Blizzard 2006

How often do you have two major blizzards back to back? That was a big question in Colorado on December 29 as the mighty second storm in a week rolled through the state. Full of anticipation Jennifer and I waited for our ride down to the State Emergency Operation Center to try and save the world. Looking out the window I wasn’t 100% convinced that travel was realistic and getting down to the State EOC, some 15 miles away, seemed like a voyage to Mars.

We were in direct communications with the people at the EOC, both on the phone and on the radio. And we knew that a “secret service looking SUV” was coming to get us. Of course this starts the story a week after it began and I will back up to the morning of December 20 to start in the proper place – at the very beginning.

We knew that a big storm was coming several days in advance. ARES District 22 works closely with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office and with the National Weather Service and as soon as the weather model predictions started converging on the Denver Metropolitan area, we started getting calls and e-mails. We were on alert Monday before the storm. “Alert” is a scary word a lot of times, but in our first responder world it means that something bad may happen and we should be ready in the event that it does. In the vernacular it means check your go-kit, resupply what you managed to pullout and keep monitoring the usual (internal) news channels. Alerts come and go.

Then during the day on Tuesday we were told that D-22 is going to stand-by. That sounds less threatening, but in reality means that a callout is immanent and that we better be 100% certain that if activated, we should be ready to go. It was hard on Tuesday, with the temperature in the 50s and a bright sunny sky to contemplate that a major winter storm was going to bury Colorado. Still, the gear got double-checked. We were ready for scary weather.

I went into work Wednesday morning with snow already coming down at a good clip. I knew how bad it was going to get. The D-22 latest weather update came in just short of 6 AM as I was getting ready to head out. Rather than doing my usual time, I started on the contingency plan as soon as I was in the office. I pulled everything I’d need for a couple of days of work. I identified all the on-call staff so that I could hit any team from home. When the management started showing up at 8 AM I made sure to visit them and make them aware we need to be ready for an early closure. That did not meet with good results. Raising the alert made people think I was afraid of snow or just trying to dodge work. I figured that if I was ready and they weren’t, the opinions would change rapidly as the day progressed. I met with my boss and made her aware of the situation. She knows that I’m a first responder and she did not question my reasoning. Rather she told me that if I needed to go, it was safety first. She had no problems with me working from home. In fact, her plan was to get all her things pulled together and work from home as well.

I made it through my one critical meeting of the day at 10 AM and as soon as it was over, shoved all my things into my briefcase and headed for the door. It was 10:40 AM when in the corridor, just short of the exit, I heard that the company was closing due to snow at 11 AM. All non-essential staff was told to go home immediately. About 80 people would be put up at a hotel down the road in the event they were needed to handle an emergency during the storm.

Driving out of the garage I realized that my car did not have the traction it normally does. In fact, the bottom of it was plowing the street as I went. This was not a good sign. On the radio the D-22 weather net was already on. Resources were being pulled together and roles identified. The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office was going to essential personnel only and later in the day they would want D-22 personnel to man the Arapahoe County EOC and any shelters that Red Cross would open.

Driving down I-225 I got on the radio and gave a weather report. The bowl in front of the Cherry Creek Dam was rapidly filling up with heavy, mushy snow. I saw a lot of vehicles slipping and sliding. I saw two overconfident SUV drivers blow right off the road into snow banks. One then got rearended by another car. I called the sheriff’s office to report that and was transferred to the Greenwood Village police to make the report.

In a normal situation, I’d stop and help at an accident. That’s a part of the training that CERT and ARES get. But here, seeing how vehicles larger than mine were having problems, I chose to stay in the ruts made by tires ahead of me and get home rather than getting stuck.

My normal 20 minute commute lasted over an hour and when I got home, I was greeted by a two foot drift against the garage. I had to fight my way inside to get the shovel and dig a trench for my car for the last thirty or forty feet. That was a Herculean effort and as I went along, I’d pause to run the car up a little closer before digging some more. That was a good strategy because by the time I got into the garage, it was impossible to tell where the front of the drive was. It was all covered by snow in a half hour.

Jennifer was in the process of closing up shop as well and heading home. I made weather reports from home. Some of the D-22 members were activated and deployed. I could not imagine going anywhere. By sunset the two foot snow drift was back up against the garage and it only managed to grow overnight. We monitored the radio and the news. The metropolitan area was shut down. State Patrol was begging people to stay home. All major highways through Denver were closed and when we got up in the morning, there was a five foot drift of snow leaning on the patio door. If we had doubts about being snowed in the day before, it was official now. On the news snow plows were fighting a losing battle.

