GREELEY — Fixing ruined roads will cost "several hundred million dollars," Gov. John Hickenlooper's office estimated Monday after he and Vice President Joe Biden flew over flood-ravaged mountain canyons and towns.
That's far more than the $135 million identified so far by the state and federal governments.
But riveting high-level attention to Colorado's urgent needs will ensure sufficient financial help, Hickenlooper said Monday.
He and Biden and a state-federal team spent more than an hour in helicopters, dipping and swooping over canyons west of Boulder, Lyons and Loveland, where floodwaters ripped out miles of road and isolated communities.
"This is why you want to make sure that the president and vice president of the United States see just how bad it is," Hickenlooper said in an interview.
Biden later talked with state leaders — including U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Reps. Michael Coffman, Cory Gardner and Jared Polis — "and could not have been more supportive," the governor said.
"He was very specific. He said: You're not going to have to worry about the sequestration or the government being shut down. The whole country is behind you," Hickenlooper said.
Yet Colorado faces a dilemma, one that must be resolved as quickly as Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has to decide the next play, Hickenlooper said.
Either rebuild mountain roads higher in canyons and stronger — to withstand what may be increasingly frequent big floods — at much greater expense and delay. Or rebuild more quickly and cheaply, without homes nearby, with the understanding they likely would be washed away again.
"You've got to be smart, but you've got to move," Hickenlooper said. "Wherever possible we have to to build it better than before."
State leaders "definitely are chewing" on this dilemma, he said.
"We don't have the facts yet. We've got to get the engineers down there. ... A lot of this is about delay — taking people out of their homes and life routine."
Helicopter inspection Monday led to meetings at a FEMA disaster recovery center in Greeley, led by FEMA administrator Craig Fugate. It is one of the centers — others are in Boulder, Commerce City, Estes Park, Longmont, Loveland, Milliken — where federal volunteers from multiple agencies meet with flood survivors and try to serve as one-stop shops for meeting basic needs.
FEMA has received more than 15,600 applications for assistance from homeowners and renters, and $19.6 million of grants has been approved. FEMA activated a temporary shelter-assistance program that lets eligible evacuees, whose homes are inaccessible or destroyed, stay in a motel for a limited time and with FEMA paying the bills.
That's in addition to about $100 million from a Colorado transportation contingency fund released to launch emergency repairs on roads and bridges before winter — as well as the $35 million in federal funds for roads and bridges.
"That's obviously not going to be enough," Biden said. "We're going to keep working with the governor ... until we make you whole."
Hickenlooper has asked Congress to raise a cap on emergency aid to $500 million from $100 million, as was done for states hit by Hurricane Sandy last year.
Biden talked to evacuees and volunteers in Greeley, promising that, even if the "dysfunction of Congress" results in a federal government shutdown, FEMA centers and a hotline (800-621-3362) still will aid flood survivors.
"It's probably going to scare the living devil out of you," Biden said of the wrangling over a budget and the debt ceiling that threaten to paralyze government.
But, he said, "There will be someone on the other end of the line who will walk you through."
Helicopters carrying Biden, Hickenlooper, Fugate and other state and federal officials flew from Buckley Air Force Base to the foothills, first following Left Hand Canyon up to Jamestown, which was destroyed by mud. The choppers looped back to Lyons and up and down U.S. highways 36 and 34, circled Estes Park as snows hit the high country of Rocky Mountain National Park, then descended down Big Thompson Canyon, where U.S. 34 — rebuilt after the 1976 flood to be better — suffered heavy damage.
Colorado's early damage assessments continue: 1,882 homes destroyed, 16,101 damaged. Some 765 commercial structures are damaged, with 203 destroyed. Transportation officials calculate that 200 miles of roadways and 50 bridges are damaged.
State oil and gas regulators issued an update, saying more than 27,000 gallons of oil was spilled in the South Platte River valley. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is tracking eight spills and has surveyed about 35 percent of affected oil fields. COGCC teams have identified 33 sites with storage tank and equipment damage. Of 1,900 wells shut during the flood, 600 have reopened.