Former FEMA director urges Summit County, mountain towns to prep for flooding — even in a drought year
April 26, 2018
It might seem strange to be talking about flooding after one of the driest winters on record. But by some experts' estimation, that's probably the right time to talk about floods, as they materialize from seemingly nowhere, can be catastrophic and are among the most costly disasters to recover from.
The Pew Charitable Trust, a major public policy nonprofit that advises communities on environmental, state policy, economic and health issues, has been trying to increase public awareness about flooding and to help develop community policy that mitigates flood damage before it happens through their Flood-Prepared Communities initiative.
Laura Lightbody, director for that initiative, points out that floods are the third most costly natural disasters in Colorado.
"Since 2013, just two flood events in Colorado have cost over $400 million in federal assistance," Lightbody points out. "That's not an inconsequential number."
To try to lessen the pain and damage that floods do to unprepared communities, Pew recruited a true heavyweight in the emergency management arena. Craig Fugate served as FEMA director under President Obama from 2009–17, and oversaw the federal response to the 2013 Front Range floods. Fugate's recollection of the event offered two major lessons for Coloradans.
"The road infrastructure wasn't built for that event," Fugate said. "We didn't have the floods or the data and the roads were made at the best practices at the day. The other big issue was the loss of housing. In that particular area, with so many houses destroyed, people had nowhere to stay."
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Fugate said that it is critical for a state like Colorado, with such rapid growth, to take a good look at its housing stock to see what is vulnerable to flash flooding.
"The governor here made a key decision to not rebuild things the way it was after the flood, and that we had to build differently to anticipate a risk we don't understand," he said.
Fugate said that flood mitigation should be a big part of new development around the state.
"The better we can understand that risk, the better we can decide where new construction can go," he said. "For one thing, don't rely on flood risk maps to get flood insurance. There are a lot of areas that are outside the 'Zone' areas vulnerable to flooding. Another thing we can do to mitigate impact to homes is to have a plan if disaster does strike. We don't want to just put everything the way it was. We want a plan that prepares for worst possible scenarios."
Summit County's director of emergency management, Brian Boivard, agrees with Fugate's assessment and adds that Summit residents should be particularly wary about issues like spring melt, even with a less snowy winter.
"This year, we didn't have as much snow," Boivard said, "but if we have a very warm week it can turn even a low snowpack into a dangerous event."
The rate at which snow melts from the mountains has a big impact in whether tributaries like the Blue River or Tenmile Creek overflow their banks and cause massive damage. Boivard said that Summit and its towns take that risk very seriously.
"We have a spring runoff meeting every spring," he said. "In that meeting we get all the towns together, as well as all of the dam owners and managers and everyone involved with public to get an idea from snowpack levels and what we're expecting for runoff. Spring weather can be misleading, and it's important people don't judge flood likelihood solely on snowpack. It has a lot more to do with how warm it gets."
Boivard encourages Summit residents to get signed up for Summit County's emergency alert system to get the best information available in the event a flood does hit.
"The state of Colorado has a program called ReadyColorado to help with general preparedness," Boivard said. "Sign up for that. And another thing families can do is have an evacuation plan already. In the event there is flooding, and they need to leave their homes, they can be ready to go. Also, they should prepare a 72-hour emergency kit if there's flooding that knocks out power."
Information about how to sign up for Summit County alerts is available at CO.Summit.CO.us/1149/Summit-County-Alert. To find out how to prepare a 72-hour emergency kit, visit RedCross.org/store/preparedness/emergency-kit.