Despite being on the "leadership team" of Colorado Springs Together, City Council President Scott Hente admits he's attended only a couple of its meetings. So there are details of the new nonprofit's operation that he just might have missed.
But still, nearly two months after it formed, Hente was asking a fairly important question.
"We've said we're not going to give money to people," he said last week. "So what are we going to use the money for?"
Hente, whose own home was damaged in the Waldo Canyon Fire, isn't the only resident wondering. The "About Us" page at coloradospringstogether.org is full of fairly abstract promises to "make sure progress is made efficiently and effectively," "focus and coordinate efforts," and "leverage the assets and skills we have." And about eight weeks after the fire destroyed 345 homes in Mountain Shadows, the long-term recovery center — for which the group is spending $6,000 a month — is almost empty.
Still, Bob Cutter is upbeat. The semi-retired technology executive and disaster-recovery newbie leading Mayor Steve Bach's stab at fire recovery says his volunteers have accomplished a lot via e-mail and website, with plenty more to come.
"We view our role," he says, "as linking people with the resources they need to rebuild their lives and their homes."
No long-term plan
In a disaster-tested city like, say, Riverside, Calif., recovery is part of life; officials regularly join the emergency operations center during an earthquake or fire, according to Mark Bassett, Riverside County Fire Department's emergency services program supervisor. Colorado Springs, on the other hand, doesn't even have a long-term recovery plan.
So two days after the unthinkable happened on June 26, Bach called Cutter, a friend and business associate, and asked him to head a recovery effort.
Cutter has overseen large projects, such as building the Intel building, formerly Rockwell, in the mid-1990s, but nothing like this. So he turned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's handbook of lessons learned from disasters over the past eight years.
"They really go through what you should do and shouldn't do, why some efforts were successful and some failed," he says. "Some communities took control and started to drive their own destiny. Others were waiting for government agencies to get involved."
Cutter followed FEMA's advice to set up a group that would coordinate steps of the recovery, involve people affected by the fire, and make a long-term commitment. In regard to the first two items, Colorado Springs Together has spent much of its time, and about $15,0f00 of its $150,000 in donations and pledges, running coloradospringstogether.org and producing videos to help residents understand the reconstruction process. It's also hosted some "fun events for kids and families."
As for a long-term commitment, that's where the former Blockbuster at 6840 Centennial Blvd., comes in. For $6,000 per month in rent, and a full-time office manager making about $20 per hour, he says, the group will create a "physical hub" for its work.
On Monday, dozens of black plastic chairs stacked in one corner, a banner out front and a Small Business Administration desk were the only hints at such plans. But Cutter says he expects the Housing and Building Association, Better Business Bureau and others soon to establish a long-term presence for residents who will come for information and meetings, including those held by homeowners associations.
It's not for me
For Donice Fennimore, who lost her home in the Parkside neighborhood, Cutter's group hasn't boosted her effort to rebuild. "I can't say they're bad. I can't say they're good," she says. Fennimore says though she hasn't needed the help, one of her neighbors "has used them immensely."
That'd be news to Jackie Calvano, another of the 141 Parkside homeowners who lost a home.
"We have no idea what they're doing," she says. "We know they're getting money, and they're accepting it in our name, but we have no idea what they're doing with it. At least I don't."
Colorado Springs Together continues to solicit donations on its website, but some of its donations won't come through until it obtains 501(c)3 status from the IRS. That includes $50,000 from El Pomar Foundation, spokeswoman Josie Burke says via e-mail. Cutter says the designation is expected before month's end.
Cutter says his organization has helped an "incredibly extensive" number of residents through meetings about insurance claims and other matters, plus the website. Its phone number, which rings to a city office, gets about a dozen calls per day, a phone operator says.
"We facilitated through the website the coordination effort for debris removal," Cutter says, referring to an arrangement with Springs contractor GE Johnson, whose Jim Johnson is also part of the leadership team. He adds: "Every day there's an information piece that goes to the neighbors, ranging from event announcements, meetings, flood insurance information, rebuilding requirements from the Fire Department."
This week, the group was to use its rented facility to host the Boulder-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which helped tornado-stricken Greensburg, Kan., rebuild as a 100-percent renewable-energy town, in case anyone is interested in eco-friendly construction ideas. And on Sept. 1, Cutter is planning a volunteer effort to fill sandbags for use to protect homes against flooding.
First on the scene
Colorado Springs Together actually represents Phase 2 of disaster recovery. The Disaster Recovery Center for emergency needs opened at 9 a.m., Saturday, June 30, in an empty county building.
That was four days after the fire swept into the city, destroying hundreds of homes and making thousands into evacuees, and two days after the state Department of Local Affairs urged the city to set up a central service delivery point for clothing, phone service, insurance and other needs.
DOLA ended up approaching the county because the city couldn't handle it, says County Administrator Jeff Greene, who says he spoke with Mayor Steve Bach's aide Steve Cox at that time.
"I said, 'If the city's emphasis is fighting the fire and they're limited on resources, the county will support the city in doing this,'" Greene remembers.
Of course, the county had plenty going on, too. For one thing, it was providing all technology — phones, e-mail, wireless, mapping, printing — for the federal Type 1 Team incident command post at Holmes Middle School from early Monday, June 25.
But at 105 N. Spruce St., it managed to welcome 400 families that first Saturday, connecting them with representatives from Colorado Springs Utilities, health and mental health agencies, Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, insurers and myriad other groups.
The city didn't initially send a representative, Greene says. When residents asked for help from city planning, he asked Bach's chief of staff Laura Neumann whether someone might be assigned, and that happened the second day.
Bach didn't visit the center, county officials say. But several City Councilors dropped in that first weekend to see how the center was working and ask if they could be of assistance. County commissioners, Utilities CEO Jerry Forte and high-ranking county staffers also came to help.
Imad Karaki, county support services director, says children hugged their parents' legs, and many families had only the clothes on their backs.
"You could see fear in their eyes," he says. "After that, it stopped being a job, and began being a cause."
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