This story was first published by KUNC.
The rain fell hard on Lyons, Colorado. In September 2013, it poured for days, soaking the foothills and filling the creeks and streams.
Bonnie Newman wasn’t worried, even though her mobile home was next to the rushing water of St. Vrain Creek. A meteorologist friend told her things would be okay, and nobody had told her to evacuate. But after days of rain, sometime after 1 a.m., something changed.
“Suddenly there was water,” Newman said. “Lots of water. It was a current of water, and it was right through my yard.”
Fire trucks pulled into the aptly-named Riverbend mobile home park, sirens blaring. Over a loudspeaker, a voice told everyone to leave.
“I never got so much as a toothbrush,” Newman said.
The waist-high floodwaters surged into her doublewide, filling it with mud and debris. Newman’s home was totaled. The storm dumped 18 inches of rain across the region in a week, in an area that typically receives 14 inches of precipitation each year. The floods ravaged the Front Range and parts of the eastern plains, hitting 17 counties and damaging about 26,000 homes.
The night of the floods was the beginning of a long journey to get back towards normal for people across the Front Range. A decade after losing her home, Newman said she and dozens of other mobile home residents had a tough time accessing recovery funds and finding new places to live. Experts say this is in line with nationwide data for mobile homes, which are disproportionately vulnerable during natural disasters. Lyons lost a large chunk of its affordable housing, and the people who lived there say the town has not adequately replaced it.
In the days after losing her home, Newman patched together a handful of nights on friends’ couches and guest beds. She stayed at a hotel in Loveland for about a month and a half. In the past decade she’s lived in nearby Louisville and Longmont, but never returned to Lyons.
Wood, mud, and other debris spill out of a destroyed trailer home. Snow covers the muddy ground and other debris in front of a second destroyed home in the background.
Courtesy Of Cathy Rivers
Debris and mud surround destroyed mobile homes in Lyons on February 15, 2014. Few residents of Foothills mobile home park have been able to stay in Lyons, and the site has since been turned into a botanic garden.
The flood resulted in the loss of about 50 mobile homes between two different parks, and not one home was replaced. There is no official count of how many people returned to Lyons after 2013, but former residents estimate that it’s about five. Those who remain say the floods helped catalyze demographic shifts that have changed the town’s character.
Work to repair and replace infrastructure finally wrapped up more than nine years after the flooding, when the town finished construction on a small bridge in October 2022.
Bridges and roads were repaired. Homes were elevated. Businesses reopened. Even the creek itself had its banks fortified. But people who lived in some of Lyons’ only affordable housing, largely did not come back
“I don't think any of us planned to leave,” Newman said. “We just didn't have a choice.”
‘None of it made sense’
The trouble started with federal funding. Or, for many who lost their mobile homes, a lack thereof.
Amanda Anderson was living next door to Newman when the floods came. The mother of two had been in Riverbend mobile home park for about five years before her home was destroyed.
Anderson recalled the saga of getting recovery money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She said she met with an agent in a black SUV in a Wal-Mart parking lot to get the process started.
“It was so frickin’ weird,” she said. “I felt like I was in a movie.”
A little while later, another FEMA agent came by the site of her ruined home to assess the damage. In the end, Anderson got the maximum payout of $31,000. She said she feels “blessed” to have received the maximum amount, but was frustrated to see that her neighbors, who were also completely displaced, received different amounts.
“None of it made sense,” she said.
KUNC reached out to FEMA for this story but did not receive a response.
The situation in Lyons sounds familiar to Kristin Smith, a researcher who studies flood policy at the think tank Headwaters Economics.
Smith said mobile home residents are more likely to need those recovery funds to begin with. One in seven mobile homes are located in areas of high flood risk. Roughly 5,500 mobile homes, or about 7% of mobile homes in Colorado, are in risky areas.
South St. Vrain Creek flows near the former site of Foothills mobile home park on August 14, 2023. Heavy rains pushed the creek over its banks a decade earlier, destroying nearby homes.
Mobile homes are often more physically vulnerable to flood destruction. They can even float away entirely if they’re not latched down properly. On top of that, people who live in mobile homes tend to have a “host of social vulnerabilities," Smith said. They are more likely to be in poverty or have low incomes, they tend to be older or families with young children, and they’re more likely to have disabilities.
“All of these things make it really hard to evacuate if a flood does hit the community,” Smith said. “So because of this whole host of social vulnerabilities, if a flood does hit, it can be really scary for mobile home parks.”
After a flood hits, mobile home residents have a tougher time accessing recovery funds than people who live in other types of housing.
“You might have a mobile home that is worth $1,500, but the repairs cost $10,000,” Smith said. “It's a pretty hard decision for a state agency or even a nonprofit organization to come in and spend a lot of money on a repair when the house really isn't worth that amount.”
In Lyons, that limited compensation meant most people were unable to buy homes nearby, and had relatively little help paying rent. And with dozens of mobile homes erased from the Lyons housing pool, there were few places for displaced residents to land.
An attempt at affordable
In the years since the floods, Lyons has made an effort to build new affordable housing. Displaced mobile home residents say it’s a good start, but not the right fit for the people who need it most.
This summer, the town started moving people into brand new affordable housing units. Lyons built 40 rental units in total, and has prioritized people who were displaced by the 2013 floods when fielding applications.
Victoria Simonsen, Lyons’ town administrator, toured through a neighborhood of those houses on an electric golf cart. The homes came into view as the cart crested a hill, the late-afternoon sun glistening off the red and brown metal siding of the just-finished homes.
“It’s situated beautifully right here,” Simonsen said with a proud smile. “The view is pretty amazing.”
