For years, Routt County Emergency Services Manager Chuck Vale has worked on plans for large-scale emergencies.
In most cases, the only test for some of the plans has been on paper, Vale said.
But in the past two weeks, Vale has worked with and observed residents, local governments and the federal government reacting in the wake of a real disaster: Hurricane Charley, which hit Florida in August, causing billions of dollars of damage.
He returned Friday.
Vale was on assignment through the nationwide Emergency Management Assistance Compact, an agreement among states that representatives across the nation will travel to disaster-stricken areas to help.
Vale and three other Colorado officials traveled to Osceola County, where Hurricane Charley had left $350 million of damage and 10,000 residences severely damaged.
There, Vale went door to door, explaining that registering with the Federal Emergency Management Agency is the first step in getting any disaster relief.
Vale saw many unexpected things, such as the immense problem that garbage posed to the area. Tree debris, trash and food that spoiled because of a lack of electricity were piled on the streets.
"What do you do with this stuff, and where do you haul it to?" Vale said.
It also was interesting to see the important role that law enforcement played, he said. Theft was a big problem, as were fights over precious supplies.
"People do some pretty interesting things under stress and pressure," he said.
Just when workers thought they were getting things accomplished, Hurricane Frances was on its way, he said. Vale left Florida on Friday, taking the last flight before airports closed in preparation for the hurricane.
Before getting on the plane, he saw panic hit residents across the state. Shelves at Wal-Mart were emptied, lines to get propane were three blocks long, and law enforcement officers were everywhere to keep people from fighting.
"The panic ... behind people -- that was really interesting to us," Vale said.
Vale said he was very thankful for the overwhelming support from Routt County officials, who gave him the go-ahead for the trip.
The 12- to 14-hour days in sweltering heat were worth it, he said. He has pages of notes and ideas on things that could be done differently on the county's own emergency plan.
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