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Prey for rain in the Pikes Peak region

As the community works again on wildfire recovery, a few unlucky locals keep their eyes on the sky

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The map shows them in huge splashes of red and yellow. But these homes and businesses aren't burning.

There will be no meeting tomorrow for their residents; no officials assuring them that they're all right, or even informing them that they're not all right.

Instead, there will be waiting. And watching.

People in the worst parts of the flood plains downhill from the Waldo Canyon Fire burn scar will be nature's hostages for at least the next 10 years. Any serious rainstorm could spell the end of their homes and businesses, or even their lives.

In a 10-year rainstorm, those in the red areas of the new Preliminary Flash Flood Risk Analysis of the Waldo Canyon Burn Scar (or inundation maps, as they're better known), would see more than 4 feet of water on their properties. It would come fast and hard, and carry with it thousands of tons of debris.

There are no flood maps yet for Black Forest, but it's likely that the area, too, will face erosion problems. Even as this month's fire still burned, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa noted a thunderstorm was rolling in that could bring flash floods and landslides.

"We're having to watch our backs," he said.

For those in the flood plain, truer words were never said. We asked some of the worst-positioned home and business owners how they're dealing with their precarious state.

— J. Adrian Stanley

Inundation maps available for download

Chipita Park Cascade North Douglas Creek Manitou Springs
Lower Ute Pass West Colorado Avenue
Camp Creek

Max and Jean Weissenfluh, Chipita Park

You smell the land before you dip down the driveway: sun-baked lilacs, tall pines, fresh water.

Set in the beautiful mountains of Chipita Park, the Weissenfluhs' light orange rancher hugs the edge of Fountain Creek, where tall leafy trees and bushes sway and the soft clang of wind chimes mixes with the music of the stream.

The Weissenfluhs are no less charming. Max is sturdy, despite his arthritic spine and bad hips. Often, he tools around the yard on his "little tractor" (a riding lawn mower), a pack of Camels tucked into his front pocket and a Vietnam vet hat on his head. He's not interested in a wheelchair, and certainly not a scooter. Indeed, he regularly walks the property, picking up debris despite his pain.

His wife Jean, who is thin with short, wispy grey hair, has been married to him for 52 years and still seems amused by his stubborn and impish ways, including his many jokes at her expense. ("I found her under a freeway!" he says of their first meeting.) The two share an obvious tenderness.

"She's my friend," Max says of his wife.

"Yes," says Jean, "we're friends now. We've always been friends, but ..."

She smiles at him. He winks one blue eye back.

Both 72, they have lived in this little Eden since 1983, but their family has been here longer. Max's parents bought the land in their own retirement in 1963, setting up an old school bus as a mountain hideaway, inviting family up for parties, cooking eggs and bacon over campfires on chilly mornings.

"They looked like a bunch of gypsies living here," Max says with a gruff laugh.

The old house is really two old motel rooms that the family hauled here and connected in the middle. When Max's father died, and his mother grew too old to live here, he and Jean bought the property and made it their own home. And thus, generations of grandchildren have come, wading the stream, running through the green grass around the wells, eating from the large garden. Max and Jean's son even bought the house next door as a vacation home, thinking one day he could be there to help care for his aging parents.

But on the other side of the Weissenfluhs' home, a sign of menace is emerging — a sandbag fence, about eight feet tall. Max calls it "the great wall of vinyl," and they both hate it. But they understand why their neighbors have put it there. Heck, they might do the same if they could, but their house is too close to the creek to allow for such a contraption.

Last year's July 30th storm flooded their neighbors' home and kicked water onto the Weissenfluhs' patio. And the floods here are only supposed to get worse. According to the most recent study of post-burn flooding, in a 10-year storm, all three homes — which sit on flat, low ground — would be under more than four feet of water.

Asked if the threat of flood worries them, Jean says, "It does me, not him."

"That's why she's got grey hair and I got brown hair," Max says. "... We're trying to be as much proactive, or whatever, but there isn't much you can do about life or nature, especially in Colorado."

Even on a beautiful day on the Weissenfluhs' back porch, the scorched mountains can be seen through the trees, and volunteers with the Coalition for the Upper South Platte roam the backyard, clearing debris and carrying away a wood bridge that washed downstream in last year's storm.

But Max, a sturdy descendent of homesteaders to the area, grew up nearby, and he's seen the way of water with his own eyes for so long that he finds it difficult to imagine anything changing too much.

