Hard lessons learned from Avon mudslide: ‘No one knew what to do’
Here’s how homeowners can protect themselves
Many come to Eagle County in the hopes of feeling more connected to nature, but the joys of this closeness are juxtaposed with a heightened exposure to nature’s wrath. That was certainly the case on the afternoon of July 22 when a mudslide, suddenly and without warning, swept through Avon.
Residents in the town’s two most heavily impacted housing complexes — the Sonnen Halde and Beaver Bench condominiums — said they did not know where to turn as mud and debris filled their homes. Some of those residents were left with a feeling of dread at the sight of rain clouds.
“I don’t want to have to do this again every few years,” said Jennifer Lance, a resident of Sonnen Halde. “This is what we were hoping was going to be, like, our forever place … but now I’m worried. Now I’m thinking maybe it’s not our forever place.”
Eagle County residents have become accustomed to afternoon rains causing mud flows and flash floods in Glenwood Canyon in the area of the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar, with closures and traffic delays becoming the new summer norm. Large mud flows finding their way into backyards, on the other hand, is something few are equipped to handle.
“There was nobody there to tell us what to do,” said Barbara May, a resident of Beaver Bench. “We didn’t know — no one knew what to do.”
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Now, residents want answers to a few key questions, May said.
Why were these housing complexes so vulnerable?
Both Beaver Bench and Sonnen Halde have lower-level residential units where the door to the unit is “below grade,” or below ground level, Avon Town Manager Eric Heil said in a written statement Thursday.
This means that when water and mud flows into these areas, there is nowhere for the water and mud to drain except by going through the unit.
“In the case of both Beaver Bench and Sonnen Halde, water/debris crossed the adjacent road and entered their parking lots, and in both cases … the parking lot configuration resulted in the water/debris flow entering into lower-level entry ways,” Heil said.
The parking lots of other residential areas saw similar flooding, but the flow drained around buildings in the absence of below-ground-level entryways pulling water down into units, he said.
Some residents at Beaver Bench and the homeowners association at Sonnen Halde have strategically placed sandbags around the parking lots in the hopes of redirecting this flow should it happen again, but the two neighborhoods are still uniquely vulnerable to flooding damage.
What does the future look like?
The Western stretch of the Rocky Mountains is not immune to the rise in global temperatures caused by climate change, and this means more wildfires and more mudslides can be expected in the years to come, said Kim Langmaid, an associate professor of sustainability studies for Colorado Mountain College’s Edwards campus.
“If you look at the majority of the scientific reports that have been developed for the state of Colorado, the Colorado Climate Plan, the Colorado Resilience Plan, they’re calling for increased frequency of these kinds of events well into the future and they’re calling for all of us to understand how these things are connected,” Langmaid said.
As average air temperatures go up, that hotter air pushes and pulls moisture out of the surrounding environment like a blow dryer, she said. This constant process contributes to two kinds of local natural disasters that seem diametrically opposed but are actually linked.
First, the air pulls moisture from soil and plants creating drier conditions that are more susceptible to wildfires, she said. Then, that moisture is held in the air, meaning more moisture is available to fuel heavy afternoon rains, she said.
More frequent and heavier afternoon rains, combined with dry soils, then lead to more mudflows like the one in Avon, Langmaid said.
As can be seen in Glenwood Canyon, wildfires have a direct causal link to mud flows, Langmaid said. Fires burn up the vegetation that helps anchor soil in place, and without those anchors, arid and depleted or “denuded” soil can slide more easily during a rain event, she said.
The hotter the temperature of the wildfire, the more the fire burns not just topical plant life, but down into the soil’s microbiology leaving it even more vulnerable to a mudslide, she said.
“Part of our mountain communities being resilient to climate change going into the future is making sure we really protect our soils and vegetation so that our hillsides are less prone to these kinds of events,” she said.
What do we do, and whose responsibility is it?
This was a question asked by many impacted residents in the immediate aftermath of last Thursday’s mudslide, and one that seemingly no one had the answer to, May said.
