Repairing Flooded Infrastructure Is A Big Task In Colorado

Search and rescue efforts have slowed to a trickle in Colorado's flood-ravaged Front Range. The number of unaccounted for has fallen to around a hundred, while the number of presumed dead has grown to 10. After more than a week of flooding, the state faces massive challenges.

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And rescue efforts have slowed in Colorado's flood-ravaged Front Range. Around 200 people remain unaccounted for; 10 are presumed dead. Yesterday, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said that the state was moving on to the recovery. But as NPR's Nathan Rott reports, it's a huge job.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPRAYING)

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Brenda Gillum sprays a thick layer of maroon mud off of a glass plate.

BRENDA GILLUM: Anything that's salvageable, I'm spraying it.

ROTT: She stacks the plate with a pile of others, and moves on to one of the other soggy cardboard boxes that dot her driveway, pulling out a piece of paper.

GILLUM: Our marriage certificate - can't even read it.

ROTT: All around Longmont, a town just up the road from Boulder, homeowners are starting the search for normalcy - a search with its share of challenges. Longmont's police commander, Jeff Satur.

JEFF SATUR: This whole section of roadway on Hayden was just torn up. You know, we have water lines, sewer lines, gas line...

ROTT: One look at where the paved street was washed away, and the piles of collected rubble on either side finishes his thought. The smell of fresh asphalt tells the next.

SATUR: Dug it, re-graded it, got it all smoothed it out, and they're laying pavement today, which is...

ROTT: This has become the priority in towns along the Front Range: fixing the infrastructure. Without roads, people can't go home. The problem is the enormity of the task. An estimated 200 miles of state highways are damaged. The total for local roads is expected to be several times that. And roads are only part of the problem. In Longmont, yards are mud flats. Railroad tracks are twisted. And bridges...

SATUR: As you can see, the bridge is standing. You can see the structure for the bridge; it's still all standing. But the road before the bridge, and the road on - it's just all been washed away.

ROTT: And that's just one bridge in Longmont. Zoom out a little.

MIKE THOMAS: Boulder County, unincorporated Boulder County itself has about 79 bridges.

ROTT: That's Mike Thomas. He's the chief engineer for unincorporated Boulder County. He's responsible for infrastructure like this bridge between Boulder and Longmont - a bridge that looks fine from the top.

THOMAS: But you'll see how this bridge under here, you can see how it's washed out.

ROTT: What looks fine at first is sometimes not. And inspectors and workers all over the damaged area - an area the size of Delaware - are finding that that holds true for utilities, sewer lines, dams, ditches, culverts, and oil and gas fields. Two separate oil leaks have amounted to nearly 20,000 gallons of spilt oil. But environmentalists like Shane Davis, who - full disclosure - is vehemently against fracking, the relatively new method for extracting natural gas, fear that that 20,000 is just a fraction of the damage.

SHANE DAVIS: Yeah, Weld County, where the flood zone was, actually is the highest density of active oil and gas wells in the entire United States.

ROTT: Floodwaters affected nearly 2,000 well sites. But oil and gas companies have said that they shut those wells down, effectively plugging them before the waters hit. Davis doesn't buy it, and wants to show why.

DAVIS: Road closed. We can walk; we can try.

ROTT: Yeah.

A few miles west of the town of Milliken, where one of those large leaks occurred, Davis walks towards what was an active oil pad. One of its cylindrical tanks is tilted, a snarled tree wedged underneath it.

DAVIS: When that tank listed, and is now leaning over, as we see it - almost a 40-, 45-degree angle - the pipe broke, no doubt, underneath. Where did all the hydrocarbons go?

ROTT: It's hard to say what, if anything, actually leaked. But it's clear that it will be a while before the well is functional again. And looking around at the wrecked bridge, the flooded crops and the counties that surround it, it's clear the same can be said of them.

Nathan Rott, NPR News, Greeley, Colo.

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