He was raised in Manitou Springs, the son of educators-turned-grocers. The old store was housed next to the Penny Arcade, right over Fountain Creek. Drainage wasn't up to snuff in those days, and one of his jobs in the summer monsoon season was to stand by the door and sweep the water out.

His family home was also next to a water drainage. This one fed an underground pipe, and though Max took notice of boulders and mud that came shooting out of Williams Canyon during rainstorms, he never feared the culvert near his own home. He and the neighborhood kids would run the length of it just for thrills.

"We had high water frequently in Manitou," he says. "It was kind of a constant thing ... I've been messing with this canyon since 1941."

When Max grew older, he played football at Manitou High School before starting a career in the Navy, where he became a senior chief petty officer. He met Jean, a Montana native, in San Francisco, the younger of two sisters wandering downtown, clearly ignoring their parents' warning against fraternizing with sailors.

"He snapped me right up," Jean says.

They raised two children together. Max retired in 1979, and a few years later they came here. All was well until the fire came down the mountain. They watched until it crested the hill above their house, then hid out in Cripple Creek until it was over. Like most in these parts, they're amazed by and thankful to the firefighters who saved their home.

But no one will be able to save them from a flood. Over all the years they've lived here and visited here, they had never seen the water rise so high as it did July 30, which was considered only a one- or two-year rainstorm.

Jean now keeps important things in a bag near the door, so they can quickly load up and drive their Subaru or Ford Explorer up the hill if need be. But their home, and their old sheds with their antiques and keepsakes, could wash away. Their wells could be infected with unclean water. Everything could be gone.

"We'll just go move into the Summit House on Pikes Peak and eat donuts," Max laughs.

The Weissenfluhs don't carry flood insurance; they can't afford it on Max's military retirement and Social Security. They don't really know where they'd go, long-term, if they were to lose their home.

"Everybody's talkin' catastrophic, Big Thompson Canyon, cannons and everything, big tanks floating down, and all of this," Max says with exasperation. "I don't see Fountain Creek — because there's so many reservoirs and so much flood control up above — that whatever comes down it's going to be a quick, spontaneous event. It's going to be messy; it's going to be like it was a year ago, or whatever.

"And I think that was probably the one that we might of had. I don't see it happening again, because of all my 50, 60, 70 years living in Manitou and up here."

Jean, though, watches the weather. She's packed the area with sandbags, at the expense of the pink flowers she planted years ago along the streambed.

As we talk, she glances toward the hillside, then back to her friend. She says, "We have a difference of opinion."

— J. Adrian Stanley

George Davis and Kristen Johnson, Manitou Springs

George Davis and Kristen Johnson live at the mouth of Williams Canyon, in a small castle, with two dogs and the most interesting collection of rocks, art and junk that you could find just about anywhere.

Behind a fence, doll heads, carved figures, bottles, bits of crystal, and strange tools mingle with a beautifully landscaped garden in full bloom. A stuffed gorilla hangs in a tree, his head deflated by squirrels and birds that have stolen stuffing for their nests. The couple's two Shih Tzus — one with long hair over his eyes, the other trimmed short and sporting an under-bite — run the premise, often escaping through the gate and socializing with neighbors out walking their own dogs.

Thus it's common to hear shouts of "Milo!" and "Isaac!" coming out of the canyon.

As people trod past, no one fails to greet George, 44, and Kris, 39 — or the errant dogs, for that matter.

Inside, the castle itself has all the makings of a movie set, only miniaturized. The main living area is up a narrow, spiral stone staircase; it wouldn't seem inappropriate to light a torch here. Upstairs feels part tree house: You have to walk across an outdoor porch to reach the other room, which the couple is renovating into a master suite. (Both strong and good with tools, the men work for the Independent doing delivery, landscaping and handyman jobs.)

There's also a small lower room used for storage and laundry. But most of the lower level of the house, once horse stables, has been filled with concrete. The men say they've been told different stories as to why, though perhaps the most believable is that after the flood of 1999, the cement was needed to stabilize the foundation of the structure. It dates to 1919, and has endured other floods.

"I've seen old pictures of like Model Ts or whatever it was, and there was gravel all the way up to the window seal," says Kris, who grew up in the area.

When Kris and George — both tan, fit, perpetually smiling and slightly rough around the edges — bought this house three years ago, it was a dream come true. And they never considered that a flood larger than the one in 1999 might some day come crashing down the canyon, or that a fire might rage the same path.

In fact, when Manitou Springs was evacuated during the Waldo Canyon Fire, Kris and George stayed behind until the final hours — cooking up a storm in the kitchen, then eating all the food in case they would have to be gone for days. They were blissfully unaware that the evacuation was triggered by flames creeping down Williams. A change in wind, and they would have been goners.

