What I learned about disaster planning and response during the Colorado floods

September 23 | Guest post by Alissa
The floodwaters in Colorado.
The floodwaters in Colorado.

A flash flood warning compelled me to abandon my Boulder home late in the evening. I returned home four days later to find that the Colorado floodwaters had missed my home by a matter of fourteen inches. In the in-between time, I was grateful for my disaster planning and also learned how to be more prepared in the future.

Here's what I learned…

Know the risks of your area, and have a plan

I knew I lived on the first floor in a flood plain, and had thought often about how I would act if there was an imminent flood. "If I have enough time, cross the creek up the hill. If it's unsafe to cross the creek, head to the four-story apartment building a block away. If floodwaters are here now, go to the upper floor or the roof."

If your area offers them, sign up for emergency alerts

I was headed to bed when my phone beeped with the first emergency text notification. Over my six years here I'd received several flood alerts, all of which (thankfully!) ended up being false alarms, but I always took them seriously and was glad to be able to act early.

Know the best place for real-time emergency information for your specific location

As soon as I got the first text message I went straight to the Boulder Office of Emergency Management Twitter feed (as has become my routine with each emergency notice) and found it being updated rapidly. The scrolling feed on the bottom of the live TV news out of Denver was not fast enough — especially as many other cities started flooding, too — but I could scan the BoulderOEM tweets to quickly find what I needed to know now about Boulder like evacuation notices and road flooding.

Pack a grab back, or — if you have time — know what you will need and can grab quickly

Before running out the door I tossed my laptop, some clothes, and an extra pair of shoes in my laundry hamper, which took less than 15 seconds. If you have important medications or documents, grab those. In hindsight I wished I had grabbed my phone and computer chargers as well as my passport. Of course, if you have no time leave everything behind and head for safety immediately; you are way more important than anything you own.

Let loved ones know you're safe

At one point after the flood there were over 1000 people missing or unaccounted for; I can't imagine the stress of their families not knowing if they were safe! As I was evacuating I contacted my family, and once I arrived at my friends' house I put a status on Facebook saying that I was out of danger.

Have all the phone numbers you think you could potentially need

I spent much of the first day of the flood on the phone with my boss and coworkers, making sure everyone was safe and coming up with response plans. My hard copy of phone numbers was abandoned inside my car, but thankfully I had programmed some of the numbers into my cell phone. For the future I will also be e-mailing a copy to myself and keeping it in an accessible location via e-mail.

Make sure you have accessible emergency money

I have an emergency fund, but it takes two days for the bank transfer to go through. Luckily I had enough in my banking account to get things like a toothbrush, hair brush, deodorant, a backup phone charger, and just enough to get my car's waterlogged brakes fixed. This is where an emergency credit card would have come in handy.

Don't watch the news too much

It was a struggle to pull myself away from the 24-hour coverage on the TV and the internet, but it was consuming me and very unhealthy. I talked with friends about non-flood topics. I washed dishes. I read.

Take care of yourself mentally and physically

When you've reached a safe place, give yourself permission to sleep, shower, escape, whatever you need. My phone was regularly buzzing with texts and calls. Exhausted, I finally handed my phone to the friend I was staying with and said, "If it's a call from [person I hadn't heard from that may be in danger], wake me up. Otherwise, I need to sleep. Now."

Be patient

There's a lot of waiting in the midst of and in the aftermath of disaster. Waiting to hear from people to know they're safe. Waiting for evacuation orders to be lifted. Waiting for power and hot water to be restored. Waiting for debris removal. Waiting weeks/months/years for roads to be repaired. Deep breaths. Many of these things are not in your control, so do your best to release them. I was anxious to know if my home had been spared, but had to remind myself that whether it had or hadn't there wasn't anything I could do about it until evacuations were lifted. When I realized this and focused on the things I could control, it helped decrease my stress.

