DENVER – Gov. John Hickenlooper offered high hopes Monday of rebuilding Colorado’s flood-damaged communities within weeks. And he’s getting professional recovery advice from a Democrat friend, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, whose state was smashed by Hurricane Irene in August 2011.
“We’ve got to start planning that right this second,” said Hickenlooper on KMGH-TV. “We’ve got to be ready to get rebuilding fast. And you know, we’re gonna rebuild better than we were before. ”
“And we’re gonna do it fast and inexpensively – there’s not a lot of money in the federal budget or state budget,” declared Hickenlooper.
“We’re gonna be focused on, you know, how we get this done and rebuilt better and faster and getting the best value for our dollar,” he said.
“We don’t have a year and a half, right?” said Hickenlooper, eager to get started before the official reports of damages and losses in Colorado’s 15 impacted counties.
“Think about these kids, right?” added Hickenlooper. “We’ve got to get these kids if they’re going back into their old home and back into their old school, we’ve got to get them in place in real time – like in a couple of weeks.”
Infrastructure, he admitted might take more time, “You’ve seen some of these roads, it’s gone from road to completely river. Uh, that’s going to take a little longer time.”
Hickenlooper recalled flying Saturday over devastated Colorado communities where people are isolated because of washed out roads and bridges. But, would a ground trek offer a more realistic vision?
Hickenlooper began the recovery initiative Monday morning by bringing in Vermont’s three top engineers who, he said, “learned all the best practices – what not to do, what to do.”
The engineering team, according to Hickenlooper, swiftly rebuilt Vermont and did it for “about half of what they originally thought their costs would be. Really by just trying innovations and new ideas – and that’s our goal.”
If Vermont is a success story, it might be for rebuilding most state and federal roads and bridges – not local infrastructure – by December 2011, according to the New York Times.
Vermont’s success “is a story of bold action and high-tech innovation,” the Times article added, noting that the effort was bolstered “by cooperation with other states, legions of contract actors and local citizens.”
The federal and Vermont governments spent $565 million for the recovery. Colorado will likely get a hefty helping hand in federal aid, but the state may have to import contractors from because there is already a shortage of skilled workers in the industry.
However, that may pose a legal problem. Hickenlooper signed union-backed bill into law this year that requires all businesses contracted by state and local government agencies to hire 80 percent of their workforce from Colorado citizens.
What about Hickenlooper’s goal to help Colorado kids get back home? More than 1,500 houses were destroyed by flooding and at least 17,500 homes were damaged. Untold businesses, ranches and farms were decimated by the storm.
But Hickenlooper’s ambitious recovery plan – to be crafted with the help of Vermont engineering consultants – might be overly optimistic.
A year after Vermont was inundated with 11 inches of rain, Huffington Post reported that people were still struggling. Rebecca and Drew Smith, owners of Stockbridge-based White River Valley Campground, were still out of business and had missed two months of mortgage payments.
“We need contractors, we need electricians, we need plumbers,” said Rebecca Smith.
Many residents are still hurting, Shumlin said. Some are still waiting for the Federal Emergency Management Agency “to tell them something they can believe.”
Two years after Irene wreaked havoc, Kara Fitzgerald of Wallingford, Vermont lamented, “In some ways we feel like the storm was yesterday.”
“We lost everything there,” Fitzgerald told the Associated Press last month.
She and Ryan Wood-Beauchamp, owners of Evening Song Farm, produced their first crop of vegetables this year – on borrowed acreage a mile away from their farmland which will take longer to revitalize.
The Hunger Mountain Children’s Center, which moved because of water in the basement, has continued operating in a temporary space in a local church. Amanda Olney, the daycare facility’s business manager, remains hopeful that the center can buy the old building, now abandoned, and expand.
On the bright side, Vermont’s ski industry continued to thrive largely because most state and federal highways were repaired quickly. The governor added a cabinet post and staff for nine long-term regional offices to expedite recovery requests.
That might be a glimpse into Hickenlooper’s vision for Colorado.
“Our bridges are broken, our roads are broken – our spirit is not broken, right?” said Hickenlooper.