Further up the hill, construction vehicles beeped and thunked as they put the finishing touches on the next round of affordable homes.
Simonsen said the new units were in high demand, and ten of the 40 will be filled with people who were displaced during the 2013 floods. But only one of those units will go to a person from Lyons’ two destroyed mobile home parks..
Simonsen says that’s partially because, in the intervening decade, so many of the mobile home park residents were forced to move far away.
“You can only hang on so long,” she said ,“and unfortunately, Lyons doesn't have apartments to rent. People stayed with family and friends for up to a year or two. But at some point, you have to reestablish.”
Anderson, who lost her mobile home in 2013, is one of the few Riverbend residents who has been able to stay in Lyons. After consolidating her student loans and performing some required volunteer work, she qualified for a house from the nonprofit group Habitat for Humanity.
Although Anderson herself doesn’t need a spot in the town’s new affordable housing, she said she is frustrated by a minimum annual income requirement of about $41,000, which is twice the annual rent. Town officials said that requirement allows Lyons to offer housing to people who make between 40% and 60% of the county's median income, as determined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“I'm a waitress,” Anderson said. “I worked at the coffee shop in town for 13 years. There's no way in hell I made $41,000. It was more like $26,000 if I'm lucky. That's a joke.”
Town officials and former residents also said that affordable housing programs like the one in Lyons might not be appealing to people who lost mobile homes, who want to own property rather than rent.
Brand new affordable housing units sit on a hillside above Lyons on August 14, 2023. People who were displaced by flooding have priority access to the new units, but few former mobile home residents are expected to move in.
Despite the changes ushered in by the floods, Lyons still looks like a small, artsy town. Colorful murals are splashed onto the side of historic brick buildings. The drive into Lyons is dotted with local shops that might not have a spot on the main road in any other town — a boutique that sells honey, an art gallery with an abstract metal buffalo in the front yard.
But Anderson said the balance is shifting. The housing changes catalyzed by the 2013 floods are pushing out low income people, and wealthier ones are paying increasingly high prices for houses across town.
The average home value in Lyons in July 2015 was about $382,000, according to estimates from the real estate website Zillow. Just six years later, that number has nearly doubled to $755,000 in July 2023.
“Lyons was this mecca of artists and musicians,” Anderson said. “Well, artists and musicians are poor. Poor people can't live here — can't afford to live here. So [the floods] kind of changed the character of the town.”
Changes and hindsight
The flooding that struck Lyons hit towns, people and properties all over the Front Range. Boulder County received more rain than anywhere else, but areas from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins to the eastern plains saw flooding. All told, the floods killed at least eight people and caused an estimated $4 billion in damage.
Andrew Rumbach, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, has done extensive research on the impacts of the 2013 floods and said the disaster helped spur new policies.
“Colorado is, in my view, a model in terms of states that have proactively worked to address the unique vulnerabilities of mobile home park residents,” Rumbach said.
Some of those policies have come at the state level. Colorado designated mobile home parks as disadvantaged communities, giving them priority access to some state programs. Other changes came from local governments. Longmont, for example, developed a program to rehouse mobile home park residents. Rumbach said that sets Longmont’s recovery efforts apart from those in Lyons, Evans and Milliken, where some displaced residents were unable to resettle in the towns they lived in before the floods.
More than anything else, though, Rumbach said the biggest mobile-home-related policy impacts of the 2013 floods are intangible. Mobile homeowners, he said, are in policy conversations in a way they weren’t before the floods.
“Those folks felt invisible in that disaster,” Rumbach said. “It really caught these municipalities by surprise, and several of them just never knew that so much of their affordable housing stock was bound up in these places and just how vulnerable they were.”
In the decade since 2013, Colorado’s mobile home residents have been buying the parks they live in with increasing momentum. Oftentimes, those people will own their home, but not the land underneath it.
In 2020, Colorado lawmakers passed a new rule that makes it easier for mobile homeowners to buy the land underneath them. The law requires anyone selling a mobile home park to give the homeowners association a chance to make an offer, and then consider that offer in good faith.
A row of different-colored tiny houses is framed by lush green trees and bushes. Alex Hager/KUNC
Tiny houses sit on land formerly occupied by the Riverbend mobile home park on August 14, 2023. Former resident Amanda Anderson said she wishes the neighborhood had also owned the land before floodwaters wiped out the mobile home park.
In the case of a natural disaster, owning the land would give residents better access to recovery funds and more agency in decisions about the future of their communities.
“They fall somewhere halfway between ownership and rental,” Rumbach said. “Our policies about disaster recovery actually struggle to acknowledge and capture that experience.”
In the case of Lyons’ two mobile home parks, both have taken on second lives. At the site of Foothills mobile home park, destroyed mobile homes were removed and the town imposed strict zoning rules that barred virtually any new construction on the site. It has since been converted to a small, volunteer-run botanic garden. The flood-related zoning rules are so stringent, garden organizers said they needed a town permit just to install a stone bench donated by a former Foothills resident.
Riverbend mobile home park, where Anderson and Newman used to live, has since been turned into a “tiny house resort,” where visitors can rent individual trailer-like rooms by the night. Town officials say they are allowed in the once-flooded area because they are on wheels and can be quickly removed if flood warnings are issued.
Anderson said it’s hard to go back and see the tiny houses where she used to live, and wishes she and her neighbors had owned the property before the floods hit, and before the owner converted the site.
“They can't wait to develop that land and make millions of dollars on whatever,” Anderson said. “So that would be my biggest take away from going through a natural disaster. Buy out your land owner before it's too late.”
This story is part of ongoing coverage of water in the West, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.