A Day in the Life: Offering Flood Relief as a CDOT Materials Tester

January 7, 2014

This post highlights the work that Brian Cromar does for CDOT. Are you a public employee with a story to tell? Send us an email at dimecontact@copera.org

Hometown: Colorado Springs
Current residence: Loveland
Employer: Colorado Department of Transportation
Title: Engineering Physical Sciences Technician I
What he does every day: Monitors contractors rebuilding portions of Highway 34 near Estes Park
Length of time in PERA: Six months
Best part of the day at work: When everything goes according to the plans, specifications, and schedule.
Best part of any day not at work: Playing in the mountains.

On September 12, 2013, Brian Cromar had been on the job as a materials tester with the Colorado Department of Transportation for less than three months when he saw inches of rain pour down in a matter of hours in Loveland, Colorado.

Across Northern Colorado, bridges were buckling, highways were flooding and buildings were washing away.

 

Photo by Brian Cromar, CDOT Photo by Brian Cromar, CDOT

 

Initially, Brian jumped in to help assess immediate damage. He walked up and down U.S. Highway 36 taking notes on the conditions of the roadway as helicopters flew overhead, rescuing stranded residents. Using only a handful of basic instruments – a tape measure and measuring wheel, GPS, a camera and a notebook, he walked mile after mile documenting where a highway had stood a few days before but now a river gushed, leaving only trees, boulders, sediment and debris in its wake.

“It was devastating,” Brian said. “It’s hard to describe. In some places, no one could tell a house had ever been at that location. There was no house, but also no foundation. No yard, no pipes, not anything to show people had lived there.”

After working on teams to document the destruction of several highways including Highway 36, U.S. Highway 34 and State Highway 119, Brian took on an assignment to help with the reconstruction of Highway 34, a critical route that provides a lifeline between Estes Park and Loveland.

The road through the canyon leading out of Estes Park had been wiped away, a terrible hardship for residents who had no way to get in or out of town, but a logistical and personal challenge for the teams brought in for the repairs as well.

Brian stayed in Estes Park every night, given that without a passable road, what would have been a 30-mile trip had turned into a 143-mile loop as he started work in the canyon.

The first priority of CDOT was to establish a paved two-lane road the entire length of Highway 34 from Estes Park to Loveland. This meant that business as usual, from a CDOT perspective, was turned on its head.

Crews came in from all over the U.S. and Canada. Retired CDOT employees came back to work, some of whom had worked on road repairs after the Big Thompson flooded in 1976. 24-hour, non-stop operations lasted for 58 straight days, and on his longest day, Brian spent 19 hours at work.

 

CDOT 3 Photo by Brian Cromar, CDOT

 

Brian’s priority was to work as quickly as possible and make decisions that prioritized laying pavement and completing the road way.

“We didn’t have enough time or enough people to do formal surveying,” Brian said. “I had a tape measure to help me decide where to lay the road and spray paint to mark it.”

Once they were able to access the roadway, contractors and crews brought in heavy equipment with nearly 100 pieces working throughout the damaged canyon at one time.  They removed boulders and sediment that the floods had dropped on the roadbeds.

“It was cacophonous, to say the least,” Brian added. “In 45 to 60 seconds, a crew could load a truck to take away sediment and six- or eight-foot boulders, then bring in another one.”

Brian watched as wildlife began to return to the area. “Bighorn sheep would come down to watch all our activity. Bears came out every night to forage for food, rifling through refrigerators lying in the riverbed. We could see them starting to bounce back.”

But there was another side to the energy and activity of the reconstruction – realizing that what used to be there – a highway, homes and businesses, residents’ entire lives – was totally destroyed.

“The resilience of nature and of people is inspiring, but also heartbreaking,” Brian reflected.

“When we were first out assessing the damage, the hardest part was telling someone that we made it to where their home had been wiped away. It’s just devastating to see what folks have lost. I have to compartmentalize the work from the destruction,” he added.

Brian jumped at the opportunity to help with the reconstruction of the roads and bridges that play a vital role for the community and are so critical for the town to be able to rebuild.

But he knows that other people behind the scenes have sacrificed in important ways, too, that make his own work possible.

His wife was just recovering from major hip surgery when the floods hit and took care of their infant daughter alone while Brian spent weeks staying in Estes Park and working in the canyon.

“Her support meant that I could be out there doing this work,” he said.

Brian is just one of hundreds of CDOT employees who all made similar sacrifices and are committed to restoring the many communities impacted by flooding. First responders, local government officials and countless volunteers also stepped in with little notice as disaster struck and continue to work to rebuild and recover.

 

CDOT 4 Photo by Brian Cromar, CDOT

 

Though the road is now open, returning traffic, commerce and a little bit of normalcy to Estes Park and other towns along the way, Brian estimates there will be three to five more years of work to fully rebuild the highway.

Everything from creating new road signs alerting drivers where the road has moved from its previous location to making difficult decisions about future flood mitigation are top priorities but had been put off until a passable roadway was completed.

Brian wants to be there, helping with the recovery and ensuring that the communities that have been decimated by floodwaters have a road that functions as well as it did the day before they hit, if not better.

“It’s been a privilege and an honor to be in a position to help,” Brian said. “I feel like an integral part of the recovery. And I know that I would have found some way to be involved in the rebuilding effort, so I feel lucky that it gets to be through my work.”

“I want to be on this project from cradle to grave. I want to see it finished.”