Monthly Archives: September 2013

2013 Flooding — Then and Now

The September 2013 floods had our team deploy to multiple locations.  One of the tasks we performed was a flood survey for Aurora Parks, Recreation and Open Space.  A lot of the open space in Aurora doubles as drainage retention areas during bad weather.  Utah Park in western Aurora is one such location and even though it was recently redesigned to hold more runoff, it strained under the massive inflow of water.

We performed a survey in the western part of the city on September 12.  Many places were flooded.  Portions of Havana, Alameda and Peoria were under water.  Many lakes overflowed, including Jewell and Expo.  But the greatest amount of damage was in Utah Park.

The following pictures show the flood (September 12) and what the park normally looks like (September 21, after the water level came down to normal levels).

Utah Park Flooding

Utah Park, with the picnic shelter in the background. Photos by M Khaytsus.

Utah Park Flooding

The Utah Park playground is completely submerged in the flood waters. Photos by M Khaytsus.

Utah Park Flooding

Utah Park ball fields double as a lake for a flock of geese. Photos by M Khaytsus.

Utah Park Flooding

A kayaker takes to the Utah Park flood plain near the picnic shelter. Photos by M Khaytsus.

Shootout at Park Meadows

September 15, in-conjunction with the Lone Tree Police, Park Meadows Security and Macy’s Loss Prevention, O.M.E.G.A. staged a training exercise in Park Meadows Mall.  The exercise consisted of four scenarios testing reaction to various threats in the mall.

Park Meadows Mall

Park Meadows Mall is “Colorado’s only retail resort”. Photo courtesy of Blakefield Properties.

The first scenario consisted of an active shooter attacking the mall security offices after shooting up the Food Court.  I was the active shooter and was armed with a blue replica M4.  The situation started on the walkway by the Food Court.  It was hard to pick out targets from the controllers at first, but then the Smokey Bear hat gave a good identification marker.  After tossing off a couple shots I hustled into the food court and found many victims to shoot at.  Those who made noises got shot again.  I experienced no opposition and was able to penetrate the inner corridors of the mall.  Navigating the maze of hallways delayed me just long enough that I heard the mall office door being locked as I approached.  I squeezed off a lot of bullets through the walls, but was unable to see any results.  The next set of offices were deserted.  I then went around looking for security to mix it up with.  After a short shoot out I was pinned into a very unenviable situation.  Despite my goading, I could not get security to expose themselves to danger and I was unable to escape.

The second scenario was a hostage situation.  Security was not delayed by the distractions I left behind.  They quickly bypassed the unimportant stuff and fixed on my position.  Despite my best bombardment of insults, security was not breached and the situation was neutralized.

The third scenario featured an active shooter engaging a search team.  After creating a disturbance in front of Macy’s, I found myself in a back hallway once again.  I thought the police might be entering from one of two locations, but I was wrong. They came from above, but fortunately my position was covered and they never saw what hit them until after two had fallen.

The fourth scenario consisted of some crazy fellow with a weird accent.  He blew away a bunch of us with a satchel charge hidden in a waste bin.  Security quickly located and despite not being armed, moved in on him.  Unfortunately the bomber had a dead man’s switch and there were several more casualties then were necessary.

There was a number of lessons learned in this exercise:

• if you don’t take the situation seriously enough, you could easily be hurt

• tactics and plans have been developed for a reason

• no matter your best effort, there will be something unexpected

• if the situation is contained there is no reason to endanger yourself

I enjoyed playing the bad guy very much and sincerely hope that the simulation helps those who participated be better prepared for real emergencies.

Blue Gun

KFC Delivery

A bucket of chicken.  Not the original recipe and not extra crispy.  Just a large red bucket with two chickens in it.  Two live chickens.  Two very unhappy live chickens.  In a bucket.  A good dozen people stood around it, staring.  “Did someone order chicken?” a voice asked.  “It’s fresh,” someone else commented.

Chickens and disaster operations don’t normally go together, but the 2006 PETS (Pets Evacuation and Transportation Standards) Act, passed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, requires that pets (not commercial livestock) be evacuated and sheltered with their owners.  The distinction between livestock and pets can be fuzzy at times.  If the owner says that it’s a pet chicken, then it’s a pet chicken.  You roll with the blows.

