We were so excited to step outside after the rain, to smell the fresh air that only a rain can bring. Earth washed clean, trees and vegetation sparkling. But, there was a different smell about this storm. Fifteen inches of rain does not leave small quantities of anything, the least of which is water.
The Earth, that should be washed clean, was gone. Homes of all types, some 12,804, were severely damaged or destroyed, swept away in the resulting flood. Cars and businesses were scarred beyond belief, and, sadly, eight people were dead. Approximately 27,300 lives were affected to some degree during the September floods in Colorado. There were numerous cases of livestock missing or killed, as well local animals, such as bears and elk.
With heavy hearts, we began to assess the damage. Many bridges and roads were beyond immediate repair. Roads would be closed for several weeks, leaving many with no power and water, and, in some cases, food. Survivors began gathering to discuss the best course of action. Some wanted to walk to safety while others were too elderly or handicapped to make the journey.
An old road used during the 1976 Big Thompson flood was reopened with chain saws and shovels. Four-wheelers seemed to be the best form of transportation at the time. Many volunteers began the weary task of bringing folks out to a drop off, and then others transported them to waiting ambulances, buses or friends. Animals of all types were given free rides as well. Dogs, cats, guinea pigs, birds and even a fish were reunited with their families.
After the initial shock of this devastating disaster began to subside, survivors looked for help. Sadly, help was not immediately available due to the vast number of individuals and homes impacted. Some assistance was weeks even months away.
“There are many known natural hazards in Colorado, with floods proving to be the deadliest of them,” said Pat Mialy, emergency manager for the city of Loveland, about 50 miles north of Denver. “The services of Emergency Responders will be in high demand when disaster strikes, and it is just not physically possible to reach everyone immediately, or at all depending on road conditions and other access challenges.
Mialy said emergency responders need the help of citizens to become more capable of taking care of their immediate needs so that the limited resources in the field can be best mobilized for the greatest good.
“During large events, one less helicopter rescue or one less 911 call for a minor injury helps the entire emergency system run more efficiently,” she explained.
How did school transportation fit into this equation? Terry Ruddick, transportation director with Thompson School District in Loveland, reported routes had to be closed due to many roads being impassable. Route times had to be increased for those drivers able to get to their kids. Parents and community members lent a hand whenever possible, doing what they could to keep their kids in school.
Ruddick said he encourages transportation departments to rely heavily on their employees during a disaster. The Thompson staff drove roads to get a firsthand view of damage and then reconvened, with maps, to reroute buses. Some employees were put to work doing other jobs when routes were drastically affected.
He said he also discussed looking outside the district for help. Communications, as you know it now, will be unavailable. Dave Coleson, director of maintenance and operations with Park School District in Estes Park, about 30 miles to the west in the Rocky Mountains, spoke highly of his staff. He said they responded and went to work doing whatever was needed. Their buses were also used in the evacuation efforts. He discussed the fact that drivers may see an increase in student management issues due to the stressful situation.
He said the district was able to open a school to give kids some place to go and something to do. The teachers also responded as well and assisted with food provided by the school district. It was a voluntary program for parents to assist with any age students lacking a “place to be,” he added.
Many entities later assisted with utilities, port-o-potties and other vital items in order for school to reopen.
What have we learned from this trying time? We know, in hindsight, that being prepared is not just a catch phrase. Looking ahead to “what if?” is absolutely the best course of action. And a word of advice from this author: Get to know your neighbors. They may be your only source of assistance for several days.
Cheri Clymer is a retired school transportation safety trainer from Loveland, Colo., and is the co-author of NAPT's Emergency Preparedness Guide.