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Still seeking satisfaction

by Stephen Lloyd Wood
Peter Cook 9-17 MK/ MK Edit
ALL |

Nearly four months after a sudden deluge of rainwater put East Vail residents on national television, they’re having mixed success at getting reimbursed for the costs of fixing the damage.

“We got the runaround, the shaft,” says Roger Alsa, who owns a home at the intersection of Columbine Drive and Bighorn Road.

Alsa says he has spent more than $25,000 for repairs to his house and yard after torrents of water ran in rapids down his street June 1 during a heavy rainstorm. While his appeals for reimbursement to the Colorado Department of Transportation – which instructed workers to divert the water from nearby Bighorn Creek – were unsuccessful, he happily reports his insurance company has helped him out.

“They originally said I was not covered for water damage from a flood,” says Alsa. “But when they learned CDOT was not going to pay for the damage, they stepped right up to the plate.”

“A big mess’

Ken Versman, a Denver doctor who owns a home on Spruce Way, wasn’t in town the day of the flood, but he says he’s still paying for the damage it caused.

“I got a call in Denver the day of the flood from a friend who said, “Turn on the TV, your street’s being flooded with water,'” Versman says. “It was a big mess.”

Versman estimates he’s spent more than $3,000 to fix water damage underneath the house, and he hasn’t even begun to address the damage to his front yard. He’s hesitated so far to file a claim with his insurance company, he says, fearing they may raise his rates.

“Taking responsibility’

Then there’s Peter Cook and his wife, Carol Reichman-Cook, who say they’ve been through the ringer trying to recoup the $15,000 or so they’ve spent so far on repairs to their basement and front yard. Their tale is a long, tangled one full of bureaucratic mumbo jumbo and spinning wheels.

“It’s all about taking responsibility,” says Reichman-Cook, displaying the thick folder of letters, notes, state statutes and phone numbers they’ve collected since they began their efforts to get help paying for the damage to their home on Spruce Way.

The Cooks say their insurance company is now looking at their claim, having sent an inspector from Denver last week. His observations are now being analyzed by a claims specialist, and payment may be forthcoming.

Versman, Alsa and the Cooks say they have no problems with their insurance companies – but it’s the transportation department that should be liable for damage to their homes.

Back to normal

Despite the conflict, things are starting to get back to normal in East Vail. Last week, after months of reconstruction, road crews began topping off their work on Spruce Way and Columbine Drive with a fresh layer of asphalt. The transportation department granted the town of Vail $300,000 to pay for the road work.

By contrast, the homes owned by Alsa, Versman and the Cooks, for the most part, look like new again after repairs – but the state agency has steadfastly refused to offer any compensation for “flood-related losses.”

“The specific circumstances of the June 1 flooding at East Vail were a natural event that CDOT did not cause,” George Tinker, a Denver-based risk manager with the transportation department, wrote in a July 18 letter to the Cooks. “In fact, CDOT’s action in this 100-year event diverted the water coming down the Bighorn Drainage and prevented a total failure of the highway culvert system and massive flooding in the Vail Valley. None of the actions taken by CDOT meet the criteria for triggering coverage; therefore, the state is not liable for property damage or other related losses in accordance with the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act.”

Having it both ways?

The Cooks say that’s not fair.

“They somehow come up with money for the town, but they’re dumping on the residents,” says Reichman-Cook. “They’re hiding behind this immunity clause.”

The Government Immunity Act, or section 24-10-106 of the Colorado Statutes, allows a public entity to remain immune from liability in all claims for injury, except under certain circumstances.

“Basically, you can’t sue the state,” explains Cook. “But if they’re negligent, you can.”

The transportation department, after Tinker’s letter failed to satisfy East Vail homeowners, sent a private consultant, J. Ronald Heffley of McMillan Claim Service, to investigate the situation in East Vail. On Sept. 2, he wrote a letter to the Cooks denying their claim, again citing the Governmental Immunity Act.

“Our investigation of your claim indicates that there is no liability on the part of the state of Colorado or any of its employees,” Heffley wrote.

Versman says the state shouldn’t be able to have it both ways – and perhaps negligence may be just the circumstance to persuade transportation officials to change their minds.

“They say they intentionally diverted the water, but then they say they’re not responsible for the damage,” Versman says. “Well, they were negligent when they diverted that water.”

Alsa says he believes his insurance company is considering some sort of legal action seeking compensation for what they’ve paid him.

“They told me the law says if you divert the water, you’re responsible for that water,” Alsa says.

“Tangled web’

Kelly Campbell, a Denver-based spokeswoman for State Farm Insurance, calls the whole affair a “tangled web,” saying this sort of thing doesn’t happen very often. While she won’t discuss the particulars of a particular case, she says suing the state is an option.

“If a party is legally liable for damages, then, yes, we would look for to the responsible party for payment,” she says.

Then came the flood

By Stephen Lloyd Wood

Streets in East Vail were damaged extensively June 1 when a wall of rainwater came gushing out of the Eagles Nest Wilderness and down Bighorn Creek, overwhelming an aging culvert, or pipe, underneath Interstate 70.

The water backed up, forming a small lake above the freeway, when the culvert collapsed, leading to the infamous “sinkhole” in the eastbound lanes. With massive amounts of water rushing underneath the roadway, workers with the Colorado Department of Transportation were forced to act quickly to prevent even more damage to the roadway, such as another sinkhole in the westbound lanes. So they brought in heavy equipment to dig a trench leading to a nearby vehicular tunnel, diverting the backed-up water from Bighorn Creek and relieving pressure on the failed culvert.

That vehicular tunnel, on Columbine Drive, links homes below the freeway with others above. That street intersects Spruce Way a block below the freeway. The diverted water caused extensive damage to Columbine Drive and Spruce Way and forced the temporary evacuation of more than 200 nearby residents.

“It tore a gash down Columbine and Spruce about six feet down. For a day, we had surface water, but it ultimately found new, underground ways to get down here,” says Peter Cook from the basement of his house on Spruce Way. “We had 3 inches of water, and we were pumping it out for six or seven weeks.”


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