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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.