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Unmet Needs in Stark Contrast to Overwhelming Outreach after 2013 Flooding in Colorado

The emergency brought two crises: The flood and the immediate damage, and the after effects victims wouldn’t see for months.

Weld County CO 2013 flood
(MCT) — As the September 2013 floodwaters receded, and the scope of the damage unfolded, outreach efforts poured in from more than 20 organizations.

Some efforts were monumental. The Weld Food Bank distributed 600,000 pounds of food, 54,000 pounds of which were collected during one historic food drive.

Journey Christian Church was herculean, offering a veritable warehouse of supplies and clothes, as well as mobile urgent medical care and showers.

Smaller efforts, like Guaranty Bank’s free lunch for 100 flood victims, were no less appreciated.

From the brink, an outpouring of generosity brought Weld County back.

But it wasn’t enough to make us whole again.

“The reality is you can never go back to exactly what it was before,” said Sandi Meier, project manager for the long-term unmet needs organization, Weld Recovers. “That’s true of any disaster. It’s always a hard message.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency doled out more than $40 million to individuals, small businesses and government agencies in Weld County. Weld County Flood Relief, a partnership between United Way of Weld County and the Community Foundation Serving Greeley and Weld County, donated $1.4 million to flood victims.

Yet United Way of Weld County says there is still $17 million in unmet needs for victims of last September’s floods. Money for flood victims is nearly gone, and with it, any hope of a return to normal.

“With any disaster, it’s getting them back to a new normal,” Meier said. “Because the old normal will never exist again.”

New Normal

Rich Bartels wasn’t in the Big Thompson Canyon when the waters rose.

Sixty-two inches of water went through Bartels’ second home near the Indian Village gift store. Four feet of mud clung to his home when the water receded. Bartels pegs the damage to his home at $130,000 – about half of the pre-flood value of the house. But then there’s this: Two of Bartles’ neighbors died. If not for a pine tree in Bartles’ front yard, another neighbor, Mike Horn, may have died as well. Horn spent the night in the tree and was rescued the next morning.

Two weeks earlier, Bartels was announced as a new United Way of Weld County board member.

“Being a board member and being someone affected by the flood, it gave me more insight as to what flood victims in Weld County were going through,” Bartels said.

Bartels is careful to avoid calling himself a victim. That label, he said, should be reserved for people like his neighbors in the Big Thompson Canyon who warned the Bartels to stay away when flooding looked imminent.

“The people that were up there, they suffer more,” Bartels said. “They have the memory of just the roar of the river, the rocks and boulders tumbling down that would shake the neighborhood, the propane tanks whistling through the canyon, the sounds of their neighbors perishing and their screams.”

Bartels doesn’t blame the organic, community outreach efforts. He doesn’t blame Weld County’s response, which he said was almost immediate.

But what of the unmet need that’s still out there?

“It doesn’t surprise me, but it disappoints me,” Bartels said. “I wish there were more funds available to help people. One of the problems with this flood is it impacted the majority of the Front Range. Resources that were available were tapped into so severely because of all the need.”

New Needs

With the upwelling of outreach came the idea that things were taken care of, that the worst had passed.

In reality, said Meier, who is also a special projects manager for United Way of Weld County, there were two crises: The flood, and the immediate damage, and the after effects victims wouldn’t see for months.

“When the warm weather came, we had a whole new problem to deal with, and that was mold,” Meier said. “People who thought that all their cleaning and everything had taken care of it. …There were children in the hospital for respiratory problems, and it was mold issues — a whole new issue in terms of financial need.”

Those issues make up one chunk of that $17 million, and they were unforeseen in FEMA applications that were due — even with an extended deadline — by Nov. 30, 2013.

In February, when the faith-based organization World Renew surveyed flood victims to put a number on the county’s unmet needs, about 200 people were interviewed. That’s $17 million, divided by 200 people — $85,000 per person.

Weld Recovers, which was established with help from FEMA and numerous faith-based and nonprofit agencies, is now looking at more than 400 cases.

And that number grows on a weekly basis, Meier said.

But the money for those folks has all but dried up.

Weld Recovers has just $700,000 left in a trust established by United Way of Weld County and the Community Foundation Serving Greeley and Weld County.

The Weld Food Bank, the Red Cross and other local nonprofits all say they’re willing to help flood victims still in need. But donations, which flooded in in the days and weeks following the disaster, have slowed to their normal trickle.

“When there’s that much need, it’s hard,” Meier said.


Meier said putting a picture to that need is also hard — at least harder in Weld County than up the Big Thompson Canyon, where Bartels and his family spent countless hours cleaning up debris piled 15 feet high in their yard.

“What you see on the cameras in Boulder and Larimer County is different than what you see in Weld County,” Meier said. “You can drive through the canyon and see the damage. You have to drive miles and miles to see the need (in Weld County).”

It’s not so much out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Even folks who were proactive in seeking help couldn’t get enough.

Tom Fasano, director of marketing and communication for United Way of Weld County, provided some examples.

“One man who was living in Larimer County was impacted by the flood when he was living there, but then he moved to Weld County and applied for funding from Weld County and didn’t receive it because he was living in Larimer County at the time he was impacted,” Fasano said via email.

Another piece, Fasano said, is that a flood survivor may have $100,000 in unmet needs. If the Weld County Flood Relief Fund provided $10,000, and the person got the FEMA maximum of $31,900, he would still be nearly $60,000 short.

Put the 2,005 Weld County residents who split $10 million from FEMA in the same boat. That’s $5,000 apiece, not enough to replace the most basic of trailer homes, let alone the priceless possessions inside.

The $1.4 million from the Weld County Flood Relief Fund, distributed in 270 chunks at an average of $5,200, made a similarly small dent.

Bartels had flood insurance. It covered about $100,000 of the $130,000 in damage to his house. He didn’t receive any outside help, aside from physical help cleaning up from generous neighbors.

He didn’t even apply for FEMA assistance because he knew the rules: No federal money will be given to fix up a second home.

Perhaps that informs Bartels’ take on question of whether people should expect to be made whole after a major national disaster. Bartels’ short answer is no.

“A lot of people do believe that they should be made whole,” Bartels said. “My personal feeling is, you just have to roll up your sleeves and do as much as you can by yourself.”

©2014 the Greeley Tribune (Greeley, Colo.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.

Tyler Kleykamp is the state of Connecticut’s Chief Data Officer, within the Office of Policy and Management (OPM); and is responsible for directing, managing, and overseeing staff and activities related to the collection, analysis, and dissemination of the state's enterprise information assets. In doing so, he leads the state’s efforts to use data to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of state programs and policies. Tyler has previously served as chair of the Connecticut Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) Council as well as the state GIS Coordinator. In addition, he has led numerous initiatives to improve data and information sharing including; emergency management and disaster response, transparency and accountability during the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; and land use and economic development activities.