Pinewood Springs, Colorado –
Historic flooding in Boulder County in September was literally the end of the road for residents of Pinewood Springs, Colo., when roads became impassible due to damage sustained from flood waters.
"When the flood came through this canyon, it scoured away the roadways and the fill (solid material that provides support and the base for the roadway) beneath the roadways at various points along U.S. Highway 36," said Army 1st Lt. Eric Carlton, company commander of the 947th Engineer Company, the Colorado National Guard unit working to repair the roads in coordination with the Colorado Department of Transportation.
"The asphalt was crumbling away – in some places the road is completely gone," Carlton said. "We're out here trying to make a roadway that will be usable between Lyons and Estes Park for this community to get them through the winter safely."
He said the engineers and heavy equipment operators are getting valuable training and are providing an immediate community service to allow travel on a 25-mile stretch of Highway 36.
The crews are also in a race against time to ensure they can reach their goal of creating a passable, 24-foot, two-lane causeway that will allow passenger vehicles to get through the area, before the weather halts construction, Carlton said.
Currently, residents of Pinewood Springs, Colo., and the surrounding communities have to hike in and out, or use all-terrain recreational vehicles, to carrying food and supplies in since the town is still cut off from everywhere else, Carlton said.
"It's been tough getting the equipment here because of the difficulty of the location, but their morale is the highest I've ever seen and they've been patiently dealing with tedious elements," Carlton said. "The community is always thanking us, it's really humbling."
Laura Levy is a Pinewood Springs resident who was evacuated by Soldiers in a CH-47 Chinook helicopter during the flood. Though displaced by the water, she has since has been actively orchestrating things in the community to show Guard members gratitude.
She started a movement dubbed "Operation Cookie Drop," and encourages residents to give cookies and other snacks to the workers and security patrols out in the area.
Levy is also organizing for schoolchildren to sign banners and posters to thank the troops and responders for their work, while hoping for the soonest possible date for completion.
When asked why she was doing all this, she said to show thanks for those "literally building the road home."
The Soldier engineers are using hydraulic excavators, scrapers, bulldozers and dump trucks to accomplish their goal of giving citizens access in the area by making improvements to the road to get them through winter, after which contractors will repair the highway, he said.
"We have been integrating personnel (with CDOT) as much as possible, and the relationship between operators has been amazing," Carlton said.
One reason the project may be running smoothly is that the National Guard is working with one of their own.
James Usher, Colorado Department of Transportation Region 4, spent six years in the Guard, and formerly commanded the 947th Engineer Company.
Usher said when he got a call that the Guard was going to do the emergency repairs, he knew right away he'd be working with his former unit.
He was the company construction officer and worked with Carlton when he was a platoon sergeant.
"It's very cool to be working with my brothers and sisters in the Guard," Usher sad. "Having that camaraderie again with the Soldiers I used to work with is great and we're able to work together very well."
He said by integrating the machinery and people together, the organizations – CONG and CDOT – are taking a blended approach.
"The equipment is mostly the same as a typical contractor, (however) the Guard usually clears obstacles, and working on a highway is a little different," Usher said. "CDOT brings in the technical side to specific to highways."
He said he's enjoying his role in the project here mostly due to due the ability to help a community in need that has shown so much reliance.
"People affected have stayed so positive – their outlook is amazing," Usher said. "They've been full of smiles and thanks. That's the unbelievable thing to me. That's the rewarding aspect."
Carlton agreed that being able to help the community in need is a great aspect of being a member of the National Guard.
"As Guardsmen, we're grateful for their (the communities') praise. This is so great because we have a direct effect on the quality of life for these citizens," he said. "We're trying to get their lives back to normal as soon as possible. That's what we're here for."
"Normally we do innovative readiness training," he continued. "We get involved in the community improving roadways, hauling rocks typically. This scope of work is different and (our work) has an immediate impact." This is a different situation. We were able to adapt – our training prepared us. The operators know what to do; it's just a matter of getting our guys where they need to be to push dirt."
Carlton said some specific projects going on right now all involve a situation in which the support under the asphalt roadway has been eroded by the water, causing more support material to fall away. There are 18 obstacles currently being addressed along a segment of U.S. Highway 36, where the Guard has construction crews in Lyons and in Estes Park, working toward each other.
Spc. Chris Butterfield, a heavy equipment operator in the 947th Engineer Company, is working on a segment of the highway in the canyon that was impassable just a few days before.
"Seeing the progress is amazing," he said. "It makes me happy that we're getting a pathway read for folks to go home before winter."
Butterfield, who lives in Black Forest, Colo., and was activated in June help fight the fire there, said it's the first time he's been activated to do this particular type of engineering, and that it's been an incredible experience to help out on this mission, too.
"Being able to help out the people I've grown up with – my friends and family – it's been amazing," said, Butterfield, who was raised in the area.
He also said he's glad to do something for the community that's challenging, and calls the units coming to relieve them lucky to have such a great mission.
Because of the large scope of the project, National Guard engineering units from Utah, Montana, Kansas, Florida, Virginia, South Dakota and New Mexico are scheduled to assist in coming weeks.
Approximately 200 National Guard Citizen-Soldiers and -Airmen will be working on the project at any given time.