"A natural disaster can be, maybe, a rock falls on you when you're hiking out of the blue and kills you," George says, laughing. "I mean, that's a minor natural disaster. So what do you do on hikes? Do you wear a helmet? I don't."

Still, George says he does wish he saw more mitigation in the canyon to prevent a worst-case scenario.

"I hear a lot more talk then I do action from any organization, I suppose," he says, noting that debris and sand have been allowed to build up in the creek bed.

But as far as water goes, the men are less concerned about the stuff coming off the creek — which is usually dry — than about the stuff coming off the canyon the house is built into. In fact, George and Kris have spent precious time and money building drainage systems off the rock walls, terracing the sides, and reinforcing their roofs and decks. And for good reason.

"We had water come down through the floor where the loft is," Kris says. "... Just from a rainstorm, it filled up, brimming with water."

As for the possibility of the creek flooding, the men say they worry more for their downstream neighbors than for themselves. They have no plans to buy flood insurance, or even a weather radio. For one thing, their house, as precarious as it looks, may or may not be in danger.

On the one hand, they sit in the mouth of the canyon and very near the entrance to a woefully undersized drainage pipe that could easily clog, backing up water. On the other hand, water flows downhill, and thus a lot of that water would have to back up to hit their home.

The latest maps are a little fuzzy, but it looks as if their house could take as little as two or more than four feet of water in a 10-year flood. But one thing is for sure: Among the watersheds at risk for burn scar flooding, Williams is expected to be both one of the most frequent flooders, and one of the worst.

"I know it don't take much for big rocks to be coming down the road," Kris says. "Because when the flood was happening in '99, we were watching them."

That flood sent a waterfall cascading over the house. The men don't know if the creek also hit the property. With conditions changed, it's hard to say what such a flood these days would do. A wall of water could take out the entire building. A smaller amount might damage the foundation. Still a smaller amount could carry away their trucks, simply flood the yard, or do nothing at all.

And the truth is, they're glad to own the house, flood or no flood. They don't worry that its value is diminished by the new flood maps, because they never plan to sell it. This is, after all, their castle.

"I don't expect a wall of water to come down the canyon and wash us away," George says. "But it could. I mean, how do you plan for that? ... So at the same time, you know, it's a lovely place. It's incredible. We love it. The opportunity to have gotten it is like a blessing, and no, I wouldn't have ever turned it down."

— J. Adrian Stanley

Farley McDonough, Adam's Mountain Café, Manitou Springs

As owner of a quirky mountain-town restaurant that sees more than 100,000 visitors every year, Farley McDonough encounters her fair share of challenging situations.

"People pass out from altitude sickness, or [there's] just total chaos in the kitchen," Farley says. "Things just happen."

Like any good restaurateur, the 47-year-old owner of Adam's Mountain Café can deal with surprises. But like any good business leader, she prefers not to. So when word of flooding dangers first came out, she attended town hall meetings to learn just what her restaurant was facing from its six-year home in the Manitou Spa Building.

The results were serious: Adam's not only abuts Fountain Creek, but sits at the confluence of three separate watersheds, making it a prime target for rushing waters.

So Farley got proactive. Among other things, she talked to experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Coalition for the Upper South Platte; watched YouTube videos on proper sandbagging techniques; and found an iPad app designed to track exact storm cloud activity as it develops. Then she turned to her staff.

In April, she divided 40 employees into four groups and gave each an intense two-hour training. She began with the basics, showing them Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps, explaining what watersheds are, and then moving into emergency plans should water threaten Adam's. Later, she identified team leaders to help her evacuate customers and reach fellow employees in emergencies.

Farley's modest about her Boy Scout attitude, but her experience with other disasters has forced her to think ahead. Prior to her ownership, she helped divert water from the basement of Adam's — then on Cañon Avenue — following the 1999 flood. That same year, she was in the Caribbean and got caught in a hurricane. They were scary situations, but the worst, she recalled, came later: power outages, contaminated water, struggles associated with keeping a business from drowning.

"It can take weeks and weeks to get things up and running," she says, "depending on how prepared you are going into it."

That's what keeping her up at night now.

"I just have nightmares about relying on Colorado Springs Utilities, or relying on, if we're evacuated, relying on all these entities to decide that they can lift the evacuation. And then, you know, it's not just me trying to get professionals to come in and clean up the restaurant, it's every business in town, so trying to compete for those resources.

