Manitou Springs women move forward, adapting to a 'new normal' after last summer's disaster

By: Cary Vogrin
April 14, 2014 Updated: April 14, 2014 at 12:25 pm
photo - Natalie Johnson decided to live in a small recreational vehicle instead of buying a new home after the floods in Manitou Springs. Johnson sold her building on Manitou Avenue before the flood and was renting the upstairs apartment when Manitou Springs was washed out last summer. Johnson, pictured Tuesday, March 18, 2014, lives in a RV park in Manitou Springs.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Natalie Johnson decided to live in a small recreational vehicle instead of buying a new home after the floods in Manitou Springs. Johnson sold her building on Manitou Avenue before the flood and was renting the upstairs apartment when Manitou Springs was washed out last summer. Johnson, pictured Tuesday, March 18, 2014, lives in a RV park in Manitou Springs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Last summer's floods have changed the way many residents think, how they operate their businesses and, in some cases, even how they live.

Natalie Johnson of Manitou Springs bought and renovated an RV - a home that she can move to higher ground if Mother Nature deems it necessary.

Farley McDonough is relocating her downtown Manitou restaurant - located smack-dab in a flood channel - to a safer spot out of the floodplain on the eastern edge of town.

Neither woman is taking a "this can't happen again" stance.

"I feel I am conscientiously making choices so that I'm not in the same situation I was last year," said Johnson, executive director of the Manitou Art Center and a former bookstore owner in downtown Manitou. "There are people who experienced serious loss so I don't want to put myself in their category whatsoever. But it's clear that I'm not that same person that I was, even before the (Waldo Canyon) fire."

Although everyone responds differently, it's typical for people to suffer insomnia, nightmares, depression and anxiety after a natural disaster, said Nora Baladerian, a psychologist from Los Angeles who took teams of therapists to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina.

"There's obviously going to be anxiety for the future: Are there going to be more floods? Are there going to be more fires? Is it going to touch me? It's all those unknowns," Baladerian said.

In order for some people to move forward, they need to find a "new normal" and realize things won't be the same. That's what Johnson and McDonough are doing.

"It fits in the model of the 'new normal' - how do I live and still feel safe," Baladerian said of the major changes made by the women.

"The woman who bought an RV - I think that's very clever," Baladerian said. "I'll be safe and I'll have my home. I feel it's brilliant - and odd - but brilliant. It's out of the box. She's taking care of her feelings and her belief system that maybe it will happen again here. She feels better - that's the whole point."

A way to stay in Manitou

Johnson had moved her business - Black Cat Books - and sold the creekside building where it was housed months before the heavy rains, but she still lived in the upstairs apartment, as a renter. And she was acutely aware of the potential for flooding. As summer 2013 approached, Johnson began leaving out three days' worth of food and water for her cat, and she bought a weather radio for the arts center and formed a business evacuation plan.

"People thought we were overreacting," she said.

Today, of course, no one would argue with such planning. When floodwaters rushed through Manitou on the evening of Aug. 9, Johnson was hosting an art opening. "We had about 150 people at our location when the warning sirens went off," she recalled. "We evacuated everyone. We gave people rides." She and many of the artists wound up in a bar in Old Colorado City.

It was one of several times that Johnson would be forced to find a place to sleep because her town was being evacuated or roads into Manitou were closed due to the threat of flooding.

"There was a point where . I'm just tired," she said. "Every time we'd evacuate, I feel like I'd lose hours of productivity. I could not get my brain to work again. It's hard to function."

Eventually, she moved out of the upstairs rental and house sat for a friend. Then in February, she made a bold move.

"The bottom line is that a month ago, I bought an RV, fixed it up and now I'm living in an RV park. And a year ago, that would not have happened," she said.

Johnson found a 1978 Dodge RV on Craigslist, bought it in early February, gutted the inside to accommodate her furnishings and moved in on Feb. 27. From the RV park in Manitou, she can walk to her job at the arts center.

Some find her decision intriguing, but for her it was a way to remain in Manitou and still feel comfortable.

"The bottom line is that I think it's because I have owned things for so long, I didn't want to really pay rent. So that's part of it," Johnson explained. "But the other piece was that I think due to flooding, I don't feel comfortable buying right now, either, and so I feel as though this RV is giving me the best of both worlds at this point. I feel like I own something, I'm investing in something, but I'm not committing.

"If there had been no flooding, I do not believe I would currently be in an RV. However, I think this could be one of the best things that ever happens to me. The flood pushed me to this, but like everything, this could be perfect," said Johnson, who is on the advisory committee of the Manitou Emergency and Recovery Fund, which was formed to support emergency efforts quickly in the event of another disaster.

Restaurant relocating

McDonough, the restaurant owner, knew she was in trouble long before any rain fell last summer.

After the Waldo Canyon fire in 2012, she began talking with police and fire officials, along with weather experts in Pueblo, about the flood risk.

"My conclusion by the end of April/early May (2013) was that more than likely we were going to flood," said McDonough, who owns Adam's Mountain Cafe - currently in the Spa Building in downtown Manitou.

She and her husband, David, started looking for an alternative location for their restaurant that spring, but nothing resonated with them. Then August came. The water and mud that flowed down from Williams Canyon inundated their restaurant. Any doubt there might have been about moving was gone.

Today, McDonough is readying the new Adam's - which will be in the former Manitou Pancake & Steak House - for a planned April 28 opening. The couple bought the building.

"It's kind of a bittersweet feeling," she said of moving from downtown, which she called a "beautiful space" that will serve its last meal Easter Sunday. "I don't think I could hang on to my staff if I stayed there. There is some of my staff that is still shaky."

Although staying put wasn't an option, neither was not relocating. "Adam's is what we do. It's our life," she said. So the couple invested again in Manitou.

By mid-March, the former pancake house, built in 1955, was in the midst of a $175,000 face-lift. Although located on Fountain Creek at 26 Manitou Ave., the building is not in the floodplain.

McDonough is excited by the potential of the new place, and she has big plans.

The 6,600 square feet of space offers an opportunity to grow the business via catering or cooking classes. "The real selling point for me was the second kitchen in the basement," she said.

She hopes that expanding the business plan also will even out revenue flows over 12 months instead of having to rely on a few tourist-heavy months.

And she has other ideas: a coffee and juice bar inside and a footbridge across the creek out back. She'd also like to host summer concerts and farmers markets in the parking lot.

"Trying to bring the Manitou community down to this east end is really, really important to me," she said.

She believes Manitou has an opportunity to grow stronger because of the floods.

"I think it's changed everybody's mindset. We have to be focused on other things - not just tourism. What would be nice ultimately is if we learned how to be a year-round town and not just a summer destination. It's a challenge. We just can't keep saying 'this summer it might not flood.'"

It's a sentiment echoed by Johnson: "If we stubbornly stay put and don't adjust with changing times and needs - that is actually worse."

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