“The weakest link, of course, is the individual owners, that’s one person who’s faced with a lot of expenses that some people in Beaver Bench may have trouble with,” she said. “But if everybody above us like the (homeowners association), the town of Avon, the state of Colorado, if they all push it down, it’s all going to fall on our shoulders.”
Both May and Lance looked to their property management companies and homeowners associations for answers, but the manager of Beaver Bench’s homeowners association, Abel Vega, said there are limitations on what the association can do.
“We cannot take on any expense without the direct approval of the (homeowners association) board,” Vega said. “Homeowners associations have limited responsibility. Their responsibility is for the external building, common areas and things along that manner. So, they do not have insurance policies that directly cover the belongings of individual owners and so forth.”
Vega, who also lives in the Beaver Bench area, recalled seeing the wave of water and debris as it came down the hillside and didn’t waste any time in getting people on site to help however they could.
“I ran straight to my office, got my maintenance staff, and we headed over there and started just basically answering questions, helping in whatever way we could,” he said.
They were able to help answer questions about where to get services and provided a dumpster for residents to dispose of ruined items, he said.
Further up the food chain, the town of Avon also mobilized quickly, Heil said in a written statement Thursday. The town’s public works department addressed the streets and drainage systems. Town staff coordinated with Salvation Army and Red Cross to secure housing for displaced residents and prepared the old fire station building to serve as temporary housing.
The town also offered assistance with mud removal and furniture disposal this week when public works officials had the capacity to do so, Heil said.
In the chaos, May said she did not see the fruits of these efforts and felt that residents received very little support in the first two to three days after the incident. As a second-home owner, she could not find anywhere to stay in the area Thursday night and had to drive home to Evergreen around 10 p.m.
May said she still has an open insurance claim with her insurance agent from the 2018 fire that decimated more than half a dozen units in Beaver Bench and impacted many others. She had just finished getting her home back to normal and will now need to do so all over again.
The first company she contacted gave her a quote of $10,000 to $15,000 just to remove the mud that filled her condo. Luckily, she was able to get in touch with a company with more availability and a more reasonable offer, but she said she still will need to dedicate a large portion of her retirement funds to repairing the damages.
This time and money invested in fixing their homes is wasted if their neighborhoods are not better prepared when the next heavy rain comes, May and Lance said.
Preparation and adaptation are key given the expected increase in these kinds of incidents, Langmaid said, and this is a responsibility that must be borne by all.
“There’s definitely a responsibility at the individual level,” Langmaid said. “There’s the responsibility of local governments, municipalities and counties, to help educate people and to put the guidelines in place for how to go about doing that and then there’s the role of our nonprofit sector in providing some assistance and support and education. So, I’d say it’s all hands on deck.”
Homeowners should look into making their homes and landscaping more resilient to fires and floods, and should make sure they are adequately insured, she said.
Flood insurance is not included in most homeowners insurance plans and must be purchased separately, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA has partnered with a network of insurance companies to offer the National Flood Insurance Program for homeowners who want coverage but adding on another layer of monthly insurance premiums is not financially feasible for many families.
With the cost of health insurance in the valley, Lance said she is concerned about the cost of adding on a flood plan but doesn’t want to give up on her dream home.
At the local government level, Heil said Avon is taking a hard look at its drainage infrastructure.
“Most of Avon was platted and zoned before Avon was incorporated and most of the actual building occurred after Avon was incorporated,” Heil said. “Effective drainage for debris flows from extreme precipitation events requires more pathway space than what is remaining in our existing built environment.”
A drainage engineering consultant from TetraTec in Denver toured Avon on Monday to assess the town’s drainage systems and identify areas where drainage systems were overwhelmed, Heil said. The town is requesting a proposal from TetraTec to provide recommendations for improvements and upgrades.
“We do believe it is appropriate to consider climate change in any analysis of our drainage systems,” he said. “That said, there are not well-defined predictions of change in intensity or frequency of storms in this immediate area.”
Email Kelli Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org