This week many of Summit County’s first responders and emergency management personnel were deployed to the Front Range to assist with recovery efforts following last week’s large-scale flooding.
In the wake of stalled recovery efforts due to inclement weather and the loss of life, personal property and vital municipal infrastructure that Boulder and Larimer counties are dealing with, it makes sense to question whether Summit could respond to a similar large-scale emergency.
On Wednesday several of Summit’s elected officials and public works supervisors responded with an overwhelming, “yes.” Recovering from an event like the Front Range floods, on the other hand, would require a little assistance.
Summit County Sheriff John Minor said public safety personnel from the county and each municipality participate in an annual high-water meeting, and practice the steps in the county’s comprehensive evacuation plan.
Although the evacuation plan was designed around the threat of a wildfire, Minor said many of those principles could be applied to all types of emergency evacuation scenarios, including floods. This year local public safety officials upped their training routine by inviting members of the Northwest Colorado Incident Management Team, which includes federal firefighters with agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
“It was a good exercise to see how the chain of command would be transferred in a scenario where we would need federal assistance,” Minor said. “We practice these scenarios a lot and we’re as prepared as we can be.”
In addition to practicing emergency scenarios, Minor said, Summit County emergency management director Joel Cochran has developed over the course of several years a comprehensive plan to maintain local continuity of government, known as the COG plan, and local continuity of operations, or the COOP plan.
Cochran could not be reached by press time because he is one of the local officials who was dispatched to assist on the Front Range, but Minor said although the COG plan is fairly self-explanatory, the COOP plan outlines procedures for maintaining day-to-day public-safety operations, such as responding to crimes, while in the throws of a full-scale disaster.
The county also has procedures in place to alert the public to impending emergencies and potential evacuation situations through an extensive system that involves everything from reverse 911 pages and SCAlerts to social media, including Facebook and Twitter.
Despite being prepared to respond to an emergency, people, even elected officials, tend to overlook the needs of a community after the storm has passed and it’s time to rebuild, Minor said.
“Recovery is a totally different animal, and at the scale of what happened on the Front Range, it usually lasts 10 times longer than the actual disaster,” he said. “It could get overwhelming pretty quickly.”
Although Summit County would likely receive aid from public safety officers in neighboring communities, as well as state and federal resources and funding if an emergency event is declared a disaster, Minor said people also should create their own emergency action plans and have enough supplies to be self-sufficient in the event of a flood, wildfire or epic snowstorm.
“We (public safety officers) exercise, plan and practice for emergencies, but we could find ourselves overwhelmed just like they are on the Front Range,” Minor said. “If you live in the High Country you better be prepared to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours.
“Make sure you have enough food, supplies, medicine and your vital papers easily accessible, so you can pack the car and get out of town.”
Although it hasn’t happened since the 1990s, a flash flood usually means road and infrastructure damage, which has been a concern for the Summit County Road and Bridge department considering the excessive rain hitting the region this spring and summer.
But learning from the last flooding incident in which culverts reached capacity and roads flooded in Dillon Valley, operations supervisor Rick Speer said road and bridge employees monitor problem areas and deploy sandbags during peak runoff in the spring and during periods of unseasonably wet weather.
The department also keeps some staff on 24-hour call to respond to road emergencies caused by rain and snow.
“The heavy rains are more of a maintenance issue for us, such as working on culverts and making sure drainage is clean,” Speer said. “We learned a lot after the Dillon Valley Straight Creek pipe area flooded and now we’re pretty diligent about identifying issues and staying on top of maintenance.”