LYONS, Colo. — It has been a decade since historic flooding in Colorado wiped out homes and killed nine people, with the town of Lyons becoming the epicenter of destruction.
Ten years later, rebuilding efforts are still underway — in some ways to restore the town, and in other ways, as a form of acceptance that life was forever changed by the torrents of water in 2013.
The “House that Lyons Built”
Priscilla Cohan has lived at the same address in Lyons for 27 years. Her home, now covered in gray stucco and nestled among wildflowers, trees, and rocks, has been there for more than a century. She calls it “the house that Lyons built.”
“Because so many volunteer hours went into this house,” Cohan explained, as she made her way down the steps from her door into her front yard to talk with us. “There’s no way to be enough grateful for that.”
The “house that Lyons built,” like the homes around it, stands tall, holding its own among the mature trees that surrounds it. But, it wasn’t always that way.
“This house was literally on the ground. It was built in 1903, and it had what’s called a rubble foundation,” Cohan explained. “So, you stepped up about four and a half inches to get into the house.”
Today, one must climb four feet in stairs to reach Cohan’s front door, a visual symbol of its history.
Cohan’s home was among the many that was hit by flood waters in 2013. Cohan, a potter, was on an artist’s retreat in New Mexico at the time, relying on updates over the phone to keep up with the flooding and the recovery efforts in her home town. When she finally made it home days later, she was met by National Guards troops and “rivers” in the streets.
“Everything was underwater,” Cohan recalled of her home and pottery studio. “It was like 40 inches of water and silt in there.”
As Cohan and her neighbors took stock of their belongings, and began the long process of cleaning up their homes, they were presented with a choice: They could rebuild their homes, where they stood, but only if they were elevated off the ground. Cohan’s home sustained enough damage that she qualified for the National Flood Insurance Program, which offered financial assistance to elevate her home above the floodplain. She accepted, and slowly but surely rebuilt her life in the same spot that had become home to her — with a lot of help, she said, from neighbors and volunteers. Hence, her home became “the house that Lyons built.”
“I just sort of committed early on that that’s what I was going to do, and I didn’t really look back,” she said.
Not everyone in Lyons during the 2013 flood chose to stay. Those in the path of the water were presented with another option: A buyout from FEMA, to acquire their land and move away. In exchange, FEMA would permanently turn the lot into open space.
Today, empty lots are dotted throughout Lyons. Liz Erley, the former chair of the Lyons Community Foundation, met us at two lots off Second Avenue that now sit empty to reminisce on life in Lyons before the flood.
“They were called the Christmas house,” Erley said, gesturing to the lot behind her. “They had Christmas decorations everywhere, and it inspired everybody else in Lyons to put decorations up.”
With Erley at the helm, the Lyons Community Foundation raised $1 million in the aftermath of the flood to help victims with their daily necessities and lost belongings. From her post, Erley gained a unique vantage point into her neighbors as they were making the difficult decision whether to stay in Lyons and try to rebuild, or to accept the FEMA buyout and build a new life elsewhere. The owners of the Christmas house, along with many others, chose the latter.
“It’s still sad to me, and I remember these lovely little homes,” Erley said. “So, I’m sad that they no longer can be a part of their communities. But, I’m happy for them because they’ve moved somewhere else, and they’re with other families members, or they’ve created a new life for themselves.”
Empty lots in Lyons symbolize those permanently displaced from their former homes. But, a third group of people are now emerging: Those who are getting a chance to return.
Construction is being completed on 40 units of affordable housing in the Lyons Valley Townhomes development. The development, a joint project between Summit Housing and local government, will provide lower cost rent to those who have been priced out of Lyons. Priority is being given to those who were living in town on the day of the flood.
Gabry Cornell, a former resident of Lyons, is about to move into one of the units and return to the town she loves. While her house was not directly hit by flooding in 2013, she had to move away from town shortly after as she became divorced. Skyrocketing home prices in the town since then have been a constant barrier to returning, until now.
“I was trying to come back,” she said. “I kept looking for places to rent, but they were either not affordable or there was just very little available.”
Even if the landscape and the faces of Lyons have greatly changed, Cornell recognizes its beauty as if she never left. She can’t wait to start life anew in the town she loves.
“I’m so full of gratitude for everybody who’s worked on this so hard,” she said from outside her new home. “And I’m so full of gratitude for the opportunity to be able to live here.”
The spirt of Lyons
A decade after her home was hit by the floods, and then restored with the help of her neighbors, Priscilla Cohan is once again seeing the bond of the Lyons community in action.
Cohan has been battling blood cancer. She’s now cancer-free, but is on immunosuppressants and unable to be around the dust and dirt of her garden. While she can’t tend to her yard and garden the way she would like, her neighbors are stepping up and doing it for her. Once again, they are maintaining “the house that Lyons built.”
“I feel like Lyons has a really great sense about working together to be stronger,” Cohan said.
Has she ever regretted the choice to stay rather than be bought out, we asked?
“I never have looked back,” she replied.