Residents wait for flood help from FEMA

By: matt steiner -by name the gazette
October 14, 2013 Updated: October 14, 2013 at 9:01 am
photo - Allen Owen stands in the basement of his house off North Walnut Street Wednesday, October 9, 2013 where last months heavy rains and flood waters caused three walls of his home's foundation to crack and cave in. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette
Allen Owen stands in the basement of his house off North Walnut Street Wednesday, October 9, 2013 where last months heavy rains and flood waters caused three walls of his home's foundation to crack and cave in. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette 

A mid-September storm that pummeled the Front Range with torrential rain and charging floodwaters left some unexpected areas cleaning up and adding up repair bills that are well into five figures.

Allen Owen, a 51-year-old homeowner who lives on North Walnut Street west of downtown Colorado Springs, awoke to a loud crashing sound Sept. 13. Rainfall and stream flows had gained momentum in the Pikes Peak region throughout the day on the Sept. 12 and had emergency crews scrambling as residents from southern Colorado Springs to Greeley and many points in between prepared to evacuate.

Owen, however, didn't expect serious damage before the loud noises he later learned were thundering from his basement. After all, the lifelong Colorado Springs resident doesn't live near a stream.

His yard flooded, but the flooding only left a few inches of water surrounding his home as other areas in El Paso County and to the north saw stream flows that exceeded historic highs. Floodwaters killed nine people along the Front Range, including two in El Paso County. One man's body was found in Fountain Creek and a few days later another body was plucked from Sand Creek.

The water at Owen's home saturated the clay ground, however, and eventually pushed in three sides of his foundation.

"When you get biblical storms like this, it goes from a minor problem to a disaster," Owen said Wednesday, standing in his basement amid makeshift repairs that will hold his house up until a new foundation can be built.

Owen said "expanding clay" has been a problem for years on the west side of Colorado Springs. During last month's storm, the clay expanded and acted "like a hydraulic jack," he said. The result was tumbling basement walls.

Owen said he received estimates of about $40,000 to have his foundation fixed. He and his daughter were preparing their cottage home so workers could begin jacking the house up and replacing the basement support walls.

He registered for assistance money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in late September and is waiting for a denial letter from his insurance company before he will receive any grant money, Owen said. According to Renee Bafalis, a spokeswoman for FEMA, the maximum grant any private homeowner can receive from her organization is about $31,000.

Owen is hoping to qualify for that amount, although he said it has been tough to reach out for assistance.

"It's the first time I've ever accepted help," he said, looking around his basement at badly shifted walls with cracks almost a foot wide. "It's just too big."

Owen is one of thousands who applied for FEMA assistance related to the September floods.

According to Friday's FEMA update released by Bafalis, more than 24,000 Front Range residents registered as having flood damage. FEMA had approved $41,362,846 in individual assistance from mid-September through Friday. More than $38 million of that money went toward housing repairs and assistance.

Julie Ashton, 71, who lives along Cheyenne Creek in Colorado Springs, also received some FEMA money.

Cheyenne Creek, Bear Creek and Fountain Creek on the west side of the city each flowed over its banks, but Cheyenne Creek had the highest flow rates. According to U.S. Geologic Survey observations, the stream that normally flows at just more than 2 cubic feet per second was raging downhill at 1,600 cfs Sept. 12 and 13.

Ashton, who has lived in the house about 20 yards from the channel for six months, said damage to her house was minimal despite watching a wall of water, mud and debris rocketing 10 to 15 feet over the top of a footbridge she had built. Ashton, who was still removing mud, branches and rocks from her property Wednesday, received $1,200 from FEMA to replace the floor in a 200-square-foot room.

As Colorado Springs city crews continued to haul away debris along Cheyenne Road, the woman pointed to several 4-foot-diameter boulders in the creek near her home, noting that the stream bed had been virtually void of rocks before the storm.

"They came crashing down the creek," she said, adding that the sound of the tumbling rocks and debris sounded like "the roof came off the house."

Ashton said Cheyenne Road had remained closed since the storm as many residents piled tons of debris on the streets for removal. She said she was "very lucky" as neighbors downstream from her house at 1 Stratton Ave. had up to 5 feet of water in their homes and were estimating tens of thousands of dollars in damage.

Both Owen and Ashton said the FEMA registration and application process went smoothly.

According to Ashton, an inspector came to her home about 36 hours after she visited an El Paso County FEMA Disaster Recovery Center. El Paso County initially opened a center at Canon Elementary, but as of Friday the only center open in the county was at the Colorado Springs Fire Training Center, 375 Printers Parkway. Hours are from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

The immensity of Owen's damage prompted FEMA to send an inspector out "the next day."

Bafalis said homeowners, renters, business people and even homeless people need to register with FEMA if they have damaged property and belongings related to the floods. They can register online, by phone or in person.

Bafalis also urged people who were denied FEMA assistance to remain diligent. People need to read determination letters carefully as they may be eligible for appeal of denials or pre-approved amounts of assistance. Those seeking aid have 60 days after the letter was issued to file an appeal, which can be done at a Disaster Recovery Center.

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