Manitou Springs Receives National Recognition by FEMA

Community Lauded for Integrated Planning Efforts

Gabriel Paulson

The city of Manitou Springs, still shining after much media notoriety from a reader’s survey conducted by USA Today, has once again hit the national spotlight,

This time, the recognition has occurred from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and is due to the town’s integrated planning efforts regarding hazard mitigation, resilience and preparedness.

Manitou Springs has survived many hazards over the years and it was the recent feature of a case study conducted by FEMA regarding the city’s master plan and hazard mitigation plan. A 177-page document developed in 2013 followed a series of floods that followed the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012 that threatened residents who were forced to evacuate as the fire spread through the canyon and down Hwy. 24.

In 2013, heavy rains caused the rivers to flood, which happened again in 2015, creating significant structural damages, high recovery costs and lasting impacts on businesses and residents. This created the need for a long-term plan, which was addressed by the community’s master and hazard mitigation plan, which was completed in May 2017.

“This is a major accomplishment for a community our size to be highlighted by the federal government for its strength in strategic planning and commitment,” said Christine Lowenberg, planning director for the city of Manitou Springs.

 Mayor John Graham said, “preserving the safety of our community is our utmost goal, and it is great to be recognized for going above and beyond in our hazard and mitigation processes.”

The project was funded through a grant from Colorado Department of Local Affairs, which is designed to encourage integrated hazard planning.

FEMA conducted studies of 13 small towns that are prone to natural disasters because of their locations or environments and included Manitou Springs. The study was titled: Plan Manitou: A Small Community Demonstrates Large-Scale Planning.

Surviving National Disasters

Manitou Springs relies heavily on year-round tourism, but its location and environmental conditions make it vulnerable to natural hazards. These include steep topography, loose soils, multiple creeks and natural drainage channels, and proximity to forested open space. While the community has faced hazards in the past and participates in countywide hazard mitigation planning, its fire, flooding, and debris flow events highlighted the need for a more comprehensive, locally scaled approach to hazard mitigation planning, according to the study.

Mitigation policies and actions are incorporated throughout Plan Manitou, not just within the hazard mitigation section, in recognition of the fact that the need is interdisciplinary. The mitigation actions included specific implementation steps with the responsible agency and partners as well as timeframes and cost estimates. As a result of this detailed planning, most of the identified hazard mitigation actions in the plan are currently being implemented. Completed actions include new development and landscape standards to reduce hazards, updated geologic hazard mapping, guidance for property owners to reduce wildfire and flood risk, and a Community Wildfire Protection Plan.

Over 480 individuals provided input at events, including 37 middle school students who presented posters at the final community meeting. The extensive engagement process raised awareness about the links between land use, economic development, natural resource protection, and hazard risk.

Plan goals and policies for reducing and mitigating natural hazard risks are clearly referenced throughout Plan Manitou, in both the master plan and hazard mitigation plan sections. This built a foundation for making hazard mitigation and resilience an integral part of decisions on land use, development, and other community issues.

Targeted outreach ensured community buy-in and set the stage for plan implementation. The outreach efforts included citizen surveys, local business surveys, middle school programs, church participation, and collaboration between working groups. Staff attended a wide range of community events, such as senior lunches, farmers’ markets, outdoor concerts, and ice cream socials, to encompass a wide range of demographic groups.

The planning team is committed to long-term community engagement and plan integration to maintain momentum. Planning team members continually think about how to create messaging to support this large-scale effort. Senior Planner Karen Berchtold described the ongoing efforts:

“Naturally, as time passes, people can become complacent about natural hazard risk. Ongoing community engagement efforts are needed to help keep risk reduction a community priority. There is a continuing need to engage and train elected officials, staff, board and commission members, and residents and other stakeholders on the relevance of Plan Manitou.”

The 177-page document is available for review at Manitou City Hall, as well as results and findings of the FEMA study, which was released in February.

In other Manitou news, sales are reaching pre-pandemic levels as merchants and restaurants return to business as normal and extend business hours, with the influx of tourists and the reopening of the Cog Railroad fueling the growth.