Be grateful

As the apostle Paul said, "Give thanks in all circumstances." No matter what there's something to be thankful for, and I saw so many people step up to help out or work hard. Thank every single friend who helps you, or reaches out with offers of help. Thank your apartment managers for all the e-mail updates. Thank the tow-truck driver that has been working for several days straight. Thank the people driving the bulldozers down your street to clear out more mud.

Have you been affected by a disaster? What did you learn from it?

  1. All good points… I'm glad you're OK and you didn't get hit as hard as others I've heard about!

    6 agree
    • Thank you! I was planning for the worst and was shocked to find my place still dry. My boss lost everything and many of my coworkers lost everything in their basements. But when you look at the Boulder floodplain maps, it could have been SO much worse! We're all very fortunate.

      1 agrees
  2. I love survival-type articles! Alissa had some good advice! (Also, I'm glad you and your home are okay!) I have some Grab-Pack tips! (Thanks to zombie preparedness)

    Nice grab-packs: Backpacks, small duffelbags, easy-to-carry totes that can be shoved in an easy-to-access area (under the bed, on a hook in the closet, etc.). If you live in a house and not an apartment, you can even keep one for bugging out quickly and have one in your basement (or wherever you go for a tornado, etc), and one in your car. I'll just talk about the one I keep in my rental townhome for simplicity and short comment-ness (it's an old backpack).

    What I recommend to keep in there:
    -Binder/folder with important info (phone numbers, lists of each resident's medications/medical problems, photocopies of passport, ID's, SSN's, list of household residents and pets, sheet on basic first aid, etc)
    -Small first aid kit (I always add a nice big bottle of ibuprofen and a waterproof case of matches to this)
    -Duct tape attached to small survival rope bracelet
    -Small tarp (can double as shelter along with duct tape and rope!)
    -Extra socks and underwear
    -Tampons, pads, and Midol
    -T-shirt, tanktop, hoodie, and jeans (if you have time you can always add in more season-appropriate clothing)
    -Beanie baby (sense of comfort)
    -Old sneakers
    -Small wad of cash (I have $100 for me, family units will want at least $100/person)
    -Book (I have The Magic of the Glits, a book I really liked as a kid)

    I had a day when a friend and I just made emergency kits for our cars (my car kit has some silly things and useful things in it, too). Then I decided I should really make one for the house, since I'm unlikely to run out to my car in a storm (nothing really happens in Illinois where I'd have to evacuate, and I'm on top of a hill, so flooding is a non-issue).

    1 agrees
    • "photocopies of passport, ID's, SSN's"

      This is a great idea because sometimes these documents are spread out and about in my real life (or what if my purse had washed away?). Maybe I'll keep a copy in my locked desk at work, or scan them and keep an electronic copy.

      "Beanie baby (sense of comfort)"

      One of the items I grabbed on that first trip to Walmart was a blanket for myself. My very own as opposed to someone else's. It was a comfort item, and well worth the $15. 🙂

      • i have scans of all my documents saved in a sub sub folder of my online email entitled Pet Pics. 🙂 if i need them while travelling or in an emergency situation, i can at least access copies.

        i know this is somewhat risky, but i also have a 25 character long password for that email!

        4 agree
        • The day after being flooded by Hurricane Harvey last year, I bought a fuzzy blanket that would be mine, even though the place where I was going had plenty of blankets for the exact same reason.

  3. I don't live in a high-risk flood area, but I do worry about stuff like this. Any thoughts on how to deal with pets if you need to evacuate? I still need to buy a cat carrier (I usually borrow my parents')…

    2 agree
    • buy a cat carrier and keep it readily accessible. keep a bag with all your cat's needs in it, including food and water (remember to rotate these items out regularly).

    • Make an emergency kit for them (or add it to your bag)! Keep it near your carrier/their cage/their leash. Make sure it has some of their food, any regular medications, and maybe one of their toys and/or a blanket for them.
      I have a pair of guinea pig ladies, and their cage is up on a table, so under the table we stash their carrier, their spare fleece bedding, their food and a laundry basket. If there isn't enough time to get them in their carrier, I can always throw some of the bedding in the bottom of the laundry basket and toss them in with the food bags.