"I have no idea how I can be more prepared with it. I would just have to be the first one on the phone, you know?"

Even if nothing more happens, Adam's has already lost its treasured artwork — more than 50 pieces — from local legend Charles Rockey, who moved them in the spring to safer ground. Farley has tried to decorate here and there with her own pieces, but she admits it's just not the same.

"People just love seeing those pieces in the restaurant, and it's sad for me, too," she says. "It's kind of echo-y in there without Rockey's work. But I totally understand. I would have never tried to talk him out of it."

She hopes the works will return come winter, but of course there'll be another stormy season to be dealt with again in 2014. More staff trainings, more phone trees, sandbags and weather radios.

Disaster aside, it's already a lot of extra work. Would it be better just to move?

Farley hesitates. "That's a tough question. To be honest, it is something that I'm floating around a little bit in my head. I don't think that I could be honest and say that it has not crossed my mind. So it's definitely up for discussion.

"It's not a move that I want to make, I mean, Manitou has supported my business for 25 years now, and it would just break my heart to do that. But there also has to be a practical side to this, and if we're going to be in danger of flooding for the next 10 years, I think we know it's something that we're going to have to consider.

"I can't say exactly where I am with it, but it has to be an option for me."

— Edie Adelstein

John and Cindy Hooton, The Timber Lodge, Colorado Springs

From the Timber Lodge, the traffic noise from U.S. Highway 24 is faintly audible, but a curtain of swaying pines screens everything from view. Two narrow bridges across Fountain Creek connect the four-acre property to Colorado Avenue. Honey-colored log A-frames and cabins with generous porches overlook the murmuring water.

It's wilderness for people who don't really want wilderness: wood paneling, Russian sage and filtered sunlight within easy reach of Manitou Springs. It's the kind of place that Cindy and John Hooton's guests from Illinois, Kansas and Oklahoma think of as quintessentially Coloradan. "The creek is our — this business' — best friend," says John. "When people come to Colorado, they have in mind, 'I want to stay some place where there's trees, cabins and water.'"

That friend has proved fickle in the past, and looks red and angry on new fire flood maps. Come the next 10-year rainfall over the Waldo Canyon fire scar, the Hootons' home and business could be under more than four feet of water.

To complicate matters, Cindy and John are caught in a municipal limbo between Manitou and Colorado Springs that leaves them disconnected from official warning systems. So they track the weather, renew their flood insurance, and trust in their ability to gauge the danger of heavy weather and rising water. "When you've been self-employed for 25 years," Cindy says, "you're pretty much ready for anything." (The couple also owns Stargazers Theatre & Event Center.)

In spring 1999, four days of rain and snow pushed the creek over the six-foot retaining wall and flooded its banks in the middle of the night. The water came up eight or nine feet to cover the railings of their main bridge, and Cindy watched the waters lap at the doorstep of the Lodge's office, some 70 feet away from the creek bed. From 2 a.m. onward, she handed out pots of coffee and towels to guests wading over from their cabins. She laughs, saying, "They had T-shirts made that said, 'I survived the flood.'"

Timber Lodge survived, too, and recovered quickly. Within half a day the water receded — leaving a trout flopping in the mud behind Cabin 24 — and within a week Cindy and John trucked in several tons of gravel to replace what washed away.

The cabins were all but untouched. The doors sealed so tight that the only sign of the flood was a semi-circle of mud in one cabin, "like someone took a cup of coffee and spilled it right on the floor," says John with a laugh that echoes his wife's.

He adds, "Whoever built this property years ago knew what they were doing." It's a phrase that both repeat like a mantra, and apparently it works. Their own house on the sprawling property has stood at a safe distance from the creek since 1886, through the transformation from homestead to hunting lodge to cabin resort. Since the Hootons took over, only 1999 has brought a truly threatening flood.

But their luck took a hit last summer. National media coverage of the Waldo Canyon Fire convinced would-be guests that Garden of the Gods was a smoldering wasteland, prompting cancellations in the midst of their busiest months.

"One year was devastating," John says. "Two years of the same type of thing would put most of the west side out of business."

If a nightmare scenario does unfold, of course, their immediate concern will be safety. John plans to stack sandbags against the electrical access hatches underneath cabins nearest the creek, but Cindy isn't convinced there's much they can do. If the water rises, her evacuation plan is simple: "If worse comes to worst," she says, "we can cut through the chain-link fence and go up to the highway."

For now, they play a waiting game. "We're hanging in there," she says, "taking care of business, taking care of our guests and keeping an eye on the clouds."

— Caroline Swinford

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