“There was no warning, not like for hurricanes or blizzards. During this period, we knew we were in a drought. It started raining and people said, ‘well, we need the moisture.’ But then it didn’t stop.”
Those are the words of Terry Tedeschi, development director for Community Food Share (CFS) in Louisville, Colo., about five miles outside of Boulder. The organization serves Boulder and Broomfield counties.
Boulder usually gets about 21 inches of rain per year. It received about 18 inches in four days beginning on Sept. 12. Boulder Creek was running at about 5,000 cubic feet per second compared to its normal 200 cubic feet per second.
And, then came the flood. The rushing water damaged more than 19,000 homes, with 1,500 of them completely lost. Eight people have died, and approximately 12,000 people have evacuated their homes, including all 2,000 residents of Lyons, some 20 miles north of Boulder, who were airlifted out of the town by the Colorado National Guard.
“This is an order of magnitude about three times worse than any wildfire we’ve had,” said Jim Rettew, an American Red Cross (ARC) volunteer working in Boulder. The Black Forest fire this past June, the most destructive in state history, destroyed roughly 500 homes.
Volunteers and staff of disaster relief nonprofits were on the ground statewide, providing food, water, shelter and support for those affected by the floods. The Salvation Army Intermountain Division, based in Denver, was active in seven counties: Boulder, Larimer, Jefferson, Morgan, Logan, Weld and Ft. Collins, said Courtney Culpepper, public relations and special events director.
CFS started to coordinate a response about a week after the rain started coming down. The organization is able to handle special requests from evacuee shelters, as well as continue distributing food to the 50 agencies it serves. It also has relationships with food banks in Larimer and Weld counties. Together the network serves about 230 agencies.
“We know we’re going to start getting more and more requests as people start showing up at the agencies we serve, which are already seeing more people,” said Tedeschi.
The network of cooperation is “the silver bullet to be in touch with and get a pulse for all these agencies, which represent pretty much all the food assistance agencies. That’s the key to making sure we’re getting food out to all those agencies.” CFS’s response will go on “for weeks and months,” said Tedeschi. “Most people don’t have a full idea of needs yet.”
There have been three deaths in Boulder, and as of Sept. 17, at least 183 people were still unaccounted. “We have five teams of two detectives each going door-to-door checking homes,” said Liz Donaghey, public information officer for the Boulder Office of Emergency Management. “If you’ve called and reported a family member unaccounted for and you’ve heard from them, we’re asking you to call back.”
Donaghey said Boulder’s greatest need is long-term shelter for those displaced. Water badly damaged infrastructure in the city and the surrounding mountain communities. “We have roads that are completely destroyed, completely inaccessible,” she said.
Authorities got to a majority of people but then those who said they wanted to stay changed their minds. They had no water, no electricity. Authorities had helicopters flying around looking for people and asking those needing help to write SOS or do something to draw attention, said Donaghey.
One of the Salvation Army’s greatest assets in a disaster, being part of affected communities and therefore already in place to help, can also cause challenges. Culpepper said up to 60 percent of the Salvation Army’s disaster volunteer base was directly in the path of the flood. “They were watching the water rush through their neighborhoods and ruin their homes,” she said.
Despite this, Culpepper said she heard reports of a Salvation Army volunteer jumping into disaster relief mode. “She was handing out bottles of water to her neighbors and she was able to provide emotional care with the training she’d been given,” said Culpepper.
President Barack Obama declared a major disaster in Colorado on Sept.14, which released federal funds. “Our role changes a little when it becomes a federally declared disaster because at that point FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) assistance kicks in, and that’s the primary financial assistance evacuees can get,” said Rettew.
The ARC had about 400 disaster workers and volunteers, and operated 14 shelters throughout Colorado in the first five days after the rain started falling. “In terms of fundraising numbers, it’s still too early for us to release those as we are still at the height of our response,” said Melanie Pipkin, media relations lead for the ARC in Washington, D.C. The Salvation Army has raised just shy of $200,000 at presstime.
Most of the evacuations were performed by the Colorado National Guard, according to Rettew. He said evacuees were bussed to ARC sites. Rettew was speaking from one such site, the Coors Events Center in downtown Boulder, normally the University of Colorado basketball teams’ home court.
AmeriCares, a health-focused charity based in Stamford, Conn., has an emergency response manager on the ground in Colorado who will determine needs of residents and coordinate the organization’s response. Garrett Ingoglia, vice president of emergency response, said that activity would probably take the form of distributing medication and medical supplies for the most part.
“We’ll look into health needs over time,” he said. “Can we help some of these health institutions? Have individuals lost their medications? Can we supply assistance in the form of first aid?”
AmeriCares will focus on both short- and long-term needs. “We’re not first responders, but we can resupply them if needed,” said Ingoglia. “The damage to infrastructure sounds like it’s going to be tremendous. There’s a ton of damage to roads and homes, and a lot of people don’t have flood insurance.”
That insurance comment was echoed by Culpepper. “What we’ve found is that there are a lot of homes that are not in approved flood zones,” she said. That means many of those who’ve lost homes most likely won’t be insured. “It’s going to be a huge problem,” said Culpepper. Without insurance, those affected would be dependent on help from FEMA and aid charities. “Being a government agency, there are limitations (to FEMA aid). The Salvation Army has a unique situation because we raise money in the community, and we’re able to help individuals with whatever they need,” said Culpepper.
Both the Salvation Army and ARC will be providing cleanup kits and other donations of goods once people’s immediate needs are met. However, cash is the most valuable type of support in a disaster because it allows organizations to be flexible and meet evolving needs. NPT