Not to worry. I brought work home and even though the office was officially closed, I had plenty of work to do.

The snow finally stopped in the evening after some 40 hours of continuous snowfall. There were reports of anywhere from 28” inches of snow up to well over 40. The rain/snow gauge outside was designed to accommodate a catastrophic 12” of precipitation. It was buried for over 24 hours. Now I could only look out the window and wonder where to top of the patio rail might be.

The Colorado Front Range was slowly beginning to dig out. The Arapahoe County snowcat busted a fuel line in rescue operations overnight and D-22 put out a call for people with heavy duty vehicles to come to the rescue. There were concerns over hospital workers not being able to make their shifts and people running out of medical supplies. Rick Speaect volunteered the use of his truck for rescue work when the call went out on Friday morning, but he did not want to be running around the city alone, so he asked me to ride shotgun. While waiting for deployment, he came over together with Gaylene and Alaya and we broke out Catan to help pass the time.

We figured that with four responders we could run rescue if called and have two people to support us. We monitored the radio the entire day and evening. There was a lot of activity, but nothing came up in our immediate area and by 9 PM we were stood down from the storm. The snow plows were finally catching up and making access to hospitals, police stations and fire stations easier. Looking out the window of our hilltop home, I could see 20 miles of nothing but white with occasional trees and roofs peeking out.

Driving to work the following Monday was an unusual experience. Where snow plows had gone through snow was piled as much as 10 feet high along the sides of the road. Often I was driving through snow canyons, hoping that the hidden stop signs at intersections were being obeyed by the cross traffic.

And in the meantime another storm was brewing. On Tuesday we were once again warned that the big one was coming. That was a frightening thought. We did not have room for snow from another big one. The weather never got warm and the massive piles that had been created in the original cleaning were still the exact same size they were four days earlier. Plows and front loaders were now ramming mountains of snow to get them just a little further back in the streets in preparation for another large snowfall. Everyone was trying to meet this second wave head-on. D-22 was trying to get shifts at shelters and the EOC planned out. CERT started a call-out as well, looking for additional staff to handle shelters. The first storm taught everyone that people get stuck in bad weather and you don’t want to be the only responder running a shelter.

Jennifer and I got several offers for deployment. We discussed them, but decided not to take them on unless we were really needed. We did not want to get stranded at a post for two days straight. Then we got a call from the State EOC. They were competing with all the other agencies for staff and were ready to offer anything for some help. Late Thursday night they called us with an offer of transportation and catered meals to work a full shift. Our governor needed us!

So there I was at 7 AM, looking through the curtain of snow, which had been falling for about ten hours, wondering if the “secret service looking SUV” could make it out this far. On the radio the driver, Robert from D-24, was complaining that the roads were okay, but he couldn’t find any street signs. We had to guide him in without any “instruments”.

The ride to the EOC was interesting. There was some negligible traffic on the roads. The highways had been plowed a little, but no one could get their cars off the side streets to make it as far as the highways.

Jennifer and I got our briefing at the State EOC and the overnight team departed. We were left in the radio room with Perry, also from D-24, and Erik from the State EOC, monitoring all the traffic coming through. Between the four of us we had three radio frequencies in the 2-meter and 70-centimeter ranges, the radio room phones, packet clusters and Pactor and in the background we had a continuous stream of traffic from the Colorado MAC (Mutual Aid Channels) radios giving us constant updates and calls for help from the field. And we were monitoring the reports coming in on WebEOC, a software application that linked all parts of the state and offered status reports from local duty officers, situation reports, equipment deployments, shelter status, weather reports and the like. If we got a call with a question, we had the answer somewhere in that incredible mass of information that was coming in.

The State Emergency Operations Center is a huge facility. It was designed as a fully secured facility that could function isolated from the rest of the world for several days. It has sufficient equipment redundancy to handle two concurrent disasters. The operations center was staffed with two dozen people from all imaginable departments and the kitchen had trays and trays of food. Breakfast was burritos, veggies fruits, cereals, a countless variety of drinks and fudge that outlasted the overnight shift.

The good news was that this storm took a track reaching further to the south and Denver would not be hit as hard as it was in the first storm. Only fifteen to twenty inches of snow was expected. No problem, they said.

