2013 Colorado Flood Response
Trip Report (Of sorts): Colorado Flood Response September 13th, 2013
I suppose when the phone rang just after midnight on Friday the 13th, it could only be a work call. I had been monitoring the Colorado flood incident with my FEMA friends. There was a bit of chatter going on over the rain and flooding, but we all thought we were not going to get “the call”. When disasters happen around the country – we usually text or call our overhead management team partners – it’s what we do. We are always packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice and we are always scanning the news reports in anticipation of something big. You know the “Type A” people out in the world; well -we are really the Type A++ crowd – adrenaline seeking rescue junkies at their best. My normal ‘chatter’ buddies are Giovanni – a deputy fire marshal from Miami Fire, Keith - a Fire Battalion Chief from Salt Lake City, and Dave aka “Slide Rule” a structural engineer form Columbia Missouri. Our team (27 from across the USA) is called the FEMA Urban Search and Rescue White Incident Support Team. There are three such management teams for the FEMA US&R program (Red, White, and Blue). We are similar to a Type II Incident Management Team – for those in the know about incident management, and we rotate on-call every month for response to disasters around the country. Our team is set up to assist and support local government and incident management teams with the use and application of Federal Urban Search and Rescue Task forces.
This call was of course for a response to Denver Colorado for the Floods – initially identified in FEMA circles as “Lyons Colorado Flood Incident.” By 6:00 a.m. I was airborne with 2 of my Washington team mates from the White IST and headed to Denver. We arrived at 9:20 a.m. and hit the ground assembling our crews and responding to the impact region. We eventually set up at the Boulder Municipal Airport and went to work with the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team. What followed was 7 days of helicopter deployments and rescues by local and federal crews from the canyons of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.
We had great support from the IMT, and also worked heavily with the Colorado Army National Guard and regular Army helicopter crews. One of the most memorable people I worked with was Lt. Colonel Mitch Utterbeck of the Colorado Army National Guard. His daily comments were what legends are made from. One day he said “we all brief our crews to go out and be safe”. He said he knows we do tasks that were really not safe, so his advice to the rescue crews: “So go out and do dangerous shit, but come home safe.” Of course, this piece of daily advice was repeated many times over with glee.
Our tasking by Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle was to help evacuate those needing evacuation, to clear all roads we could, to document all damaged structures, to locate all missing, to clear all drainages of trapped persons, and to check and clear all debris piles of human remains or hazardous materials. Daunting tasks, but between all the volunteer SAR resources, fire hotshot crews, Army and Colorado Army National Guard resources, and FEMA US&R teams from Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Missouri, and Nebraska (numbering 70 strong each), we got the tasks done. It was a pleasure to debrief and turn over the incident management with 100% marks in each task by the morning of Saturday September 21st. We also had a contingent in Larimer County with mirror mission requirements, and we finished the missions in Larimer County by the morning of September 22nd.
There were many memorable moments during the evacuations. We evacuated people as well as their pets. The common thread was for each person evacuated – they had at least 2 dogs. One 9 year old boy evacuated with two pet monkeys. A Boulder County Sheriff’s Deputy named Marci went up to engage him in conversation, albeit to see the monkeys. When she asked him where he came from, he replied (with hand on hip and the other pointing over to the runway) “Duh – the helicopter!” Priceless.
I have to close by saying it is a great honor to respond and help nationally on such disasters or incidents. There are a million or more firefighters or police officers who would and could do the job I get to do, I am just the lucky guy who was at the right place at the right time to sign up for the job. This event was the equivalent to a 1000 year flood. The people who were in harm’s way did nothing wrong, it was just something that happened. There were many spontaneous rescues by local resources and untrained folks just lending a hand. Fortunately, the number of deaths was very low, especially in regards to the last similar event in the region when 110 people were killed. The recovery effort is now underway, and local infrastructure will take months if not years to restore to the impacted areas.
Oh, and yes, my bags are repacked ready for the next event. See you at the October Monthly meeting; I get to be the guest speaker!