On Dec. 20, 2006, winds between 20 and 35 mph, and up to 4 feet of snow hit Colorado. The blizzard caused power outages, closed schools and business offices, and shut down the Denver International Airport, which became a hotel to 4,700 travelers whose flights were cancelled.

"We're dealing with an area of about 3 million people, and we received between 2 and 3 feet of snow in a 36-hour period," said George Epp, director of the Colorado Division of Emergency Management. "And that snow was accompanied by sustained winds out of the north for most of the time."

Because the Rocky Mountain area is accustomed to winter conditions -- and thanks to National Weather Service warnings -- the coordination among emergency management personnel, first responders and the Colorado Army National Guard went according to emergency response plans.

Agencies at multiple levels of government moved quickly and proactively to begin joint response operations before the first snowflakes had even hit the ground. In addition, a coordinated communications plan fed accurate and appropriate emergency information to the media for public distribution.

On the flip side, the experience showed the need for better coordination of volunteer resources and a need to break established protocol when situations demand it.

Spreading the Word

After the National Weather Service warned of an impending blizzard, the Colorado Division of Emergency Management got the word out to citizens early, Epp said. "One of the human nature difficulties we have is that people never actually believe the forecast is going to happen until it's a little bit late," he said. "It was a normal workday and a few days before Christmas, so people got caught trying to get home from shopping or work."

In Denver, Justin DeMello, director of the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management, said the National Weather Service warnings helped a great deal.

"Our public works folks got out there well before the first snowflake," he said. "They were out there hours before the snow, prepping the streets, so that made the icy conditions a lot less, and made it easier for snow plowing."

Next, the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management advised people to get home early and persisted with that message in the local media -- not only in Denver, but across the entire front range of the Rockies, DeMello said.

"We opened up a joint information center [JIC] here in Denver," he said. "Our policy is when we open up the EOC [Emergency Operations Center], we open up the JIC at the same time, and they immediately started crafting messages for the media on what we wanted them to do and kept hounding that to the media. The media was great in this. They're a huge team member here, so they relayed that message to the citizens and it really helped."

The Colorado Division of Emergency Management began staffing its EOC about an hour after the snow started, Epp said, and about 20 different city and county EOCs were open, such as the one in Denver. The state transportation department center is always open, he said, and the regional transportation district staffed its center.

After getting the message out, local governments and businesses shut down early. "What saved us, I think, is that a lot of people heeded that message," DeMello said. "They got home and weathered the storm at home."

Rush hour on Wednesday was the worst part of the storm, he said, because a number of major highways had shut down. "The blizzard was pretty much at its height, and people were just abandoning their cars in the traffic lanes," Epp said. "We had about 120 of our regional transportation buses that were stranded, and we began opening shelters."

The state Division of Emergency Management mobilized resources to get people from where

Jessica Jones  |  Editor