Around noon lunch came in. Chicken, turkey and ham. More veggies. Pastries. This was the cushy assignment that we were promised. Except for the heavy volumes of radio traffic that seemed to come and go with the wind. At this time we were also warned that there would be a press conference at 3 PM with Governor Bill Owens and Governor-Elect Bill Ritter. A call went out to make the place look clean as well as functional. We had a lot of paper to shuffle and hide.

Bill Ritter arrived around 1:30 PM. He was given a tour of the operations center, shown where things are, introduced to the managers of the operation. Then he was given a gee-whiz tour of the radio room. We can talk to anyone in the world from there, but all the techno-babble was quickly lost on his legal background. At one point he ended up directly behind me, looking over my shoulder. I was completing a radio traffic report and monitoring the field reports.

“That’s the WebEOC software we showed you,” someone said. The Governor-Elect moved on.

Governor Owens arrived around 2 PM and the EOC brass and state leaders headed for the briefing room to discuss the situation. We all knew what they would be talking about. The situation for Denver was great. This time around we were over prepared and got what’s considered a once a season hit. The eastern plains, on the other hand, were being hammered.

At 2:30 PM the media started arriving. Large trucks parked in the EOC lot, raising their boom antennas to get a clear signal back to their stations. The Press Room was opened. It was situated to give a strategic view of the hot action in the operations center.

By the time the press conference started, the next shift of operators arrived and I managed to get out into the operations center to watch the conference live. To my left I could see the two governors, the head of the Colorado State Patrol, the general in charge of Colorado’s National Guard and the director of the Colorado Department of Emergency Management. And facing them a room packed full with the press corps. I tuned my handheld radio to the KUSA signal. I chose them because KUSA was also being shown on one of the situation screens in the operations center. The goal of the Press Room overlooking the operations center was to show how a disaster is being handled live, but as soon as the conference was live, the operations center ground to a halt, everyone watching the screen.

A live conference is an exciting experience. The signal delay from the live conference to the radio was about one second. The delay to the television screens, broadcast by Comcast, was a full 7 seconds. If I missed something in one ear, I could easily catch it in the other.

After the conference the governors again walked the EOC. One of the operators caught them and asked if they would take a picture with the volunteer operators. Kissing babies is a part of politics and as it turned out, having your picture taken with volunteers was cool, too. After the pictures both governors shook our hands and told us we were performing a great service. Bill Owens paused as he shook my hand. He was no doubt thinking that I looked familiar, but he said nothing. He and I spent a cold night in September 2005 outside Building 900 in Lowery, taking in the Gulf coast refugees during Operation Safe Haven.

At this point Jennifer and I got our things and headed out of the EOC. As luck would have it, we ended up on the same elevator as Bill Owens and his two State Patrol body guards.

In theory this was the end of the activation. The snow had stopped falling and the roads were being cleared. In Denver, anyway. Snow was still coming down to the south and east, but as we left we were told that the EOC would close at the end of the day, transferring all operations to the Southeast Command Center set up in Pueblo.

Disasters don’t work on a set schedule and this blizzard was no different. At 9 PM we got a call from the State EOC that operations had been extended until 6 PM Saturday and we were asked if we could come in to work the 1 PM to close (7 PM) shift. The roads were getting better, our neighborhood was dug out and it was Saturday. The answer was a yes.

And so on Saturday, December 30 Jennifer and I returned to the EOC. The drive wasn’t horrible, although it wasn’t a super easy drive. We arrived just after noon, took the shift transfer briefing and assumed our posts. It was just the two of us working radios this day. This was going to be an easy wrap-up shift. We were just in time for lunch and we were promised dinner before being cut lose. It seemed like a good deal all around.

Murphy’s Law says that anything that can go wrong will and on December 30 Murphy was hanging out in Colorado. Things that had been inconvenient the last two days were now becoming medical emergencies. Power was out in many places. Roofs were sagging under feet of snow. People were running low on food and medicine. And worst of all, the region had gotten from three to five feet of snow on top of the blizzard a week earlier and trucks and SUVs could no longer overcome the snow depth. Plows were stuck. Army hummers were stuck. The deuce-and-a-halfs were stuck. It was down to snowmobiles, which could only deliver small items, and snowcats, which could extract no more than a half dozen people at a time. The calls for help this day were very different from stuck cars and trucks the day before. We had a ninety year old woman who was without heat for 36 hours and on the verge of pneumonia. We had a family with a three month old baby without food or power. We had a collapsed farmhouse roof. And there was a farmer who tried to go and feed his cattle at 6 AM and still had not returned. It was becoming an issue of life and death.

