Barbara Lawlor, Estes Park. Almost nine months ago, the Estes Park River Walk was covered in a mass of silty sludge and broken concrete. River water flooded basements, ruined carpet and drywall and zapped power to the Elkhorn Street shops. It was called the thousand-year flood, an epic storm, the 2013 disaster.
On Tuesday, July 1, hanging flower baskets swayed in a gentle breeze as flocks of tourists strolled the path along the river as visitors sat down to lunch in the outdoor patios. The white water was picturesque and benign. Only a line of sandbags stacked up against a shop wall indicated the destruction that had been delivered by the September flood.
But the impact will never be forgotten: the good, the bad and the now ever-present knowledge of the power of water.
At the south end of town, the Estes Park Golf Course appeared to be bustling as a women’s tournament took place. Golf carts carried twosomes over the winding fairways and greens. The roads that had been washed out were rebuilt; only the large, barren washes and the restored condos were there to remind visitors that much of the course had been under water last fall.
Manager and golf pro Mark Miller said the facility is still struggling to gain ground, that business is down 30% from last year at this time. “The flood ended our season last year and we had only seven holes until May. Since then the hour-long blasting delays on Hwy. 36, the inaccessibility, has hurt us. June was disappointing. We had hoped people would try to come up and enjoy the beautiful weather, but it was slow and it is going to be hard to make it up in July and August.”
Miller says he can only hope to rebound in September and October.
In some cases, business was better than ever. Jordan’s Floral was filled with pots of perennials and hanging baskets that have been selling like crazy. Manager Elisa Champ said residents who lost shrubs and flowers in their yards are filling in the holes left by the storm.
“Also, some people lost out on the fall beauty and have been ready for a burst of color to brighten their lives after all that grey. But people seem to be optimistic and it a great thing to see,” says Champ.
In fact, some businesses are predicting this summer, which they say starts on July 1, will be one of the busiest, with people coming to town to support the shops and restaurants. Annual visitors will be curious and eager to see how their favorite stores have survived the flood and hear about it firsthand.
Marsha Groome and her father have purchased two trolleys and will be giving tours with historian Jim Pickering. The Fun Tyme Trolleys business was put on hold when the storm hit and the trolleys could not be delivered to Estes Park until January. The tours began on Memorial Day; part of the route includes the Fish Creek Road bordering the golf course. Groome says many businesses are in the process of forming a downtown business group to help deal with the changes that have taken place in the past year.
The Kind Coffee Shop had to be closed for three months while the store was rebuilt. Now, it, like many other shops, has a gleaming new hardwood floor, new counters, and a new coffee bar. While they were in limbo, owner Amy Hamrick and her staff came up with Flood Mud Coffee, “brewing for 1000 years.”
“We are up in guest numbers. Many people are coming to show their support of the town. People who have never come here before are curious to see how we have recovered,” says Hamrick.
Although business is as good as it was last year at this time for the Aspen and Evergreen Gallery, owner Tamara Jarolik says “You can’t ever make up losing your best season, which is in September and October. The good thing is that we had more locals shopping in town over the holidays, which really helped. In the 32 years I have been in business, it is the first time that the locals shopped here, so some good came of it.”
Jarolik says shop owners are still nervous about the “faraway people” showing up for the summer months.
Stacks of sandbags are piled outside her shop and along the river walk. During the spring runoff, there were a few days when it looked as if the water was going to crest over the walk, so the town brought in the bags. After a couple of sleepless nights, the river subsided, but Jarolik says many of the businesses will hang on to the sand bags, “just in case.”
At Mama Rosa’s restaurant, Julie and Rob Pieper reported that business was close to what it was last year pre-flood. But then last year at this time, with perfect June weather, they thought they were going to have an all-time high business season. That hope was dashed on September 1, when they lost their flooring, baseboards, and dry wall as well as over a month of revenue.
“It was a psychological struggle with an upside. People who ate here once a week now ate here twice a week. Locals spent money in town. Now, since school is out, people who come here for vacation are adding an extra day or two. We have learned to take things in stride. Just pick up and fix the building and go.”
Julie says that they had to learn not to maintain business at a higher level; that they were forced to do things differently, and that at the time, it all seemed so possible. The staff worked as a team in a different way: a dishwasher teaching the manager how to put up dry wall.
“Everyone was out of their comfort zone, but it wasn’t uncomfortable.”
Social media came into the foreground. The restaurant posted pictures of the landscape and began to receive Facebook postings from all kinds of friends whom they have never met: emails from people who had enjoyed lunch at Rosa’s over the summer and wanted to see how they were doing. “The emotional support was priceless.”
The road to Estes Park has been mostly rebuilt. The new gulches have been shored up, the debris hauled away. The physical effects of the flood are receding, but the emotional and financial damage will take longer to heal.
Last week, the Economic Development Administration approved a $126,000 grant for the Estes Park Local Marketing District, for Visit Estes Park, tourism recovery marketing, The goal is to help potential travelers understand that the town has physically recovered and is better than ever.
The grant program includes Fort Collins, Loveland, Boulder, and Lyons.