Colorado weather is always unusual, but some years are more unusual than others.  September started out a blisteringly hot month.  O.M.E.G.A., together with the City of Aurora, the American Red Cross and Gardens on Havana, hosted the National Preparedness Month Fair on September 7.  The morning started out with temperatures already in the low 70s, unseasonably hot – not just warm – for the time of year.  We blasted past 80ºF mid morning and past 90ºF late morning and by noon the thermometer reading was in the high 90s.  The brisk traffic at the fair was declining.  By 2 PM the air was hot and heavy, the asphalt radiated heat and you couldn’t get comfortable no matter where you took shelter.  Traffic at the fair was dead.  We called it at 3 PM, two hours ahead of schedule.

NPMF 2013 APD

Aurora Police took part at the 2013 National Preparedness Month Fair. Photo by M Khaytsus.

NPMF 2013 AFD

Multiple vehicles from the Aurora Fire Department were available for attendees to examine at the 2013 National Preparedness Month Fair. Photo by M Khaytsus.

That was the weekend.  But on Monday things changed.  A cold front rolled in, colliding with the hot moist air already hanging over Colorado.  It stalled out over the Front Range and started to rain.  It rained all day Tuesday and Wednesday.  On Thursday water levels were rising and response was gearing up and the rain was still pouring.  O.M.E.G.A. deployed people to support various communications functions in the metropolitan area.  Then Friday came.  Emergency Operations Centers were being stood up and resources were being deployed.

On Friday morning we received an inquiry from the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management if we had resources to deploy over the weekend.  They were not sure what they needed, but they knew that the weather would require a lot of resources and were starting to line them up.  We had a busy weekend ahead of us with commitments to the Dinosaur Ridge Preparedness Fair on Saturday and the Lone Tree Active Shooter exercise on Sunday.  But life safety comes first.  We assured DHSEM that we would make resources available if they needed us.

And it wasn’t long before we received a request.  By late morning we were being asked for three resources to serve as an overhead incident management team to standup a shelter until local resources become available to run it.  We were asked to report to a church in Longmont at 3 PM for a twelve hour shift.  Just for the comfort of a buffer, we deployed four people.  The team arrived at the church an hour ahead of schedule.  The parking lot was split into multiple areas.  There was a bus area for evacuees, a parking area for staff, a donation management area for incoming goods and a huge section of the lot was used for staging by Colorado Task Force 1.  You see that and you know that this is serious.  USAR packs a lot of gear when they travel.

Boulder Flood - Road House

Washed out roads and houses forced off their foundation was the result of the 12” to 18” inches of rain that came down in under 24 hours on Thursday. Photo courtesy of the United States Geological Survey.

We made contact with the management staff at the church.  It was clear that they had resources.  What we first thought were church leaders running the show turned out to be members of the Boulder County emergency management team.  We met with them, made a few calls to the Boulder County EOC and were reassigned to the Niwot High School to get them running.

Getting to Niwot from Longmont is normally an easy trip, but it requires crossing the St. Vrain Creek.  That sounds easy enough, but the reality of the situation was that the “creek” was wider than the Mississippi and had taken out a lot of infrastructure – roads, bridges, whole neighborhoods in places.  In fact, all the rivers between Fort Collins and Denver had overflown and wiped out good chunks of the infrastructure.  I-25 was closed north of State Highway 7 due to flooding.  We had to go to Niwot by back roads that were either on high ground or consisted of high bridges and still remained above the flood.  There weren’t a lot of those left.

Boulder Flood - Car River

The rushing waters did not discriminate. Houses, bridges and vehicles were all victims of the flood. Photo courtesy of City of Longmont OEM.

The most visible presence at the Niwot High School was the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office.  We made contact with the deputy who appeared to be in charge and started integrating ourselves at the scene.  For whatever political reasons, the Red Cross was pulling out, leaving the facility unmanaged.  The sheriff’s office was focused on security.  The school staff was focused on facilities.  There was a gaggle of spontaneous unaffiliated volunteers.  Our team needed to figure out how to make things work.