Around 2 PM the EOC got a message from a mayor of a town in eastern Colorado reporting that power was out and phones were down. They were severed from all services of the outside world and completely snowed in. We had to find communications fast to make sure that the needs of this little town could be acknowledged. We needed a ham operator with access to a generator and a good antenna. That was a tough order to fill. Until we found out that the power and phones were out at the mayor’s house only and all he needed to do was go over to his neighbor’s house and use the internet there.

No, not all of our emergencies were real emergencies. For some people lack of an internet connection is the end of the world. For us the end of the world was losing lives.

At 3 PM we started mobilizing hams up and down the Front Range. Our goal was to have a second communications backbone available in the event something was to fail. The snow was still coming down. We started calling up stations all the way down to Trinidad and out into Lamar and Springfield. Any operator who could hit a relay was told to stand by for an emergency. A repeater association in Colorado Springs linked their network of radios to ours and we had coverage going all the way down into Raton, New Mexico. ARES units in the southern portion of Colorado were mobilized. We got so busy that one of the EOC radio managers had to come in for three hours to help us handle all the traffic. And this was the time when the governor had to make a hard decision. He passed a message to the EOC via the Director of Emergency Management that the top priority was lives. He would find the money to pay for the operational costs later. There would be no excuse for loss of life. The EOC was now open at least until noon on January 1 and we were scrambling to fill upcoming shifts.

The earliest a relief shift could be brought in was 11 PM and our five or six hour assignment quickly evolved into an eleven hour shift.

It stopped snowing in Trinidad around 7 PM. Our reporting stations were giving snow measurements in the neighborhood of 5 feet. They managed to deploy one operator to a local hospital during the storm. They absolutely could not get anyone into any of the shelters.

Counties, businesses and individuals on the Western Slope were now offering use of snow mobiles and snowcats. Some wanted as much as $100 per hour of use. Others said that if we returned their equipment with a full tank of gas, they would be happy. The problem was that the equipment on the Western Slope was eight or more hours away and this was a situation where every minute counted. At one point we actually lost the Southeast Operations Center in Pueblo. We could not get phone or radio contact and for all we knew, the entire facility was gone. That was another hour of scrambling as everyone tried to figure out what had happened.

Power outages do weird stuff.

Our relief did eventually arrive. He came in all the way from Grand Lake, over 100 miles away on the other side of the continental divide. Things had generally quieted down by then. Cities and counties were working hard to dig out their highways. State Patrol and the National Guard were using the snow equipment they managed to beg, borrow and steal. There was a plan for an air rescue with the Civil Air Patrol first thing in the morning. CAP was already staging planes at the Peterson Air Force Base for a daybreak mission to fly over the impacted areas, identify structural damage, locate stranded vehicles and cattle. GPS coordinates would be transmitted down to the State Patrol and the National Guard who would then attempt a rescue. And anything that could not be reached by ground would be turned over to a rescue unit being staged at Buckley Air Force Base. They would be standing by with Black Hawks and Jay Hawks to extract any emergency cases.

Jenn and I managed to get home some time after midnight. The cat wanted to know where her food was and why it took us so long. We did not try reasoning with her. We were just too tired to try.

The news did report a lot of injuries associated with the storm. There were the usual snow shoveling heart attacks, broken bones, frost nip and frost bite. There was one indirect casualty. A tow truck driver who was hooking up a stranded car was hit and killed by a passing vehicle. But that was it. The Governor did not want dead people and the responders delivered. It was a terrible week, the two storms dumping as much as eight feet of snow in some areas, but the system held together and in the end things worked out. The greatest tragedy out of the storm was the loss of stranded cattle. Cows aren’t smart enough to turn away from the wind. Many huddled together in the storm and were simply covered over by snow. Others were too far away for hay to be delivered and were lost due to starvation. Estimates put losses at over 30,000 heads of cattle. The real number will probably not be known until all this snow melts in the spring.

There was an article in the Denver paper the following week comparing the two blizzards to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The author claimed that in direct contrast Colorado’s disaster was handled quietly without the federal government. No celebrities came to support the plight of the displaced and injured. The national media did not create satellite trailer parks to inundate the rest of the world with Colorado’s troubles. We knew the risks. We stood up to the storm and if need be, we’re ready to do it again.

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