Preparing for the worst: Communication, preparation prove to be crucial in emergency disaster planning
October 28, 2017
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The situation is unlikely, but nonetheless important to prepare for, especially given the devastating disasters that have occurred in the United States this summer.
At 8 a.m. Wednesday, the training exercise started with Andy Rossi explaining the mock situation to the operators at the Stagecoach Dam.
Officials from both the Colorado Division of Water Resources and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission closely monitored the exercise as part of the dam's required, annual emergency training.
Rossi, district engineer with Upper Yampa Water Conservancy District, explained it was early spring, Steamboat Ski Area was open and anglers were beginning to cast into the Yampa River as it melted.
The Stagecoach Reservoir was seeing unusually high flows, there was muddy debris in the water and sensors that measure pressure in the dam had abnormal readings.
With conditions getting critical, dam operators turned to the emergency action plan.
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"Who do we call and in what order?" Rossi asked.
Routt County Emergency Management piggybacked on the dam's exercise and set up an emergency operations center in the basement of the Routt County Justice Center in Steamboat Springs so they could practice dealing with the 36,439-acre-feet of water that would flood downtown Steamboat Springs four hours later.
Throughout the day, many lessons were learned and experience was gained should there be a true disaster.
In February, Routt County tapped David "Mo" DeMorat to lead its emergency operations.
His first summer proved to be very eventful, with two major wildfires in the western part of the county.
"It identified some gaps that we have in emergency management, and while it was expensive, fortunately no lives were lost," DeMorat said.
No structures were destroyed, either.
Before coming here, DeMorat developed his expertise in emergency management while working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"You really need to coordinate the efforts of other people," DeMorat said.
His time with FEMA sent him to recovery efforts for Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. He also responded to the Joplin tornado as well as the Boulder and Louisiana floods.
Much of his work with FEMA involved helping the agency learn from past incidents.
This year has been an especially busy year for emergency responders as hurricanes ravaged Texas, Florida and the Caribbean.
"It's been a tough year whether it's been the hurricanes or the fires out west," DeMorat said. "It's been a big pull on resources all over.”
All the more reason for agencies and residents in the region to be prepared for a disaster.
"FEMA is gonna help, but you're going to be on your own for at least 72 hours, and they're not going to stay forever," DeMorat said.
Shortly before 10 a.m., support staff for the emergency operations center began to arrive, and an alert had already been sent to addresses that would be impacted by the approaching water via the county's new alert system, Everbridge.
People within the floodplain are told to move to higher ground north of the river.
"What we'll need is evacuation routes and transportation," DeMorat said to the team of local officials who can arrange for everything from evacuation shelters to Blackhawk rescue helicopters and water rescue teams.
Kevin McBride, general manager for the Water Conservancy District, then walked into the room and told the group water was flowing over the dam at a rate of 10,000 cubic feet per second, which is the equivalent of a 500-year flood.
It would only get worse later, with a full breach of the dam with flows up to 227,600 cubic feet per second.
Outside of the exercise, McBride provided assurance that the dam is extremely safe.
When working for the city of Fort Collins, he helped manage the city's stormwater infrastructure, which was put to the test in 1997 with a 1,000-year flood event.
"A career-changing event as far as taking flooding very seriously," McBride said.
McBride said the Stagecoach Dam was designed so it would never fail and could withstand 12 feet of water coming over the spillway, which is known as a probable maximum flood.
He said if that were to occur because of an epic precipitation event, the damage in Routt County would already be devastating even without a dam failure.
The emergency operations center is staffed by people with years of disaster experience.
Officials from FEMA helped organize the exercise, and people from the American Red Cross actually set up cots and supplies at the Routt County Fairgrounds in Hayden.
Chuck Vale, who lives in Clark, now works for the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and is responsible for calling in the National Guard, air tankers at wildfires or rescue helicopters.
During the 2013 floods in Boulder, Vale said he spent 100 days in the emergency operations center, including nine straight, 20-hour work days.
During an actual incident, the rooms can be chaotic.
"This room has to coordinate what is going on out there," Vale said.
Jason Nettles, the county's emergency communications manager, was in charge of communications and supervised a staff who worked out of the county's mobile command center.
While working in Florida, Nettles helped in Hancock County, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina hit.
Nettles and his team members trucked in large communication towers to restore emergency communications, which the county had been without for three days.
The 70,000 residents were unable to call 911, and emergency responders could not use their radios.
"It was a mess," Nettles said. "It was quite a mess. Everyone was on their own for awhile. That's the epitome of a disaster."
On Wednesday, Nettles was utilizing Routt County's Everbridge emergency alert system to send out simulated messages about emergency shelters that had been established.
The county is still populating its database of phone numbers and email addresses to send out alerts, and people with cell phones need to opt in by registering at routtcountyalerts.com.
"It's going well," Nettles said. "We're up to 14,000 contacts now."
After serving 23 years in the Navy, Pascal Ginesta knows how important communications are.
"Communication is number one," Ginesta said. "You can't communicate enough in any way."
Ginesta, who works as the director of maintenance operations and transportation for the Steamboat Springs School District, was tasked with helping to protect the safety of 2,500 students and the district's assets.
Ginesta's co-workers and boss, Superintendent Brad Meeks, knew he was attending an emergency exercise Wednesday, but communications were put to the test.
"At no point prior did I have him know that I'd be contacting him during it," Ginesta said.
In quick time, he was able to alert school officials about the mock disaster and arranged for school buses and drivers to provide transportation to shelters.
After a mock press conference, DeMorat proclaimed the exercise was over, and participants spent the next hour discussing the good and the bad.
The bad consisted of a lack of communication between dam managers and emergency responders after the initial 911 call was made.
Some improvements also needed to be made in the emergency operations center, which had poor cellphone and wireless internet service.
"Can you hear me now?" Oak Creek Fire Chief Chuck Wisecup could be heard saying while leaning next to a basement window trying to get cellphone service.
A cellphone tower planned for the west side of town could solve that problem.
The good consisted of a tool provided by FEMA that allowed public information officers to simulate the social media conversations that would be taking place during a similar emergency.
Routt County Planning Director Chad Phillips said he learned a lot while working for the first time in an emergency operations center.
FEMA officials were also impressed that 50 people participated in the exercise.
"We discovered a lot today," DeMorat said.