LOUISVILLE -- On Monday morning, it was probably the emptiest, most cavernous space in all of Boulder County -- 136,000 square feet of abandoned storefront sitting quietly on Louisville's west side.

On Tuesday, the former Sam's Club at 550 S. McCaslin Blvd. will come to life for the first time since it closed in January 2010, becoming a shelter for nearly 100 FEMA Corps members tasked with helping victims of Colorado's historic floods. They will disperse across the Front Range during the day and render service to those who need it before returning to their big-box encampment and toppling into cots for a good night's rest.

Stephanie San German, assistant program director for the southwest region of AmeriCorps, said the nearly 400 AmeriCorps and FEMA Corps members taking part in flood relief efforts statewide are currently scattered along the Front Range in a hodgepodge of housing arrangements. Louisville, she said, will now serve as a kind of nerve center for the region.

The Sam's Club will begin by providing shelter for 84 flood relief workers, with possibly more arriving in a week or so. The city granted Sam's Club owner Walmart a 45-day temporary use permit for the space, which allows up to 160 workers to live there.

"We have a backup base now -- one place people can come and go," San German said. "To be able to have a facility like this is very helpful."

James Dunphy, FEMA Corps volunteer, sets up a cot in the former Sam’s Club building for FEMA Corps volunteers to stay while they are helping the
James Dunphy, FEMA Corps volunteer, sets up a cot in the former Sam's Club building for FEMA Corps volunteers to stay while they are helping the flood recovery in Louisville, Colorado October 1, 2013. FEMA Corps will have up to 160 volunteers stay at the site. (Mark Leffingwell)

Louisville Mayor Bob Muckle said the city is happy that Walmart was so willing to share one of its properties for a noble cause. He said if AmeriCorps needs more time to operate out of the Sam's Club beyond the middle of November, the city has the option to renew the permit for another 45 days.

"I'm thrilled to be able to offer in partnership with Walmart a place to lodge people who are going to help people in Boulder County," the mayor said.

Chad Faubus, general manager of the Sam's Club in Arvada, said this is not the first time Walmart has used one of its "dark stores" to house people involved in disaster relief. When the city asked the company last week to make the space available, Faubus said Walmart sent a cleanup crew into the Sam's Club over the weekend to make sure it was ready to go this week.

"It's a way for us to give back to the community," he said.

'Constant flux'

Tom Kempton, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said FEMA Corps is an opportunity for young people -- ages 18 to 24 -- to perform community service work while simultaneously learning about real world emergency operations. FEMA Corps was launched in 2012 and is a civilian operation within AmeriCorps, which is a federal community service program.

Members of the program -- including many set to take up residence in the Sam's Club -- helped victims of Hurricane Sandy last fall and the Oklahoma tornadoes last spring.

"As we shift from response to recovery, they are able to help us multiply the effects with the on-the-ground ability to work directly with the survivors," Kempton said. "We hope people in the program will look to further their education in emergency operations and this is a starting point for them."

Duties for FEMA Corps members, who earn a stipend, include going door-to-door in devastated areas and letting people know assistance is available from FEMA as well as working in one of the 11 Disaster Assistance Centers scattered throughout the flood zone.

The floods resulted from a weeklong rainstorm that began Sept. 9 and dropped more than 17 inches of rain on parts of Boulder, resulting in four deaths in Boulder County. Statewide, the flood inundated more than 1,500 square miles, destroyed nearly 1,900 homes and killed eight people.

It's not clear how many of the workers operating out of the Sam's Club building will be working in Boulder County as opposed to surrounding communities, but in the end, San German said the areas with the greatest need will get the most help.

"In a disaster like this, it's all about constant change and constant flux," she said.

'Definitely does the job'

Laura Langberg, a FEMA Corps member from California who has been working in Coal Creek Canyon in Jefferson County, said she has been staying at the Boulder County Fairgrounds the last few nights and will now shift to the Sam's Club for nighttime accommodations. While coziness is not a prominent feature of an empty big-box retail store, Langberg, 25, said that's not what she and her colleagues are focused on.

"It definitely does the job and it's nice to know we're not taking shelter away from disaster survivors," she said, as she surveyed the store's gigantic interior Monday.

FEMA Corps workers will use showers at the YMCA of Boulder Valley and at the Louisville Recreation Center to clean up. San German said it's possible that a rudimentary kitchen facility will be up and running in the Sam's Club by next week so that corps members can do some food preparation and cooking there.

Isha Adams, a 23-year-old FEMA Corps member from North Carolina, has been working alongside Langberg canvassing neighborhoods affected by the flooding. They use iPads to sign people up for FEMA assistance at their doorsteps.

"We've been going house-to-house asking the residents if they need any help," said Adams, who is coming to the end of a nine-month assignment with FEMA Corps that began with extensive training sessions in Denver and Artesia, N.M. "They've been happy to see us."

On Monday, she put the best face on the prospect of sharing quarters with 83 other people in a windowless building for up to six weeks.

"It's like one giant sleepover," Adams said.