Shades of Irene in Colorado disaster
Denver Post Photo
An aerial photo shows flood damage in Greeley, Colo., during a helicopter tour by Vice President Joe Biden, Gov. John Hickenlooper and federal disaster officials last week.
The scenes were so familiar: roads and bridges ravaged by raging rivers, communities rendered inaccessible, homes ripped off their foundations, National Guard helicopters rescuing the stranded, shelters serving the dislocated, mud and debris piles mounting, government workers addressing the chaos without rest, and hundreds of volunteers lining up to help.
When Governor Shumlin called me to ask if I would be willing to go to Colorado to help in the aftermath of that state’s historic flooding, I did not hesitate. News reports of a “1,000-year flood” in Colorado were already evoking memories of the intensity of Tropical Storm Irene hitting Vermont in 2011.
Recalling the ways that many states helped Vermont during our time of need, the ability to assist Colorado at this time felt like a gift. It was a way to pay forward the generous help we had received.
On Sept. 16, two days after receiving Governor Shumlin’s phone call, I arrived in Denver with VTrans Chief Engineer Rich Tetreault and Director of Operations Scott Rogers.
Our first stop was the headquarters of the Colorado Department of Transportation, or CDOT, where we were given a quick assessment of the damage: 200 miles of Colorado state highways and 50 bridges were damaged or destroyed. Their disaster affected an estimated 4,500 square miles.
For the next four days, our Vermont group was in constant motion, meeting with CDOT leaders and staff, sharing the lessons we had learned from our response to Irene.
We explained how we reorganized our Transportation Agency into an “incident command” team to become more nimble and efficient to meet the demands of the disaster. We described how Vermont innovated to find solutions to reconnect isolated towns quickly and build back infrastructure in record time.
And we explained how we forged partnerships, inside and outside of government, to harness all of our collective talent to rebuild our broken state.
My week ended in Boulder, Colo., one of the most impacted areas of the state, where I met with recovery leaders, viewed some of the damage and visited a disaster assistance center. Everyone we spoke with in Colorado was truly grateful to Vermont for this assistance and expressed that our experience and ideas were extremely helpful and may save them months of trial and error in their recovery.
In addition to damaging infrastructure, the Colorado floods have dealt a hard blow to its citizens. Tragically, at least eight people have died from the flooding, some 12,000 Coloradans have evacuated their homes, 2,000 homes are reported to be destroyed, and many mountain towns are still inaccessible or unsafe for a return. Addressing short- and long-term housing needs and community rebuilding will be an enormous challenge.
I had the opportunity to meet with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and his staff to discuss the larger and longer-term aspects of the disaster, including the long-term recovery needs of individuals, businesses, farmers, communities, and the economy of the affected areas.
While offering examples of what worked well — and what did not — for Vermont, I emphasized that there were also many positive outcomes that emerged from our recovery.
I told Gov. Hickenlooper that it was going to take years to fully recover and that recovery from disaster is a marathon, not a sprint. But just like in Vermont, I reassured our Colorado colleagues that their state would rebound from this tragedy and would be stronger for it.
One of the lasting lessons from Vermont’s experience is that when neighbors came to the rescue of one another all across the state, we found the meaning of Vermont Strong.
The intensity and pace of the emergency recovery work going on in Colorado was all too familiar to me. I felt a close connection to and compassion for the residents and government leaders I met who were coping with trauma, loss and disbelief.
I came to see how important it is for us to share our experience and forge an ongoing partnership. As one of the recovery leaders said to me, “It seems that disaster response is the new normal now.” I agreed and shared that we will all need to continue to support one another through these crises.
As our changing climate and extreme weather disrupts more of our lives, we will realize that we are all in this together. Colorado needs our donations.
Observing what has transpired in Colorado also helped me realize how far we have come in Vermont since those difficult first days and months after Irene hit. It reinforced for me our need to focus on becoming more resilient to future floods. At this time, even as we still recover from Irene, we need to look to the long term.
Since Irene, Vermont has worked to move people out of harm’s way where possible, made buildings more flood-resilient, and have “up-sized” culverts and bridges to allow passage of greater river flows.
And given the likelihood of future flooding events, we have to continue to ask the hard questions about how and where we build back our roads and communities. And we need our communities to have well-trained organizations to be able to respond and communicate effectively in the face of disaster and be prepared for longer-term recovery.
Vermont has come a long way since Aug. 28, 2011. Our story, and the disasters that follow, are stark reminders of how we are intimately bound to the whims of the natural world and that we need to have a collective response to address the needs of the future.
Coloradans are overwhelmed by all that confronts them now. But they will learn, as Vermont did, that in rebuilding smarter and healing their shaken communities, they too will recover stronger.
Sue Minter is deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation. She served as the state’s Irene recovery officer from December 2011 to January 2013.