      *Edited to add: if you have a dog or a cat, make sure they are always wearing their collar and tags. That way, if you get separated, someone can contact you if they are found. Microchipping helps with this as well, but not all shelters check for microchips.

      2 agree
    • Have a pet carrier ready! There was another Offbeat article about fire safety where the author mentioned: "Always keep the cat carrier assembled in an easy-to-reach location. We often store ours in pieces since it takes up less space — we won't do that again. We were lucky that we didn't have to search for it and put it together when we needed it."

      1 agrees
    • I will say this. So many of us who were flooded terribly live nowhere near a flood plain or high risk flood area. Colorado is also a semi arid climate, and stuff like this practically never happens. Everyone I know who's lived here any period of time (for example, my mom, who has lived here 51 years) says they've never seen anything like this, save the Great Thompson Flood, which was caused not by rain, but by a dam breaking. I have never seen so much rain in this state in my life. It's rare for it to rain for more than a few hours here.

      Because of this, many people who were flooded did not have flood insurance. Why would you need flood insurance if you live on the side of a mountain far from any bodies of water in a semi arid climate? Well, my grandparents lived in just that environment ( up the hill/mountain on the other side of the Boulder Creek the author mentions) and their bottom floor was flooded with a foot of water and now needs to be gutted. They were never even in sight of the flooded creek, and were miles from the flood plain. It was just all the water running down the mountain that got them. Floods happen in more ways than simply bodies of water swelling out of their usual locations.

      The bottom line is, even if you think there is no risk of flooding where you live, flood insurance is not a bad idea. In an era of climate change, we should be ready for anything. The last few summers in Colorado are certainly evident of that. 🙁

      4 agree
      • "Why would you need flood insurance if you live on the side of a mountain far from any bodies of water in a semi arid climate?"

        Indeed! My boss lives up on the side of a mountain – far away from any creeks – and a mudslide came through his home. By insurance standards, it's all "flood damage".

        The scope of this flooding is CRAZY ridiculous for Colorado; who knew so many places outside of floodplains would end up flooded? Even though I had a personal plan for flooding because I'm in a floodplain, it's a reminder to me to also think about emergency planning for other things that may be less obvious. Fire? Tornado? Earthquake?

        Hope you and your family are all safe, Jessica!

        3 agree
  4. i love emergency / disaster-preparedness articles too.

    i have a backpack ready to grab if we had to go now. In addition to things mentioned, it also includes our contents insurance policy number and contact phone number.
    A swiss army knife.
    A roll of dimes to use payphones if cell towers aren't working (i don't use quarters so i won't be tempted to steal them for laundry)
    A roll of toilet paper.
    A couple garbage bags (for many uses.)
    Glow sticks (for a couple reasons: 1 – in a blackout you can wear a glow necklace if you want to go out for a walk, you will be way more visible; 2 – if there is a gas leak, you can't use matches/open flame, so glow sticks can help you there too; 3 – for signaling purposes.)
    Hand sanitizer.

    1 agrees
  5. Let's talk about pet preparedness, too.
    HAVE A EVAC PLAN FOR YOUR FURRY/FEATHERED/SCALY LOVED ONES!!!
    I cannot stress that enough!
    In our apartment, we have both hurricane and tornado plans. We live in a flat, coastal area so are prone to both. Our hurricane plans also double as flood plans.
    Tornado plans:
    Bunnies are grabbed first, since they're harder to catch! They get put into our washing machine. If there's strong storms moving through, we try to avoid running it. If we've got time, we'll scoop up some hay to throw in there with them to keep them busy.
    Then, my fiance and I jump into the bathtubs with any foster dogs we may have at the time.

