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How 2013’s Front Range floods changed the face of the region

Two years after floodwaters swept through, many immigrant families are still struggling to rebuild.

 

On a blustery day in June, Victor Galvan stands at the edge of a scraggly field in Evans, Colorado, hemmed in by tidy homes and a smooth road. Across the untidy lot, near a yellow house with a high picket fence, a backhoe is at work, clearing a section of the field. A recent rain has left mud puddles everywhere. Two years ago, this empty lot was home to a community of several hundred mobile home residents who worked in nearby counties. But in September 2013, record-breaking floods raced out of the Rocky Mountains, and rain-swollen rivers swept across these plains, inundating hundreds of homes, stranding people on rooftops for hours and destroying much in their path.

“It was kind of like a maze in here,” Galvan says. Some of the buildings were completely destroyed, others flipped, still others denuded of everything but their frame. Afterward, the town opted not to rebuild the mobile home park and to simply clear out the space where Galvan now stands.

Hardly anyone along the Front Range escaped the ripple effects of the 2013 floods, regardless of class. But in the months after, as communities began recovering and rebuilding, many of the most vulnerable — the towns’ poorest, its elderly and its immigrants — were displaced. The state’s legendary housing boom had bypassed them, and when the floods hit, many low-income residents had nowhere to go. As with similar environmental disasters, like Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy, the Front Range floods exposed systemic problems exacerbated by economic inequality.

“Places where the land was cheap and the housing was affordable, that’s the floodplain,” says Galvan, who is a regional organizer for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.

Galvan, who was himself temporarily displaced by the floods, recalls arriving just days after them and wading through knee-deep water to help residents retrieve belongings. “It was shocking, really,” he says, recalling the desperation of digging through a foot of mud to try to salvage photographs, mementos and, crucially for the Latino immigrants who occupied many of the trailers, paperwork: identification, visas and other documentation. “That night I had nightmares of people wandering this mobile home park, looking for other people, looking for their belongings, lost,” he says.

 

Sonia Marquez, with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, looks for keepsakes amid the muck in a flooded home at a decimated trailer park in Evans, Colorado, in 2013. Many of the residents in the trailer park were immigrants who didn’t have flood insurance, and because some were not citizens or legal residents, they couldn’t get government help.
Brennan Linsley/AP

Many trailer park residents who were displaced by flooding will likely never return to their homes. Few of the parks have been rebuilt, thanks to a combination of zoning shifts in response to the flooding and local resistance to mobile home parks. In Evans, the flood-affected trailer park was demolished and replaced by a city park. In Lyons, at the mouth of one of the canyons from which water poured, city officials staged a protracted campaign to rebuild housing in a downtown city park. It failed when voters rejected a ballot initiative on the proposal earlier this year, and as yet, there are no alternatives on the horizon.

Now, the former residents of the destroyed mobile home parks find themselves with limited options, thanks to the economic changes the Front Range has undergone over the past decade. Between 2010 and 2015, the average rent in Greeley, east of the mountains, increased by $260. Nearby Boulder and Fort Collins have had even steeper increases. In some areas, discrimination and distrust between officials and immigrants already had families in a tenuous situation. But the devastation of the flooding sped up the process.

“Affordable housing is in a crisis, and the flood made it worse,” says Andrew Rumbach, an assistant professor at University of Colorado Denver University of Denver, who has studied how vulnerable communities are recovering. Many families had to move considerable distances to find homes they could afford, further distancing them from useful city services and the social networks that can help provide support after disaster strikes.

Galvan estimates that he worked with around 100 families, all of them immigrants, after the flooding. Today, he knows where just a handful are. Others have quietly faded away, moving too often to keep track of or leaving the state altogether. The ones he’s still in touch with are scattered across the Front Range from Pueblo, over 100 miles to the south, to Greeley and other northern towns.

Rumbach says the fate of the displaced immigrants offers a lesson for disaster planners and city managers, in a future of changing climate and the more extreme weather events it can bring. Resilience isn’t just about physical preparation, he says; communities need to tackle the larger issues, as well, as part of their disaster planning.

“I feel like some of these places are celebrating their resilience to the flood, when some of their people have never been able to come home,” Rumbach says. “A significant number of people who used to live there will never live there again.”