Flood recovery now a race against winter, Colorado governor says

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper talks at a Denver news conference about the aftermath of last week's historic rains.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper talks at a Denver news conference about the aftermath of last week’s historic rains.

(Matt Pearce / Los Angeles Times)

DENVER — In an acknowledgment of the breadth of destruction that has visited his state, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper announced Thursday the appointment of a business executive to oversee the state’s recovery from catastrophic flooding, which he framed as “a race against the onset of winter.”

Jerre Stead, the executive chairman of IHS Inc., a global information company, will become the state’s so-called Chief Recovery Officer as Colorado contends with roughly 2,000 lost homes, 200 miles of destroyed state highways and scores of bridges damaged or destroyed across the state.

The imminent arrival of snow season in Colorado has presented officials with a ticking clock to repair crucial arteries before workers are overtaken by nature once again, with a goal to fix as much of the state’s scarred interstate system as possible before Dec. 1.

“Jerre was really sent from heaven to do this task,” Hickenlooper told reporters at the state Capitol, praising Stead’s multifaceted career in telecommunications, manufacturing and, among other projects, risk and supply-chain management. Stead’s time, and that of his staff at IHS, will be “donated,” the governor said.


The surfeit of problems facing Colorado after last week’s historic floods continued to become clearer Thursday, when law enforcement officials in Larimer County failed to persuade at least 200 stranded mountain residents to evacuate and state officials announced that a pair of oil storage tanks hit by the flooding had leaked thousands of gallons into Weld County waterways.

Hickenlooper batted down environmentalists’ call for a moratorium on oil and gas industry activity, adding that oil was only one of many pollutants that have entered the water.

“When you look at the amount of water going through that river, it will process these pollutants very, very rapidly,” Hickenlooper said, also noting that water testing was underway. “Not that any pollution is a good thing, but in a flood of this magnitude ... the several small spills that we’ve had have been very small, relative to the huge flow of water.”

The state’s gas and oil regulator, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said Thursday that roughly 19,000 gallons of oil had escaped oil booms laid down by the tanks’ owner and oozed into Weld County’s pervasive floodwaters.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) had expressed his concern to the commission in a Tuesday letter asking for state officials to call in more investigators and ask for help from other states and the federal government to deal with the environmental impact.

“Floodwaters contaminated with sewage, hazardous materials, and uncontained hydraulic fracturing fluids and oil and gas will likely cause a major public health issue in affected areas,” Polis said in the letter.

“In light of the serious conditions on the ground, the industry, at a minimum, must disclose all chemicals that may be contaminating soil and groundwater in the area around wells that are leaking fluids to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission so public health officials and remediation workers can respond appropriately,” the letter said.

Hickenlooper told reporters that, as far as he knew, the state already had all the resources it needed to deal with the plethora of contamination.


When asked about the holdouts in Larimer County refusing to be coaxed out of their isolated homes, Hickenlooper gave the political equivalent of a shrug.

“This is one of the things about the United States of America, right? People get to make their own decisions,” he said. “We’re not going to force them to evacuate. Right? All’s we can do is give them the best information we can and what the risks are, and they make their decision.”


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