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Manitou Springs residents flock to talk to governor during visit

August 15, 2013 Updated: August 15, 2013 at 10:38 pm
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MANITOU SPRINGS - Gov. John Hickenlooper spent Thursday evening touring the most devastated parts of this town in the foothills west of Colorado Springs, where flood waters last week caused an estimated $2 million dollars in damages.

The number, which reflects damage to taxable residential and commercial properties, was released by the El Paso County Assessor's Office from an assessment it completed on Wednesday. Eighteen commercial properties were damaged by torrents of water and mud on Aug. 9, a heavy blow to community largely reliant on summer tourism. One home was destroyed and 15 others were damaged, a loss of $107,550. The loss estimates are based on the market value assigned to a property by the assessor's office.

A flood on July 1 caused about $681,000 in damages to 13 homes.

The Governor was in awe of the sheer "power of nature" that moved "boulders the size of cars" down the road toward Manitou Springs. He also was moved by the local efforts to recover and clean up, he said.

"That's what defines Colorado," he added.

Residents flocked to speak with the governor - many learning of his visit when they saw him driving through town. Several said they are terrified of every raindrop that falls, and sought comfort and reassurance that a flood like that would never happen again.

The governor offered his condolences and support, but said he could not assure residents that last week's floods were a rare occurrence.

"I can't guarantee what's going to happen two weeks from now," he said.

The one-hour tour was organized to give Hickenlooper a chance to see the damage, particularly along Canon Avenue, said El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark. For the tour's final stop, most of Manitou Springs' public officials joined the governor's entourage at the Business of Art Center, a de facto recovery center on Manitou Avenue. There, Mayor Marc Snyder fielded resident and reporters' questions alongside the governor, while Police Chief Joe Ribeiro, Fire Chief Keith Buckmiller and state Sen. John Morse stood in the audience.

But the tour was less well publicized among the residents, a few of whom were puzzled to see a caravan of cars driving slowly down the closed Canon Avenue Thursday night.

When she learned that the governor had just passed the mud-logged Commonwheel Artists Co-Op, Shelle Terrill was determined to give him a piece of her mind. For six days straight Terrill and other friends had been digging out Charles Rockey's basement, the alley behind which had become a dumping ground for much of the neighborhood's trash, Terrill said.

Terrill and her crew of mud-haulers marched down the street, seeking an audience. They had some basic concerns - for instance, would the city make them pay for the Dumpsters they ordered to collect the street's trash? What about some elderly homeowners who had not yet begun to empty their homes of layers of mud, Shane Avion wanted to know.

Although the governor praised the community's bucket-by-bucket approach to removing mud, exhausted residents wanted bigger help. Some asked the governor why funds from the Waldo Canyon fire federal disaster relief could not be allocated to them. After all, it was the fire, the second most destructive in state history, that denuded the landscape west of Manitou, making it unable to absorb water.

When it comes to wildfires, federal disaster aid does not come in packages - it does not take into account flood potential, Hickenlooper told the residents.

"If you ask me, the fire and all these floods are one disaster, but the federal government doesn't see it that way," he said. He intends to work towards changing that perspective, he added.

Since last summer's Waldo Canyon fire, the threat of flash floods has hung over El Paso County. Three recent floods that swept cars off roads, destroyed homes, killed one man and injured several others have brought the reality of the threat home.

The residents of Manitou, who are used to living in the dumping ground for three drainages, want some changes. They have requested more flood alert sirens, and at least one resident at Thursday's meeting asked that the western bridge over Rainbow Falls be removed. The bridge is closed after tons of mud and water coursed down it last week.

Despite the rain-anxiety that has filled the town, Mayor Snyder wants residents to get back to normal life, if they can. Floods like this shouldn't be "the new normal," he said.

"Now, it's a matter of getting back to normal and not letting this change you," he said.

It was a hard idea to sell to mud-covered residents, many of whom left to return to their work-shoveling feet of mud out of their homes and businesses.

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