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Working poor hit hard by Colorado flooding

The contents of a home damaged by a flood is seen in the driveway, in Evans, Colorado September 23, 2013. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
The contents of a home damaged by a flood is seen in the driveway, in Evans, Colorado September 23, 2013. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

By Keith Coffman

EVANS, Colo. (Reuters) - Victoria Varela shook her head in disbelief as she surveyed the wreckage of the trailer she had fled minutes before flood waters rushed through her mobile home park in the hardscrabble town of Evans, Colorado destroying everything in its path.

"We didn't think it would be so bad, so I just grabbed some of the kids' clothes and left, but it turns out everything in there is ruined," the mother of four said, as her husband Jesus pulled mud-encased items from inside their home.

The Valeras are among the hundreds of displaced residents in Evans, a working-class town of 20,000 with a growing Hispanic population. It is on the banks of the South Platte River in Weld County, the heart of northeastern Colorado's agricultural economy.

Many residents are Mexican immigrants who came north to work in construction or in the county's farms, feedlots, meatpacking plants and oil fields, said Juan Gallegos, a spokesman for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.

Days of torrential rains along a 130-mile stretch in the foothills west of Colorado's urban corridor triggered widespread flooding across 19 counties, from mountain towns to farming communities.

The flood is blamed for eight deaths - with a ninth person missing and presumed dead. It destroyed an estimated 1,800 homes, toppled oil storage tanks, and caused an about $2 billion in property losses, most of it uninsured.

President Barack Obama declared nine of the state's hardest hit counties major disasters, freeing up resources and federal assistance to homeowners, farmers and businesses.

Perhaps nowhere is the impact of the flood on the poor and working class more vivid than in the Valeras' low-lying mobile home park in Evans, where a six-foot wall of water rushed in when the South Platte jumped its banks.

The flood waters destroyed all the 153 homes in the park, dubbed Eastwood Village, where residents were already often living paycheck-to-paycheck in single and double-wide mobile homes on the outskirts of town. Most were not insured for their losses.

Evans officials have condemned the entire site, now teeming with flies, smelling of raw sewage and littered with mud-caked belongings. They have deemed the motor home park "unsafe" for habitation.

"It was so sad to see those people who lost everything they had," Gallegos said.

The flooding cost Jesus Varela his home, his car, and no way to get to his job as a roofer.

"It's been really, really hard," he said.

FEAR OF DEPORTATION

Judy Griego, director of Weld County's Department of Human Services, said while there were no reported deaths in the county, many residents on Evan's flooded south side are low-income families whose lives have been uprooted.

"The number one and two requests are for housing and transportation," she said.

Yet some of the displaced are undocumented immigrant workers wary of registering with government agencies for whatever aid is available out of fear they could be deported, said the immigrant coalition's Gallegos.

One such person is Eastwood Village resident Carmen, 45, who asked that her last name not be used.

"I don't have a social security number, and because I don't have children there's no chance to get help from any social services," she said in Spanish via an interpreter, adding her husband works at a local dairy farm.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has set up assistance centers in the flood zone, and has already approved $21 million in aid to individual homeowners and renters. FEMA spokesman Jerry DeFelice said the agency does not share any personal information with other government entities.

"We encouraged everyone - undocumented or not - to apply for assistance," he said.

He added that FEMA will refer flood victims to local agencies such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army or various church groups to provide short-term housing, food and other essentials.

Illegal immigrants are not eligible for cash assistance from FEMA, according to the organization's website. But DeFelice said anyone with a family member who is a U.S. citizen or legal resident, whether a child or spouse, may be eligible to apply for some federal funds, he said.

Construction worker Manuel Hernandez, who declined to give his immigration status, said he "lost everything inside" his mobile home, but was able to get a housing voucher for his family through a local charity.

Hernandez shrugged when asked what the future holds for him once the temporary living arrangement expires.

"One day at a time," he said.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Gevirtz)

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