2013 flood: Grit, grace, gratitude: Lyons on 'building back better'

Sep. 11—To say Lyons was hit hard by the flood of 2013 is an understatement.

The rising waters of the North and South St. Vrain creeks carved the small mountain town into six islands. All residents were evacuated for weeks as they waited for temporary water and sewer facilities to be built, which would signal the ability to return home.

"Those of us who lived it will never forget it," said Victoria Simonsen, town administrator.

Simonsen, who was also town administrator during the flood, remembers how one part of the community was disproportionately impacted: the Confluence Neighborhood. Located south of Main Street, the neighborhood used to include two trailer parks — both were completely wiped out by the rushing waters.

But in 10 years of growth and rebuilding, the Confluence Neighborhood is standing intact once again. Around 30 lots mark where homeowners decided not to come back, but several elevated houses now sit where people chose to reconstruct with mitigation in mind.

And occupying the land once used by the trailer parks are the Rocky Mountain Botanic Gardens, which burst to life with colorful flowers and plants along winding gravel paths. Nearby stands the Bell of Renewal, a bronze statue of an owl rebuilding a nest that celebrates the flood recovery effort.

"I think we've built back better, more resilient, stronger," Simonsen said. "I think anyone who gets to live in Lyons feels very fortunate that we get to live (here) and have this burst of new infrastructure."

Much was destroyed in Lyons a decade ago, but it's hard to tell that now. The town has completed roughly 100 recovery projects with the help of state, local and federal grants. The town is still closing out grants, but last year Lyons finished all of the primary infrastructure projects included in the Lyons Recovery Action Plan.

"It feels good that we accomplished it and got it all done, because it was very daunting in the beginning," said Tracy Sanders, flood recovery lead for the town.

For some local outdoor spaces, the town was able to make upgrades and improvements to the original designs. Bohn Park added a wheelchair ramp for fishing, a skate park and a shelter. LaVern M. Johnson Park, a $7 million project, now features a large playground and whitewater features for kayakers and tubers as opposed to a single set of swings.

"Not only were we rebuilding infrastructure — it's the community that we had to focus on and rebuild, too," Sanders said.

Some of that community building comes through the physical infrastructure and physical art pieces, but a lot is intangible. Simonsen remembers sitting with a group of residents in Sandstone Park to break the Guinness World Record for the largest group to simultaneously Etch A Sketch the same thing: Steamboat Mountain, a prominent landmark north of town.

"It was kind of like, this is our rock," Simonsen said. "This is the one thing that didn't change. We're all here still, under this beautiful rock we all know."

For Neil Sullivan, owner of St. Vrain Market in downtown Lyons, building community is the underlying goal of his business. That's why in the aftermath of the flood, he got right to work donating food from the market to the evacuation center in Longmont and giving up products for community gatherings, even while dealing with structural damage caused by the water.

"The reason we started this business was community," said Sullivan, who's owned the market with his wife for 15 years. "We weren't going to leave at its most desperate time."

Sullivan recalled the "We've got grit" bumper sticker adopted by Lyons residents in the years since the flood.

"I mean, we really do," he said. "Everyone just dug in and got stuff done. The first people I saw were carrying shovels and anything they could. They just left their houses to come to Main Street to help."

With a decade of rebuilding comes changes to the Main Street stretch of the town. Sullivan, who also owns Spirit Hound Distillers in Lyons, said most businesses on Main Street are new within the past 10 years, with a few exceptions like Oskar Blues and Pizza Bar 66.

"We definitely had a lot of turnover with the flood," Sullivan said. "Even though businesses didn't get wet, their doors were shuttered, and they had to go away."

Sullivan said the changes open up a larger discussion about gentrification in Lyons, with its mix of location and mountain access making it a coveted spot in Boulder County. But he also pointed to things like the development of affordable housing in town and the mitigation that's been done to make residents safer from future floods as ways the town improved.

"I think the flood brought this town closer, realizing that we're all really vulnerable as human beings, but we banded together and came together as a community," he added. "There's that level of comfort and confidence about tackling anything going forward."

This year's flood commemoration includes an open mic night, a community barbecue and a candlelight vigil. Simonsen said it's a chance to educate the newcomers to Lyons on what happened back then, as 30% to 35% of the town's population is new post-flood.

It's also an opportunity to turn the page on this chapter of the town's history.

"Now that we're complete with our projects, we decided to do a more formal commemoration ... and then we're going to move forward," Simonsen said. "So much of what we do is based on before or after the flood, it's just become such a part of our blood. And it's time to move on."