who fled last month as the waters rose, sending her house down river toward Loveland. The 51-year-old office manager returned for the first time two weeks ago, finding one of her family’s cars intact. Last week her son found another balled like Play-Doh a mile downstream. One has to marvel at the destruction, she says, and to laugh at the insanity of the scenario: a disaster so bad it can’t be even reached by disaster relief.

In a season without a thousand-year flood, the roads would unspool beautifully around Drake and Glen Haven, carrying 35,000 cars a day. The area itself would swell to 50,000 people, especially in October, a month of leaf-peeping and elk-mating. In Glen Haven, the daily population would double to 800 souls, with hour-long lines for cinnamon rolls outside the General Store. And in Drake, the bar at the River Forks Inn would be two-deep with fly fishermen lying about their luck.

Instead, up and down Big Thompson Canyon and the North Fork toward Glen Haven, homes remain hastily abandoned. Front doors swing open. Flowers wait for the watering can. Cars sit packed for day trips. Apples go unpicked in the trees. Mountain lions make tracks where there should be tourists' feet. And everywhere enthusiastic signs point the way to establishments that no longer exist.

“It’s kind of scary,” said Dave Johnson, the president of the Glen Haven homeowners association. “It’s kind of spooky.”   

As winter approaches it’s only going to get worse for both towns. Many homes in the area are considered seasonal or secondary, which federal assistance won’t cover, and while a Federal Emergency Management Agency representative says that requests for public assistance through firehouses and homeowners associations should be approved, they haven’t been yet in Glen Haven — the kind of paperwork delay Gov. Hickenlooper has blamed on furloughs at FEMA’s Washington office during the government shutdown. 

But who should clean up the destroyed downtowns and private roads chewed through by water? That’s easy to answer in a tax center like Boulder or Fort Collins, which has its own heavy equipment and a staff of skilled operators. Small towns rely on the county, in this case Larimer, which so far hasn’t found the funds to help with the “community needs” list on the fire house wall in Glen Haven. It includes dump trucks, dumpsters, chainsaws, a wood chipper, barricades and traffic cones.

(“I don’t think there’s a traffic cone left in northern Colorado,” said Steve Johnson, one of Larimer County’s commissioners, when Glen Haven asked for more.)

To really understand the future of Drake or Glen Haven, however, it’s necessary to understand their immediate past. Both were at the center of Colorado's deadliest flash flood, in 1976, which killed so many people so quickly that Larimer hired extra morticians to process the bodies. This time the death toll was lower, but the destruction was far greater because the flood lasted not hours but days. 

In Drake, according to Sgt. Gerald Baker, a first responder in the county sheriff’s office, “a whole mountain came down” in a mudslide so loud that people covered their ears. They “believed the earth was coming to an end,” he said, and after debris temporarily dammed up the river, it almost did for some people. The blockage released a “tsunami” of water into the canyon. Or as a member of the road crew rebuilding Highway 34 put it: “Goodbye, Drake.”

In Glen Haven, the creek burst its banks on the fourth day of rain and the volunteer firefighters fled to higher ground, spending a tense night drinking Canadian Hunter and Coors Extra Gold and waiting for dawn. When it arrived, Gdovicak recalled, they saw that the town was gone, having “washed around the corner in one fell swoop” and taking most of the road with it, according to one firefighter. 

They went to work. Coordinating evacuations. Clearing a helicopter landing zone. Zip-lining residents over the water to safety. Others chipped in, running a private front-end loader, driving a dump truck that just happened to be in town. For a time the National Guard set up a check point and Estes Park Light and Power got quickly to work (though without quick result).

But mostly the residents turned to each other. The 1976 floodwaters were followed closely by looters, so this time the townspeople have made a stand, wearing firearms and running the check point left behind by the National Guard a few weeks ago. They make sure all visitors sign in at the fire house. “We’ve had to go back to enforcing our own laws,” said Clifton Dewitt, a Glen Haven firefighter. And the county sheriff’s office doesn’t disagree. “Those hillbillies police themselves,” joked Sgt. Baker.

What Glen Haven and Drake can’t do themselves however is secure their future. Very few people had flood insurance for the 1976 flood; even after it was dubbed a 500-year event very few people changed their policies. Steve Childs, who has owned the General Store for 33 years — running it with his wife, whose father owned it before they did — had flood insurance but dropped it figuring fires were a bigger threat. Now his store should be bulldozed, according to an engineer, and Childs will have to find the money himself.

In Drake, in the heart of the town, the River Fork Inn is likewise gutted and uninsured. And neither Childs nor Bill Jones, the owner of the Inn in Drake, know how they’ll ever rebuild. At this point they don’t even know if they’ll be allowed to do so. After the 1976 disaster the state forbid rebuilding on the flood plain for a year, and only allowed rebuilding after that if the structures were “51 percent” intact, a bar most businesses in these towns can’t meet.

“Wait and see,” said Childs, who vows to be back in one form or another, even if it takes two or three years. Jones isn’t so confident and perhaps with good reason. “Just missing one tourist cycle is pretty deadly in this business,” said Richard Wobbekind, an economist at the University of Colorado, who worries that canyon communities like Glen Haven and Drake will fade with the season, a 21st-century contribution to the pantheon of former places — and a spectral reminder of nature’s absolute worst.