by Rick Langenberg:
Ute Pass residents must prepare for the worst and brace themselves for a summer of constant floods, power outages, Hwy. 24 closures for days and possibly weeks, frequent fire dangers, emergency evacuations and more disasters.
And if you are hoping for financial relief, don’t look for much help from Congress. In fact, next time you hear more horror stories about Hurricane Sandy and witness New Jersey Governor Chris Christie begging for help on national television, don’t shed too many tears. The political gamesmanship associated with the Sandy storm relief effort, highlighted by publicized demands made by many congressional leaders, played a big role in our region getting screwed by the feds and not receiving the necessary funds to curb potential flooding.
As for the best immediate recourse, local homeowners must mitigate their properties as much as possible and document their belongings, invest in emergency generators and carefully monitor daily weather reports.
These were some of the messages conveyed to many local residents during a Waldo Canyon fire impact presentation by El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark, Carol Ekarius, executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP) and El Paso County Emergency Services Manager Patty Baxter. Later in the week, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet visited the Waldo Canyon scar area and vowed to continue the battle for a needed $20 million in federal impact funds that were wiped out from the Hurricane Sandy relief package.
During the Waldo Canyon forum at the Green Mountain Falls town hall, local residents and elected leaders got a stern warning. They were told that Hwy. 24 will most likely incur more closures from the floods resulting from the Waldo Canyon burn scar. “This is your lifeblood,” said Baxter, in describing probably the biggest post-Waldo Canyon impact situation, involving the future of Hwy. 24. In fact, the emergency manager cautioned that a storm that occurred last September, creating major damage to Ute Pass Elementary school and nearby businesses, nearly killing a motorist in Cascade and shutting down the main thoroughfare four hours, could become a routine event this summer. She sees Hwy. 24 possibly getting shut down for days and even longer than the closure that occurred last summer. “We have extremely steep canyons,” warned Ekarius. According to Ekarius, with the burned hydrophobic soil in the Waldo Canyon area, a 10-year flood could turn into a 100-year flood catastrophe.
Baxter even presented a scenario involving families getting temporarily split up due to closures that occur, when certain people venture down to Colorado Springs for work or recreation and then can’t get back. She advised residents to closely gauge weather reports, and when rain falls of one-half inch per hour are predicted, start making emergency plans. And although the water infrastructure system is quite good in parts of the Ute Pass, Baxter told residents to expect frequent gas and electric outages. “You may not have power,” said Baxter. “I can’t emphasize enough to mitigate.”
That means taking detailed photos of your household belongings, cautioned the officials. On the upside, Ekarius said CUSP has already assembled crews of 900-plus volunteers to grapple with the flood prevention work. She said a detailed study is currently in the works through a fast-track process.
But on the downside, the CUSP director believes that this year’s fire season will be worse than 2012. Even with the occasional bits of moisture that have recently doused the area, she emphasized that the region is still reeling from a record drought. “Be prepared. Picture everything you have,” said Ekarius.
Waldo Canyon funding eliminated due to Sandy
Clark, a frequent fixture during the community meetings of last summer’s Waldo Canyon fire, advised residents near flood plain areas to apply for special insurance, even though there is currently a 30-day waiting period for this type of insurance package. She also said it is critical for residents to make sure they are registered with the reverse 911 calling system, used to alert citizens of evacuations and emergency notifications to move onto higher grounds.
Clark, however, gave a rather somber account of the funding situation to help mitigate the Waldo Canyon burn area. She said local leaders were hopeful of receiving $20 million in federal funds for Waldo Canyon and other impacted watersheds, and that the proposed funding was slated to be part of the Hurricane Sandy relief legislation. But she said the Waldo Canyon monies got wiped out in the 11th hour.
The commissioner, though, assured the residents that local, state and federal leaders representing the region aren’t throwing in the towel. “We are trying to do what we can,” said Clark. “It is a long process.”
“It is all about these small communities being impacted,” explained Clark. “All of us are trying to work together.” Similar views were echoed by Senator Bennet during a tour of the region late last week, who described the movement to eliminate the funding for Waldo Canyon and other parts of Colorado as nothing more than ”political games in Washington.”