When it comes to disasters, citizens not only expect action from their government -- they deserve it.
That's how Chuck Vale feels after his recent return from a two-week tour in Louisiana.
Vale, Routt County's director of emergency management, helped hundreds of emergency responders make a home in a temporary camp in Baton Rouge. During his time at Camp Colorado, Vale saw plenty of people who were willing to help, but not enough resources or government action to match their efforts.
People deserve more, Vale said. "All governments have a responsibility to take care of their citizens," he said.
He wants to make sure that happens here.
Vale said events that could happen in Routt County include mass casualties and flooding. Vale said county officials watch certain areas for the possibility of mass casualties, including Yampa Valley Regional Airport, buses and condominiums.
Preparing for a lot of deaths is "not pretty," he said. In Louisiana he heard one official order body bags, some of them for children.
Vale has to be prepared for a smaller-scale situation in Routt County. Since his return from Louisiana, he has been organizing trailers full of ice packs, cots and other supplies. He hopes to have enough to be able to create a temporary hospital for 150 patients.
Flooding is a concern for several areas, including Butcher Knife Creek, Soda Creek and Fish Creek Falls, said J.D. Hays, the public safety director for Steamboat Springs.
Flooding is a possibility, Vale said, but it's rare for more than one river at one time to pose a serious flood risk.
"It's not like the whole valley's in trouble at the same time," he said.
Routt County Sheriff John Warner said emergency responders are ready to help set up sandbags and evacuate residents if a flood hits.
"Are we prepared? Absol-utely," Warner said.
Mass evacuations are not one of Vale's major concerns. He does not foresee any industrial accidents, fires or natural gas explosions requiring the evacuation of thousands.
When people have been evacuated in Routt County, he said, the community "absorbed" them and gave them a place to stay. The county never has had to set up shelters for evacuees.
Routt County's rural nature is also a disadvantage. Vale is concerned that smaller communities, such as Oak Creek and Hayden, may want to help each other but do not have enough police officers, firefighters or other resources to share.
"Of course they want to help. Of course they are prepared to help," Vale said. "But what if they can't do what they're trying to do?"
The municipalities and emergency responders in Routt County have a good relationship, Vale said. But being in Louisiana made him think of a lot of "what-ifs" and whether those good relationships would be enough in the case of a major disaster.
For example, he said, the county may need the use of school buses or private buses to move people. Who tells the bus drivers to stop driving schoolchildren home?
"Everything in this county is relationship building," he said. "At some point, the relationship will not get us there. Who has the authority to make the buses go?"
Vale is concerned that residents and policy-makers need training, too.
If local governmental bodies are written into a disaster plan, that doesn't mean anything will come out of it, he said. What if officials never read the plan? What if they never receive any training?
To alleviate these concerns, Vale wants to have a meeting with the Routt County Board of Commissioners, the Steamboat Springs City Council and the county's town and fire boards. He hopes to start a discussion about who will have authority over what matters.
Vale also wants to discuss plans to educate residents about disasters.
People who move to Routt County from bigger cities may expect to see fire trucks and bulldozers lined up and waiting when a disaster hits, Vale said. But rural counties don't have the same types of resources as other areas.
County Commissioner Dan Ellison agrees that this part of the state will be challenged if a major disaster strikes.
"I think that we are well-aware that if we have a major event of that sort, it would really tax Northwest Colorado to be able to respond," he said.
That's why officials said people need to learn how to tend to their own needs.
"People should be able to take care of themselves the best they can," Warner said.
He recommends preparing an emergency kit that includes a flashlight, food, water and other items needed during a 72-hour period.
Then, he says, test your kit and your family by having a weekend where everyone in the household pretends that a disaster has hit. Don't use electricity, and try living out of the emergency kit, which probably will be missing something.
"We take for granted so many things," Warner said, such as having a can opener for food.
Children should be part of the family's emergency planning. Have a talk with them about where to meet and what to do if disaster strikes.
The idea behind all the work, Warner said, is to be ready -- even if disaster never strikes.
"Plan for the worst, pray for the best."
-- To reach Dana Strongin call 871-4229 or e-mail email@example.com