Tough choices loom as reality sets in for fire victims

Tue, Jul 10, 2012


Hope? Denial? A certain tendency to understate the scale and reach of the recent disaster?

It’s too early to say. Some of us literally are poking through the ashes, hoping to find a talisman, a tangible reminder of the vanished past.

“My house is pretty much OK,” one Mountain Shadows evacuee told me. “I lost some trees, and I’ll need a new deck, but that’s nothing. Some of my neighbors lost everything — the fire jumped around, some houses burned, some didn’t.”

A couple days earlier, looking at aerial photos of his neighborhood, he had a colder view of the future.

“You know,” he said, “if my house had burned, the insurance payout would have been about $100,000 more than I could have gotten if I’d sold it before the fire. Now, I wonder what the place is worth — maybe 50 percent of what it was? I don’t know why anyone would want to rebuild, but I sure hope they do. Otherwise, I’ll be stuck here for good.”

As insurance companies cut checks during the weeks to come, fire victims will make choices based both on their individual circumstances and, to a lesser degree, the decisions of their former neighbors.

There will be those who will clear away the debris and rebuild, hoping to recreate their past lives and restore ruined neighborhoods.

Others will leave. Given the real estate market, it’s reasonable to assume that some homeowners may have little or no equity in their homes, and won’t be financially able to rebuild. Others may just take the money, pay off their mortgage and buy a house in another neighborhood, even another city. Imagine what they must be hearing from the Realtors…

“Hey folks, we’ve got builders, developers, and real estate brokers standing by as we speak, ready to put you in a new neighborhood free of ashes, soot and unhappy memories! We have a special deal for you — we can move you into your dream house this week!”

We’ll see — but given the importance of household finances in our lives, expect calculation to trump emotion.

Clearly, those who lost their houses have suffered devastating losses. The rest of us have endured inconvenience, some financial loss, smoky air and uncertainty.

The uncertainty will not evaporate when the smoke clears.

Colorado Springs always has been an easy sell. Local image-makers, be they elected officials, professional boosters at the Chamber/EDC or the Convention and Visitors Bureau, or the jocks at the Sports Corp, have long relied on the same pitch.

“Colorado Springs! The serene, peaceful city nestled among the pine-scented foothills at the base of Pikes Peak! Live, work and play in the magnificent Pikes Peak region, and enjoy clean air, safety and tranquility in America’s most beautiful city!”

This simple, compelling message worked when Gen. William Palmer founded the city in 1871. It worked for Spencer Penrose when he built the Broadmoor Hotel in 1922. It worked for Joe Reich and Chase Stone in the 1950s when they spearheaded the effort that brought us the Air Force Academy. And it worked for El Pomar and the city in 1977 when they lured the struggling U.S. Olympic Committee to Colorado Springs.

We’ve lost our identity to fire and smoke, at least for now. We’re Paris without the Eiffel Tower, Athens without the Acropolis, Egypt without the pyramids. It’ll take a fierce, determined and well-financed effort to reposition us in the market, and there are plenty of pitfalls ahead.

Yet we’re full of irrational exuberance. We beat the fire, didn’t we? We’re Will Smith in Independence Day: “THAT’S RIGHT! That’s what you get! Look at you, ship all banged up! WHO’S THE MAN? HUH? WHO’S THE MAN?”

Reality awaits. The skulking jackals of the Denver and national media are poking around in the ashes as well. Will there be a new narrative? Will local officials be portrayed as slow-witted, disorganized and incompetent, instead of heroic and capable?

And what about our local economy? We were effectively closed for business for more than a week during high season, suggesting that we may have lost 3 or 4 percent of our annual gross municipal product. That’ll translate into lost jobs, shuttered businesses and lower tax receipts — but that’s in the future.

The present? It’s Steve Bach as Will Smith: “C’mon, fire, is that the best you got??!! WHO’S THE CITY? HUH? WHO’S THE CITY?”

We’ll make it through. We always have.


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