Colorado, still reeling from fires and floods, hard hit by furloughs

BLACK FOREST, Colo. — First came the forest fires. Then the floods. And now the furloughs.

In Colorado, home to some of the highest concentrations of federal workers in America, the government shutdown feels particularly punishing, especially because so many homes and roads are still being rebuilt after a series of disasters over recent months.

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“When does Colorado get a break?” asked Jacque Ganger, whose children were trapped on a school bus stuck in a ditch for four hours during September's catastrophic floods.

Last week, Ganger had to shift her focus from the flooding to the federal government shutdown, which put her and many people she knows at the Interior Department out of work. “It felt like a one-two punch,” she said.

The impact is even more bruising because of the numbers: the federal government is Colorado’s largest employer with 40,864 in the workforce, from National Park Service employees who herd elk and manage moose in the majestic Rocky Mountain National Park to physicist David J. Wineland with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), who won the 2012 Nobel Prize for research on quantum systems that contributed to the development of superfast computing.

Even if Stockholm’s prize committee found Wineland’s work groundbreaking, he was deemed expendable by the government last week.

“On the organization charts I’m just another worker, another non-essential,” said Wineland, sighing, during an interview from his home in Boulder.

With the largest concentration of federal agencies outside of the Washington area, the Denver Federal Center houses 28 agencies in 44 buildings, including the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Ice Core Laboratory and a large branch of the National Archives.

While Colorado’s 11,959 Defense Department employees were called back to work this week, nearly 28,905 federal workers are employed in dozens of other agencies. And a vast majority of them remain furloughed.

“The hits just keep on coming,” said Josh Hadler, 45, whose home was flooded in Lyons, the hardest-hit area. The town is now uninhabitable and still does not have water, gas, power or sewer. Now he’s been furloughed from his job as a government physicist. His wife has also lost her job at an assisted living center because it was flooded. They are staying with family.

Scientific studies on hold

At his lab in Boulder, Wineland won the Nobel Prize jointly with Serge Haroche of France for research paving the way for super-computers that run massive amounts of calculations in parallel. His work, for instance, could potentially help the way medical drugs are synthesized.

“My experiments are completely stopped. It’s very challenging to stay ahead with competitive research when this happens; it just slows the research down,” said Wineland, a soft-spoken man with a white walrus mustache. “No one in Colorado, or the country, needed this furlough on top of everything else.”

Government scientists have been some of the hardest hit, and about 90 percent of them are furloughed.

“This can mean we may have to throw out entire studies, years of careful work that is now missing data,” said Toni Piaggo, the lead scientist at the Wildlife Genetics lab in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Wildlife Research Center, located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Piaggo, 43, is well known in the field of human and wildlife conflict for researching how vampire bats in Mexico transmit rabies.

This year, she and her team developed a way of testing water at Everglades National Park to detect the DNA of invasive Burmese pythons, which are devastating to other wildlife. Piaggo’s study has just been published, but the government shutdown means she could be fined up to $50,000 or jailed for two years for violating the furlough if she sends out a news release or e-mails to publicize the study.

“Arresting me because I want to do my lab work? I’m a mom of a 2-year-old,” she said.

Piaggo says she’s been able to relax at times during the furlough, when she’s with her child or riding her bicycle. “And then it just turns into anger,” she said. “ I need to be in my lab, doing my work.”

Tom Stohlgreen, 61, a research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, studies invasive species such as Africanized honeybees. He was finishing a paper about the spread of the bees in the Southwest when he was furloughed.

“These harmful invasive species are not shut down,” Stohlgreen said. “It’s dangerous because they can attack people. The shutdown is bad for the economy, the environment and for humans.” Ordering government scientists off the job, he said, was “extremely shortsighted.”

Arlyn Andrews, a furloughed chemist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said she worried about what would happen to the data collection central to her study of greenhouse gases.

“Some of these records are decades long, and we work hard to make sure there’s no gaps,” she said.

Communities rally support

In the autumn, the weather in Colorado is crisp and the foliage is maroon-colored. It is also the busiest tourist season for the town of Estes Park, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, as thousands watch the elk migrate in the park and through the town, where they hang out in the town’s center and golf course, often mating.

But this year, flooding, followed by the shutdown, has closed the park and its mountain lakes, vistas and wooded forests.

David Hamrick, a fire management officer with the U.S. Forest Service, was furloughed last week. Just two weeks earlier, an Estes Park coffee shop owned by his wife, Amy, was flooded so badly that the building had to close. Repairs will take several months.

“It feels like Colorado has certainly endured more than its share,” she said. “We can only hope the furlough will be short.”

The community has quickly rallied to support the store by buying coffee beans, mugs and T-shirts online and helping clean up floodwaters. Across Colorado, residents have been turning to each other.

Inside her Ravissante Salon, near Black Forest, Alicia Taylor has been offering free haircuts to furloughed workers.

“I just felt so bad for everyone,” she said last week as she trimmed the hair of Matt Clark, a Defense Department firefighter who helped rescue pets and put out smouldering pine-needle brush for four straight days this summer.

In downtown Colorado Springs, the furloughed lined up at Poor Richard’s Cafe for free hand-tossed pizza and salads.

“Everyone's been through a lot, “ said restaurant owner Richard Skorman, a former city council member who also gave out free food during the fires. “A free pizza is the least we can do.”

 
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