As of May, Saturday and Sunday driving along Manitou Avenue has become a miserable experience.
The cars are bumper-to-bumper. Honks ring out. Pedestrians swarm sidewalks. The scene is — to local merchants, at least — highly encouraging, especially given that the town has lately made news for reasons other than its scenery. Namely, extreme flood risk due to the Waldo Canyon burn scar.
"We're challenged by that," says Marcy Morrison, interim chief executive officer of iManitou, the local chamber of commerce.
In addition to flooding fears, Morrison notes business owners also have to contend with the usual risks: another fire, gas-price hikes, economic regression. "Unless you're a soothsayer or you can read tea leaves," she says, "I would never predict how a summer is going to be."
But Manitou's leaders and city staff say if summer sales are disappointing, they hope it isn't due to flooding concerns. No one should worry, they say, because the town is prepared with detailed plans to warn residents and tourists, react to a dangerous situation, keep emergency and city services running, and clean up after floodwaters.
Says Police Chief Joe Ribeiro: "The message we want to get out is, on a normal day, it's OK to come here."
The first line of defense in Manitou has been mitigation.
Unlike Colorado Springs, Manitou has long charged residents a stormwater fee. Those funds are being funneled into prevention these days, such as clearing debris that could clog creek beds. The city has also put aside an additional $50,000 from its reserves for mitigation; it recently hired two people to remove debris deposited after flood events; and it just purchased a heavy equipment attachment that will help clear debris more efficiently.
The city has also enacted a new ordinance allowing it to force property owners to move debris or property away from Fountain Creek. Manitou Public Works supervisor Bruno Pothier says staff is already using that ordinance to clear hazards, and is also working to help residents pay to remove dead trees.
Meanwhile, Ribeiro notes, volunteers with the Coalition for the Upper South Platte are going door-to-door to high-priority properties and helping with mitigation, sandbagging and debris removal.
Like other flood-prone areas, Manitou has hosted community meetings, updated its website, and is taking calls, in an effort to educate the public. The No. 1 message: In a rainstorm, go up the nearest hill and stay away from creeks and floodwaters.
Still, Manitou leaders understand that not everyone — tourists, especially — will be totally prepared if a flash flood hits. That's why they have an emergency readiness plan.
Ribeiro says his department is monitoring announcements from the National Weather Service, and has identified trigger points for various actions. For security reasons, Ribeiro can't detail the entire plan, but he gives some examples:
• In a flood watch, equipment (such as road closure signs) will be positioned, and emergency vehicles will be moved out of the floodplain. City Council just approved the purchase of a trailer that can carry Fire Department equipment to higher ground.
• If a flood warning is issued, all non-essential city staff will be sent home (important because City Hall is in the floodplain).
• If flash flooding begins, Manitou's flood siren will be activated, warning people near the creek bed to get to higher ground.
Hopefully, Ribeiro says, by the time flooding begins, everyone will be out of harm's way. Residents should already know the dangers, and Manitou staff have been working closely with iManitou to ensure business owners have emergency plans that include staff and customers.
Downtown workers are also being encouraged to take responsibility for tourists, and to help usher them to higher ground in a flood event. Morrison says she's been pushing businesses to buy weather radios and act immediately when a warning is issued.
But she says there's more uncertainty of what to do if it's simply raining: Should business owners inform customers of the possible risk, however remote, and risk scaring them off?
"We want to make sure the public is safe, that is no question the first priority," Morrison says. "But then there is the second priority of trying to stay in business."
If a flash flood does hit Manitou Springs, experts expect the water to push through and clear out quickly. Ribeiro says his team has plans to rescue people stranded by floodwaters, and cooperative agreements would allow Manitou to get help from other fire and law enforcement agencies.
After the floodwaters clear, Manitou would start cleaning up immediately. City buildings are insured, as are many downtown businesses. Plans are in place to protect utility lines that cross the creek, or at least shut them off, and Manitou has contracts with Colorado Springs Utilities to provide the town with water should Manitou's system suffer severe damage.
Mayor Marc Snyder says the city has also laid plans to run the city remotely if City Hall were damaged or destroyed. All of which, he says, should comfort prospective tourists and residents alike.
"If we do have an event," he says, "it won't be a question of, 'Oh boy, what do we do?'"
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