Fire and flood a community issue

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When disaster strikes, the Coalition for the Upper South Platte appears on the scene, bearing everything from shovels and sand bags to the proverbial big shoulders.

Better known as CUSP, the staff and a legion of volunteers have been called upon this month to mitigate flood-damaged homes in Cascade. The floods were a result of the land laid bare by the Waldo Canyon Fire in June and a rainstorm July 30.

“Now we're working with private landowners focusing on things like sand bagging and protecting property owners,” said Carol Ekarius, CUSP's executive director.

Fire and flood have changed lives in the Ute Pass corridor. For at least five homeowners who live on the hillside above Cascade, the floods destroyed wells and septic tanks, severely damaged roads and presents an ongoing risk of more flooding.

The home of Chief Warrant Officer Jeffrey Fitzgerald was nearly destroyed. “The mud flow literally came through the house,” Ekarius said.

While the home was insured, the policy doesn't cover the entire cost of fixing the interior. “All these folks whose property was damaged continue to incur large costs, in some cases, tens of thousands of dollars, out-of-pocket,” Ekarius said. “For 99 percent of us, we can't absorb that without great pain.”

In a show of support, dozens of volunteers from Hewlett-Packard, along with the CUSP team, installed rock structures and placed sandbags Oct. 18 on Fitzgerald's property.

This project and others in the flood zone are funded by a $45,000 grant from Pikes Peak United Way, money awarded to and administered by the Cascade Fire Department.

“These are fairly expensive homes owned by working middle-class folks. We're trying to help them as much as we can, where they need additional materials and supplies, supplement that,” Ekarius said.

As the immediacy of the crisis has diminished, so, too, have donations gone down. For Ekarius, the scramble for money highlights a larger issue. “We have all these organizations, property boundaries, regulations and where and how pots of money can be spent,” Ekarius said, referring to agencies such as the Colorado Department of Transportation, Natural Resource Conservation Services and the U.S. Forest Service. “In catastrophes like this we need to figure out who's got money and where it needs to go.”

If the disparity weren't bad enough, Ekarius has another target. “Of course, and sadly right now, we have been a nation of people who have been de-taxing ourselves, to some extent or another. Regardless of your political affiliation, we've had a starve-the-beast attitude. And guess what? The beast is down to bare bones. I think the lack of money is affecting all of these entities,” she said. “We have cut our federal, state and local agencies so there just aren't enough people to deal with the magnitude of the issues as quickly as the taxpayers would now like us to.”

In the meantime, CUSP and other organizations depend on donations, grants and volunteer labor for the mitigation projects. “All of these folks up and down the Pass and around the other edges of the fire need assistance now,” Ekarius said.

SIDE BAR

A day before leaving for another tour of duty in Afghanistan, Chief Warrant Officer Jeffrey Fitzgerald finished up last-minute details on a project he didn't plan on doing. But with the interior of his home gutted by the mudslide of July 30, Fitzgerald is laying tile, installing insulation and bathroom fixtures, in a race for time before Oct. 18.

While Fitzgerald has home insurance, he figures his out-of-pocket costs for the interior alone to be around $20,000. “The insurance company gave me a little bit for smoke damage; you can see all the burnt trees,” he said. “And that was out of the kindness of their heart. They gave me $8,000 for somebody to come in and gut the interior so the mold didn't get in.”

Fitzgerald counts himself lucky as the foundation remained intact, despite the mud reaching past the mid-point in back of the house.

While he's doing most of the interior work himself, for the damage on the hillside, the secondary source of the floods, Fitzgerald is relying on the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, the staff and a team of volunteers.

“I'll tell you, it's great to see that many people volunteering, coming out of nowhere,” he said.

Fitzgerald bought the home in 1993 while stationed at Fort Carson. “My intention was to come back here and retire,” he said. “That changed with 9/11 so I'm doing a lot more than I anticipated. I haven't been able to get assigned back here.”

With uncertainty about the retirement, for the past several years Fitzgerald rented the home; however, the renter, who was uninjured during the mudslide, has since moved out.

After 30 years in the Army and tours of duty in Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and recently, Afghanistan, Fitzgerald, a helicopter pilot, volunteered to return to the war zone.

“We have a lot of turnover now, a lot of guys who've retired, so we have a lot of new ones, about half our unit,” he said. “You need experienced guys to stick around. I'm not the only one; there are probably four others who have 30 years and are going back.”

This time around, Fitzgerald expects to be deployed for a nine-month tour with a return home to Fort Drum in New York through Fort Carson. “Everybody rotates through Fort Carson because these mountains are the closest thing that replicates what's in Afghanistan,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald's wife and six-year-old daughter remain at home in New York.

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