    Hurricane plans:
    Our rabbit carrier keeps the bare essentials in it (blanket, hay to tide the buns over until we can buy more, water bottle). We keep our one rabbit's medicine and other emergency medical for them next to the carrier, so it can be grabbed easily. We have a friend – a fellow rabbit owner – who volunteered herself as our designated evac point, roughly 2 hours away. She keeps on hand an extra xpen for her bunnies, which serves as temp housing for ours if need be.
    For the sake of organization (but to the benefit of evac plans), I have a bag of "rescue stuff" for the dogs that we foster. This bag just happens to contain digestive enzymes in case we have to switch foods suddenly, rescue remedy for calming them, a thundershirt, a few toys, an extra slip lead, an extra harness, flea and tick medicines, and an extra bowl. And I keep it next to the door, too. I may not need everything in it if we have to go, but it's small enough to grab easily.
    Lastly, I keep a small bag with some clothes, basic toiletries, shoes, a blanket, and a pillow in my car. I believe my fiance has a similar one in his. Once the animals are loaded into whichever vehicle we're taking, we grab the one from whichever car we're not taking and go.

    2 agree
    • Your fur-children are fortunate to have such well-prepared parents! I love your creative bunnies-in-the-washing-machine tornado hack; great plan to keep them contained and safe if your home starts shaking. 🙂

      2 agree
      • Thanks! Not every foster dog we get can be with the bunnies, so we can't keep them with us and the dog. My fiance and I were discussing safe places, and the fact that it's not likely that Navi would stay in the actual tub on an ordinary day, and it was the best idea we had. And honestly, I think they're safer in the washer than we would be in the tub.

        1 agrees
      • We had an electrical fire over the summer and I was so incredibly glad we had this stuff in place. I didn't have time to grab more than the animals, so I would have been in trouble if the fire spread (it only damaged our AC unit – my husband killed the power in an attempt to slow it down, and put it out by doing so. However, we didn't know that until the FD got there). But I had enough for the day for the bunnies, until the apartment cleared out enough that they could safely go back inside.

  6. Great article–thank you. I have thought about emergency kits, but not about the other logistics of staying safe and in touch. I'm so glad to hear your home wasn't flooded and I hope that your loved ones are all okay, too.

    1 agrees
  7. I'm glad to hear you made it through okay. I have family in Boulder, and they have a bit of flooding and are in temporary housing. Scary.

    My earthquake kit was pretty well-stocked when I lived in Japan. (I was at work when the big one hit two years ago so it was never used, but I was glad to have it.) Aside from the things mentioned above, I kept some granola bars and bottled water. I also had this fantastic device that was a flashlight/radio/cell phone charger, all operated/charged by a hand crank. Not sure if we have that sort of thing Stateside.

    I definitely found that I couldn't watch the news, either. My area (Yokohama) wasn't damaged, but the whole experience – being evacuated, big aftershocks, having to walk home because the trains weren't running – was awful. Images of what happened farther north were more than I could handle.

    1 agrees
      • I actually have this exact unit. And, living in Toronto you don't really expect any true emergencies, but we had flooding this summer (NOTHING like Colorado) and we lost power for 48 hours at home. This thing was great. Battery power lasted for a long long time, then cranking took over the final night.

        I actually bought one for us, one for my mom, and one for my bro and SIL for Christmas 2 years ago. We have ALL had blackouts (mine was the longest) and everyone has used it.

  8. I'm so glad you survived the storm well!

    We moved from Boulder down the road to Longmont last year, and happily unpacked our fire emergency box, never dreaming we could be in a flood situation. We were shocked to wake up that fateful Thursday morning to discover we were supposedly in a mandatory evac zone. Oops – we'd forgotten to register our new address with the local OEM when we moved! Won't make that mistake again.

    Luckily our location meant that we would always have lots of advance notice before floodwaters reached us (and the police hanging out on our street said we didn't need to go, at least not right away). We posted status updates on Facebook and texted our immediate family that we were ok but preparing for possible evacuation. We cleared the finished basement of electronics, musical instruments, documents, and furniture with sentimental value. On the main floor we put anything of value up on the top shelves.

