State highway crews and National Guard troops worked furiously Sunday to repair highways to Colorado mountain towns cut off by unprecedented flooding.
Other teams were assessing how much damage needed to be repaired on Colorado’s eastern plains before trucks begin hauling in the fall harvest.
“They’re really humming,” said Jerre Stead, the corporate executive chosen by Gov. John Hickenlooper to oversee the state’s recovery from the catastrophic floods, which killed seven and wreaked havoc across 17 counties and 2,000 square miles.
Stead and Don Hunt, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation, said they were optimistic they can meet a Dec. 1 target to complete temporary fixes to at least some roads, if more bad weather doesn’t interfere.
Quick repairs are critical because winter weather will make highway work more difficult and force the closure of the high-elevation Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park, one of only two routes still open into Estes Park, a small town at the park’s east entrance.
Also looming are the harvests from Colorado’s $8.5 billion-a-year agriculture industry, which relies on trucks to get cattle and crops to markets.
Officials said it’s too early to know how much time and money it will take to make permanent repairs, but they say it will cost more than $100 million.
Some 200 miles of state highways and 50 bridges were destroyed.
On Sunday, Stead and Hunt drove up flood-battered U.S. 36 northwest of Denver until they reached a point where floodwaters had obliterated the road. Then they got out and hiked.
Holding his hands about shoulder-width apart, Stead said, “You’re on paths this narrow where the roads used to be.”
Residents who chose not to evacuate aboard National Guard helicopters gave them a lift at one point, Hunt said. Those isolated residents can drive along unscathed sections of highway but can’t reach either Estes Park on the north or Lyons on the south.
Hunt said residents of Pinewood Springs had built makeshift trails along highway washouts and planned to escort some children along those paths to waiting vehicles today.
He didn’t know how many children were making the trek or how far they would have to walk.
Stead said the devastation was worse than he expected, but Hunt was more optimistic.
“It’s maybe not as bad as I thought,” he said. “The damage is severe, but it’s highly concentrated” in a few areas, mostly where roads share a narrow canyon with a river.
Hunt said the biggest difficulties will be getting construction materials into damaged areas and protecting workers and travelers from falling rocks loosened by days of heavy rain.
Colorado will award several contracts for emergency repairs to construction companies today. State employees and National Guard soldiers are already on the job and making quick progress, Stead said.
The federal government will reimburse the state up to $100 million for road repairs, CDOT spokeswoman Amy Ford said, but Colorado officials are pushing to raise that to $500 million, which she said was the cap for mid-Atlantic states rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
“It is critically important that we get this relief,” she said.
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