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6 Key Takeaways from Colorado’s Devastating Flooding

Researchers, academics and practitioners gathered at the Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop to discuss the current state of emergency management research.

Damage to a home in Lyons
Damage to a home in Lyons, Colo., from the September 2013 flooding.
Elaine Pittman
Each year hundreds of emergency management researchers, academics and practitioners gather to discuss the state of research across fields and hazards. The Natural Hazards Research and Applications Workshop is held just south of Boulder, Colo., in Broomfield, making the devastating flooding last September a natural fit as a focus throughout the conference. Representatives from Boulder and Lyons spoke about the current state of the response as well as how they had prepared their communities in advance of the flood, and researchers addressed what they observed during the emergency, including the use of emergency alerts. The following are six takeaways about the flood response that were shared during the conference.

ALERTS NEED TO BE SPECIFIC — What’s the best way to alert residents about an emergency? While the ideal order to list information has been debated, one thing has become clear from studies of emergency alerts: be specific. “Explain to people what you mean when you say ‘evacuate,’ otherwise they will make it up themselves,” said Dennis Mileti, director emeritus of the Natural Hazards Center, which hosts the workshop. Social scientists have said that warnings must tell people what to do, and Mileti said this was alive and well during the flooding in Boulder last September. For example, he cited an alert from the Boulder Office of Emergency Management that went out on Sept. 12, 2013, that said, “Shelter in place but move to upper floors, if possible. If this is not possible, these individuals should seek higher ground, at least 12 feet above creek level, without crossing the creek.” Mileti said he’s read all of the warnings that were issued during the flood and that Boulder did a “wonderful job” issuing warnings during the event.

(And Mileti added that the order of information in an alert does make a difference. Based on his research, he said to put the source first — people want to know who’s talking to them — what the disaster is and lastly what to do.)

GOVERNMENT AND ACADEMIA SHOULD COLLABORATE — The workshop brings together hazards researchers, emergency management officials, consultants, and nonprofit and humanitarian organizations to share information. And this sharing of information and discussing data that’s needed should continue beyond the conference. “Things work better when academics tell practitioners what they know and practitioners tell academics what they would like to have studied,” Mileti said.

BOULDER’S FLOOD MITIGATION — Although Boulder had been preparing for a 100- or 500-year flood, what it experienced in September was quite different — widespread flooding that went on for five days, said Mayor Matthew Appelbaum. However, many of the measures the city had implemented over the years paid off. Boulder’s initiatives included: a high hazard property acquisition program, having lots of open space, implementing a critical facilities ordinance and building multiuse paths along many creeks. “Plan ahead but you’re not going to get it all right,” Appelbaum said. “The planning we did was invaluable although it wasn’t for a flood of this magnitude.”

COMMUNITY EDUCATION IS KEY — Communicating the risk of a disaster to the public is a challenge, and discussing severe flooding can be an even greater task. Jane Brautigam, Boulder’s city manager, said most disasters are discussed in terms of magnitude but flooding is talked about as a probability. “I think that’s hard for people to understand,” she said, adding that people hear the term “1,000-year event” but don’t know what it means. One method of educating the public in Boulder has included public art. An artist painted dots in a civic area around Boulder Creek to provide a visual way to understand what a 100-year flood would look like. The art started conversations among community members about flooding, but it’s been seven years since the paintings were added and the conversation has since died off.

DON’T FORGET FIDO — The flooding in Colorado last year also included the second largest air evacuation of people in the U.S. in modern times. And as it’s been observed in previous emergencies, people want to ensure their pets’ safety. Victoria Simonsen, town administrator for Lyons, said the preflood population of the town was 2,035 people — and collectively those people had 3,000 dogs. More than 2,000 people were evacuated from Lyons, an effort that Simonsen said also included many animals.

LYONS FLOOD BY THE NUMBERS — Simonsen discussed a series of figures from the flood to illustrate its impact on Lyons. The information included:

  • Normal creek flows during spring runoff are 1,200 cubic feet per second (cfs); Lyons was planning on 8,800 cfs during a 100-year event; estimates from the 2013 flooding put the water flow at 26,000 cfs.
  • The flooding divided the community into six islands.
  • All five entrances to the town were destroyed, and the residents were isolated for 36 hours before the high water National Guard vehicles could get in.
  • 211 of the approximately 960 homes were damaged, with 84 having substantial damage.
  • Lyons has a general fund operating budget of just more than $1 million per year. Public assistance from the flood is estimated at $50 million — “50 years of our entire budget will go into disaster recovery,” said Simonsen.
  • 99 percent of the businesses in Lyons are independently owned. All the businesses were closed for a minimum of seven weeks, but most were closed for 12 weeks.