    We packed camping gear (sleeping bags, tent, stove and propane), clothes for a week (casual and work), my jewelry, our most practical shoes, and our emergency camping box (first aid kit including swiss army knife and sanitizers, hand crank radio) in the car, then moved it uphill two blocks. Passports, marriage certificate, a few important family heirlooms and our electronics were packed in two backpacks near the door.

    As flooding continued, but it became clear it would stay at least 20 feet from our house, we also prepared for possible sheltering in place through electricity, water or sewer outage. We filled every water bottle and pitcher with water, filled the bathtub, stocked up on non perishable foods, wet wipes and hand sanitizer. We had leftover battery tea lights from our wedding : we put them in an easy to access spot with candles, flashlights and lighters, turned one on in case the lights went out while we were in bed. We kept everything charged at all times.

    And then we waited. Took turns through the night checking on waters, followed our local OEM on Facebook and Twitter. We followed local news online, and kept the TV turned off. We were super super grateful that the water stopped a few doors down, and that our power, drinking water, and sewer held out!

    • Thank you for adding information about sheltering-in-place! I was barely able to make it out of Boulder before every road in or out of the city flooded and was impassable. At that point everyone in the city was stuck, and lost utilities.

      Because I knew in the event of a flood I'd be in a mandatory evac zone, I didn't make plans to shelter-in-place with water, food, and light. But Jessica's comment above is a great reminder that sometimes disasters come out of nowhere even when you're not considered to be in a risk area. I've got to make plans for sheltering-in-place in the event of a non-flood disaster like earthquake or zombie apocalypse.

      Glad you're safe, Sunny!

      3 agree
    • Wait, how do you register your address with the local OEM? I'm in Golden. 🙂 I rely on my weather app for alerts, but that's not reliable enough for things like evacuation.

  9. We keep our backpacking water filter in our emergency kit. We live near a lake and a creek. If the infrastructure is damaged in such a way as to require a water boil (which is hard to do without electricity) or water is out all-together, we can turn any mud puddle, or the creek r lake, into potable water.

    3 agree
  10. We live in flood prone tropical Queensland with cyclone season looming up. I also run a vet surgery and my husband is the senior drainage engineer for the local authorities so we get slammed before and after events.
    1. Full pantry restock at the start of the season with lots of tinned goods and staples. And fill the freezer with veggie curries that double as our ice bricks when the power goes kaput.
    2. From December onwards I refuse to be without about 400L of kitty litter and a few giant bags of dog and cat food.
    3. Clean up all the yards and secure loose objects like chicken coops when the warnings start happening and move all house animals to the vet surgery with every vessel able to contain water filled up.
    4. Secure three properties worth of buildings. From this year onwards we have investment properties as well as our surgery and home so tape all windows, furniture inside etc.
    5. Evacuation bags with paper work, food, water, meds and battery radios, torches and our power chainsaw and fuel. Work clothes in hi vis, gloves and boots we sleep in when the events start happening.
    6. Case of beer. Cold! For the clean up!
    7. Go to the local animal shelter and pick up any remaining animals that haven't been fostered out as our clinic is above ALL flooding. Last time we ended up with an extra 10 cats and 8 dogs on top of our 4 chickens, turkey, 6 cats, 2 dogs, 2 snakes, 2 rats and a lorikeet and a half dozen in hospital cases.

    After its all over start clearing local roads. It means we can go exploring and see what's happening with out pissing people off. The little chain saw and strong backs tends to make us welcome wherever we wander.
    Pray for the power and water to come back on and roads into our town to reopen quickly.
    We've been cut off from distribution centres for a fortnight at a time and lemme tell you when the kitty litter starts running low it can get a little weird on top of the lack of fresh produce available.
    The curry ice blocks keeper our beer chilled for 4 days during the last clean up with no power or water and fed us at the end as well so we did pretty decently I think. The vet surgery clean up took a while. 4 days with no water or power and so many animals left a smell that stayed for about a month afterwards.
    And finally send the drainage engineer back to work and resign myself to not seeing him for a couple of weeks as he rescues his infrastructure.

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