The biggest issue was managing the volunteers.  They were all over the place, but nothing seemed to be getting done.  We identified the leaders in that group and started the process of reducing duplication and focusing efforts.  It was clear right off the bat that the existing credentialing system was a mess.  There were several places where individuals at this location were being documented.  There was a registration table where at least three credentialing systems were in use.  Some volunteers were meeting buses coming in from the evacuation area and signing people in as they stepped off the bus.  The problem with this was that a lot of these people were coming to Niwot as a waypoint, not an end destination and we were ending up with lists of people who were not at the facility.  We literally had hundreds of people on the books and we couldn’t account for most of them.

To make things more complicated, during the few hours that the Red Cross was on scene, they started signing people in as well, then when they left, they took some of their paperwork and some that was initiated by other volunteers.

We stopped all registration, let the sheriff’s office secure the perimeter, identified key volunteers who we would use to continue registration.  Everything was centralized.  The old paperwork went in a box.  New paperwork was started.  We were registering staff, volunteers, evacuees who chose to stay at the shelter and animals.  We had a small zoo worth of animals.  Somewhere by 10 PM we knew exactly who was on campus and what their role was.  This was a major breakthrough to regaining control of the scene.

We established a unified command with the sheriff’s office and the school’s administration.  That was probably the best way to tackle the problem because each of us held a piece of the puzzle and we needed to work as a team to succeed.

By midnight we were down to eleven staff – two from the Sheriff’s Office, two from the school, three church volunteers and four O.M.E.G.A. members – about fifty residents, four dogs, one cat and a mouse in a jar.

In theory our twelve hour shift was up at 3 AM, but we all knew that at best we had to stay until morning hours when more staff would arrive.  We touched base with the State EOC to find out what plans there were to bring in a fresh team.  We were told that at best a new team would be available Saturday night.  More realistically, FEMA Corps was being ramped up and that team was expected to arrive Sunday morning.  This sounded great, except we were just an hour into Saturday and most of our team had been up for about 20 hours now.  There was definitely a safety rule being bent here.

We took advantage of the quiet time during the night to get inventory resolved and determine what we needed to transition into the next operational period.

The community was amazingly generous.  As soon as the evacuation as on, someone started a community Facebook page and that spread like wildfire through the town.  Neighbors brought in blankets, towels, clothes, toiletries, games, toys, books.  The tables on the east side of the cafeteria commons were loaded high with sorted items ready to be given out to the evacuees.  The west side of the commons was as crowded as the east side, with donations that were yet to be sorted.

During the day food was cooked on site three times a day with different organizations taking turns.  We had the Salvation Army, the Southern Baptists, the Rocky Mountain Christian Church and others serving meals.  There was also a ton of extra food lying around for snacks.  Fruit, crackers, cookies, granola, etc., most given to us by the Salvation Army.  What we were short on was water.  We had about 60 cases in stock, but we figured that at a gallon per person per day this was not going to last.  And we expected more residents and more volunteers to come Saturday.

We put out requests to the State EOC and the Boulder County EOC for 80 more cases of water, requested support managing the animals at the shelter and indicated that people coming in would probably require some sort of on-site medical support.

Then just as you think that you have the disaster under control, something new comes up.  Around 4 AM one of the evacuees reported that bathrooms were not flushing.  We checked and sure enough, flushing resulted in a mere trickle.  The vice principal on duty called the Left Hand Water District and they told us that it was a problem on our end and that we needed to bring in a plumber.  We struggled with getting the school district’s plumber to come in, but managed to arrange for him to come at day break.  He would have to navigate across some really bad terrain to get to us.  Then at 5 AM we spoke with the Left Hand Water District again.  This time they fessed up that the problem was on their side.  The flood took out their pumps and they had not been refilling the water tower during the day.  When the tower emptied, we were out of water.  That included all of Niwot, parts of Longmont and a good portion of unincorporated northeast Boulder County.  Their estimate for time to repair was 24 hours.

