You know what makes disaster planning difficult?
It's a lesson El Paso County has learned recently. Fires and floods — plus changes in leadership and the relocation of the Office of Emergency Management — have led the county to delay the federally required update of its pre-disaster mitigation plan by nearly two years. Originally due to state and federal governments in December 2013, it's is now expected to be fully approved in September.
Among county staff, Jim Reid probably knows the most about what happened to the plan. He led the Office of Emergency Management when it was under the Sheriff's Office, before leaving in April 2013 to take a different job with the county. He got his old job back in January 2015, when county commissioners moved the OEM out of the Sheriff's Office and into the main county government. His current titles are executive director of the Public Services Department and director of the Office of Emergency Management.
He says that back in 2012, he and one other staffer were attempting to update the county's pre-disaster mitigation plan, which must be done every five years. Reid says he asked then-Sheriff Terry Maketa to hire a contractor to update the plan — calling it an "extremely time-consuming process" — but Maketa wanted it done in-house. Reid says he was making progress until June 2012.
"We just basically got our tails handed to us when that Waldo Canyon Fire happened," he says. "I don't think people realize the amount of time that you put in when you work OEM."
And Waldo would be only the first hurdle to completing the plan, all 756 pages of it.
The federal Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 created a new set of requirements for state and local governments to coordinate disaster mitigation and implementation plans. Under the law, counties are required to have their own pre-disaster mitigation plans, to be approved by the state government and by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Patricia Gavelda, local mitigation planning program manager for the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, says the idea is to look at how different areas would be affected by particular natural disasters, and what can be done to minimize damage. Reid adds that it helps to identify potential problem areas, such as a culvert that's undersized for floods, to ensure the most effective response in a crisis.
"If your life's at stake and you want me to come help you," he says, "I better damn well know what I'm doing."
El Paso County's plan needed to address the effects of everything from earthquakes to tornadoes to floods to avalanches. And in addition to situations involving the unincorporated county, it needed to include mitigation planning for Calhan, Green Mountain Falls, Monument, Palmer Lake, Loma, Manitou Springs and Fountain.
While most Colorado counties do have up-to-date plans, Gavelda says a lot of counties struggle to get updates done on time. In fact, the plans for Weld, Boulder and Larimer counties were also delayed due to the floods of September 2013.
"It's very confusing, and it's not unusual [to encounter problems]," she says.
Reid explains that after he left the OEM in 2013, staff members there were still running recovery efforts for Waldo. Then the Black Forest Fire sent the department into chaos once again that June.
In ensuing months, other staffers also left. In early 2014, the Sheriff's Office was hit with scandal when Maketa was accused of having inappropriate relationships with subordinates to whom he granted preferential treatment, and inappropriately interfering with internal affairs investigations. In September, county commissioners voted to move the OEM under the authority of the main county.
The upheaval created confusion about the status of the pre-disaster mitigation plan. Even Lonnie Inzer, the county's emergency preparedness planner in charge of getting the plan approved, says he has no idea what happened with it before he arrived a few months ago.
Gavelda, thankfully, does know what happened.
In December 2013, she says, El Paso County sent a letter to FEMA asking for an extension on the plan due to "extraordinary circumstances," including two fires and four floods. FEMA agreed to extend the deadline to Sept. 24, 2015 — allowing the county to remain eligible for certain nonemergency federal disaster grants, such as those now being used to buy out homes in flood-prone areas.
Around the same time, the state had a pot of money from FEMA that it used to create a grant program for local jurisdictions that needed disaster-planning help. The county applied, received $41,400, and added about $13,800 in cash and in-kind services, all of which went to a contractor, Tetra Tech, to complete the plan.
Today, Gavelda says, the plan has won initial approval from the state and FEMA. "They've done all the good work that they were supposed to do," she says, "and the contractor did a good job."
The county commissioners and the governments of all the included municipalities must now approve the plan before it's sent back to the state and FEMA for final approval. Inzer says he expects that to happen on time.
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