Now we had a new problem.  Water is critical.  We were already under a boil order because the health department was worried that there was contamination in the water intake, but we could still use this water to shower and flush toilets.  Now we had nothing.  We scrambled to get additional resources from the county and the state.  Two port-a-potties were scheduled to be brought in around 8 AM.  Until then everyone was asked to flush using a bucket of pond water.

The volunteers started rolling in before the sun was fully up.  We took care to make sure they understood the new process that we had established and followed it to the letter.  Unlike the previous day, the secure perimeter was pulled in from the parking area to the school building and we had good documentation regarding who was in the facility.

In the morning the school district brought in their own incident management team and we transitioned the incident to them by 8 AM, but we were asked to stay on until more resources would become available.  We were still in charge of all credentialing and personnel movements and had a seat on the command staff to coordinate needs.

Boulder Flood - CONG Rescue

Pulling people out of flooded areas was an operation lasting several days. Photo courtesy of the Colorado National Guard.

Boulder Flood - Airlift

Fifteen National Guard Chinooks flew non-stop to get trapped residents out of their communities. Photo by M Khaytsus.

State EOC informed us that the National Guard would be flying fifteen Chinooks to evacuate people trapped in mountain communities and Niwot, due to high ground and proximity to the Boulder Airport, would be the primary destination for all these people, in spite of there being no running water.  Boulder County volunteered to deliver a portable 500 gallon water cistern with non-potable water to give us more resources.

When the community woke up and realized that there was no water at the school, people would simply go to the grocery store and pick up one or two or ten cases of water and bring them over.  Someone secured fifty cases and delivered them to us.  Someone else managed to secure a dozen five gallon Deep Rock water jugs and they were delivered to us.  By the time Boulder County delivered the water that we had ordered overnight, we were already up to our gills in water.  And ultimately Anheuser Busch stepped up and brought in a trailer full of water.  We had more water than we could possibly use.

It wasn’t too far into the morning before the buses started rolling in and unloading people.  The good news, if there was any, is that most of the arrivals had family or friends locally or in other parts of Colorado and stayed only long enough to be picked up and taken away to a home away from home.  Ultimately far less than 5% of the arrivals ended up staying at the shelter.

Boulder Flood - KFC Delivery

The arrival of two chickens in a bucket went viral in social media. Photo by M Khaytsus.

Along with shelter residents, we received animals.  What lightened the burden was the arrival of four Boulder County animal control officers.  They took over the management of the animal area and made some modifications, having brought in their own kennels and equipment.  They brought an aquarium for Mr. Mouse, our now very popular rodent visitor, allowing him to upgrade from the jar that he was calling home.

There was a lot of commotion around noon as a large red bucket was taken off a bus.  Most of the commotion was coming from inside the bucket.  It was a pair of chickens, very indignant at the mode of transportation they were being subjected to.  While their owners filled out the shelter paperwork, the chickens were handed over to one of the animal control officers and taken to the animal wing, where they were transferred to a kennel.  The chickens were by far the most unusual residents we had received and by the virtue of having arrived in a bucket, were from then forward referred to as the “KFC Delivery”.  They became incredibly famous in a matter of hours and when we posted an update about the chickens on our Facebook page, the news was quickly picked up the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, then by Denver’s KMGH Channel 7 and by Fort Collins’ KGWN Channel 5, as well as a number of non-profits and local businesses and the chickens went viral.  In a matter of twelve hours we had over 200 shares of the story and well over forty thousand views.  Our website was viewed several hundred times that evening and people from all over Colorado reached out, asking what they could donate or how they could help.  Some even offered to adopt the chickens.  We feared that Niwot would be overrun by well-wishers in connection with the chicken story.

A lot of the human arrivals were distraught.  They lost their homes.  One elderly woman lost her home to a forest fire a year earlier and it was just rebuilt.  She moved into the new house the first week of September.  Now, less than a week later, this home was gone as well.  Victim Advocates from the Sheriff’s office were brought in to help people deal with their grief.  And we started receiving medical personnel, mostly volunteers from the county Medical Reserve Corps.  They were able to start dealing with the minor injuries that people had, addressing their chronic conditions and helping them obtain refill prescription medication.

3 PM came and left.  We were past our second twelve hour operational period.  The functions we were managing still had no one to take them over.  The school district and the State EOC were scrambling to come up with other resources to replace our zombie-like personnel.  Around 5:30 PM a Red Cross DAT (Disaster Action Team) arrived at the school.  We held a large command staff meeting and transitioned our functions over to them.  Other resources in the school also transitioned for the night shift.  It was after 6:30 in the evening that our team embarked on the long trip back to Denver, having to navigate around the still overflowing  streams and flooded areas.

At the end of the day our members had a 30 hour deployment and most were up between 40 and 45 hours straight.  A lot of times when we talk to the community, people ask us what it’s like responding to a disaster.  It always varies with the nature of the disaster and the tasks that we are assigned to accomplish.  Our standard answer, if you’ve never heard it before, is very applicable to this particular deployment.  Most of the time it’s on a weekend or holiday, in bad weather and after dark.  It’s not sexy.  It’s hard.  At the end of the day you just want to find your pillow and pull the blanket over your head.  But you sure feel good that when you walked away you were able to make a difference in someone’s life.  Our members don’t do this for money.  They do it because it’s hard work and it feels good.

Flood Waters

On the morning of September 13 Eileen received a text asking about her availability to deploy to assist with shelter operations in support of the Colorado floods.  The request came to us from the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.  Luckily I was available and allowed to tag along.  We left our house a little bit after 1 PM.  We made good time until running into the I-25 closure just south of E-470.  Not deterred, we found an alternate route on CR1 for several miles until we could jump back on I-25 and continue to the LifeBridge Church.  On the way there we passed over the St. Vrain River and it was very evident why the highway had been closed. The bridges were lucky to survive the boiling high waters.  We rendezvoused with Max and Jenn at the church.  After checking in at the front desk we attempted to identify our assignment.  While our role was being discussed I was able to assist my first evacuee – an elderly gentleman who was confused and exhausted, looking for the shower.  By the time I got back from that mission, it was decided that our services were needed at the evacuation center at Niwot High School.

Boulder Flood

Boulder County flooding. Boulder County OEM.

Flood damage was very evident along our route.  Upon arriving at the high school, we found volunteers everywhere.  The Red Cross and the Salvation Army were on scene.  Evacuees were being billeted in the gym and pets were kept in the science area.  Clothing supplies were plentiful and there was a constant stream of donations coming in.  It seemed the only thing in shortage were phone chargers.  After getting nowhere with AT&T, I strong-armed Wal-Mart into donating six chargers.  Unfortunately, Eileen and I headed out without confirming Wal-Mart’s coordinates.  After a much longer trip than necessary, we arrived back at the school as the Salvation Army and Red Cross were pulling out.  Max assumed the IC role and went about coordinating with the EOC, Boulder Sheriff and the school district.  One of the first things to accomplish was to determine what was on hand and to tighten security up.  I was able to assist by counting cats, dogs and cots.  Then I maintained watch until relieved by some other volunteers who proceeded to watch the gym and science center all night long.

I managed to grab a nap around 4 in the morning.  I woke up to find out that the water system had failed while I was sleeping.  It turned out the whole water district had lost water as a tank had not been filling during the day.  A plan was put in place for port-a-potties to be brought in.  Until they arrived any toilets used were to be flushed with non-potable water gathered from the school’s sprinkler reservoir.  Everybody handled the inconvenience with good humor.  Breakfast was served by a local church and there was plenty for everybody.  Plans were made for laundry and dish cleaning in case the water shortage was extended.  During the day there was a constant stream of evacuees.

The speed with which evacuees, volunteers and donations arrived was staggering.  Jenn did an excellent job maintaining a list of current residents.  Max continued to keep everyone involved throughout the day.  During the day I was able to help many evacuees with small little tasks they wouldn’t have needed help with in a normal situation.  The stories of many the people were incredible and the spirit of all was great.  I think it was amazing that almost every incoming person had a relative or friend they could stay with.  Despite the constant flood of incoming helicopters, we had less permanent guests then when we had started.

I felt honored that this opportunity to serve became available to me.  The time spent in this deployment has enriched my life and will never be forgotten.