Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Are We Ready? People in Ute Pass must quickly go up or down - or risk being stranded

By Matt Steiner Published: May 27, 2013

The Ute Pass Library in Cascade could be in a dire situation if floodwaters start pouring out of the Waldo Canyon burn area.

Other public attractions along U.S. 24 also are looking to the skies and preparing for floods this year, but the branch of the Pikes Peak Library District is uniquely situated halfway up Ute Pass, between Colorado Springs and Woodland Park.

If floodwaters and debris begin pouring down the mountain just yards behind the libray, the building could become an island in the middle of deadly circumstances, library and El Paso County officials said.

"We really need to get out of the way," said branch manager Jocelyn Sansing. "We want to make sure that everybody is safe."

Sansing and her staff are poised to err on the side of extreme safety, closing the branch and getting out at any sign of heavy precipitation.

The team that works at the PPLD branch, which has from 80 to 150 customers each day, has a weather radio on all the time, Sansing said. They gets alerts from the National Weather Service and monitor the airwaves constantly. The plan is to evacuate the library on Severy Road immediately upon a flash-flood warning.

The weather service will issue a warning if rainfall reaches a half-inch per hour on the burn scar.

On some days, the branch won't open if the weather service predicts rain to be likely over the scar, Sansing said. Other days, staff will gauge public safety if it begins raining near the library.

El Paso County emergency manager Patty Baxter prompted the library to elevate its awareness at a recent flood preparedness meeting at Ute Pass Elementary School.

Baxter told the crowd at the school and echoed those comments in arecent interview, saying, "Once the flooding starts, it comes so quickly. The floodwaters off the burn scar are considered unsurvivable. If the water doesn't kill them, the tree that hits them in the side of the head will."

Sansing and her staff have had a lot of "training, preparation and tons of discussion" since hearing Baxter's comments. They've made a plan and posted it on the branch website.

The biggest concern is getting trapped at the building. Sansing said if she and her team wait too long to leave, Highway 24 could be closed in both directions, leaving no escape route.

Sometimes leaving might be a tough decision to make.

"Rain can be coming down up high," Sansing said. "We might not even see it."

Other Ute Pass attractions such as the Cave of the Winds, the North Pole and Santa's Workshop and the town of Manitou Springs have also considered emergency plans when looking to the 2013 tourist season. All focus on the theme of getting out quickly.

Here is a look at each attraction and its fire and flood escape plans:

Cave of the Winds

Management at the Cave of the Winds near Manitou Springs is not as concerned about floodwaters coming out of the Waldo Canyon burn scar.

"Our building is higher than the canyon," said Ann Tilley, the Cave's human resource manager. "If it does flood, we'll have to just hang out and wait for it to pass."

She said some of the lower tunnels might fill with water during a flood, but no tours venture down that low next to Williams Canyon, which Manitou Springs officials said could bring tons of debris and water out of the burn area in a matter of minutes.

Given the proximity of the tourist attraction to the area where last June's Waldo Canyon blaze began, Tilley and her team are more focused on fire.

She said all fire agencies in the area are poised to notify Cave management immediately if a wildfire threatens that section of U.S. 24.

"Depending on the time frame that they give us, our goal is to get everyone out of here," Tilley said, noting that if customers can't evacuate, the cave would be pretty safe during a fire.

One might think that contacting tours deep within the10,000 foot long series of tunnels might be a challenge. But Tilley says that is not the case.

"It's not a big issue because I know shortcuts," she said. "I can get to anyone in the cave in just a few minutes."

Manitou Springs

The city of Manitou Springs has echoed the same mantra since summer 2012 when the subject of flash flood readiness arose in the fire's aftermath.

"Stay informed when a storm is approaching," said Manitou Springs police Chief Joe Ribeiro. "The primary message is 'Know your risk. Make your plan. Improve your outcome.'"

Ribeiro and other city officials held a pair of public emergency preparedness meetings in April and have teamed with the El Paso County and Colorado Springs offices of emergency management and the Coalition for the Upper South Platte (CUSP) in a region-wide awareness campaign..

According to Ribeiro, Manitou Springs has been passing out literature and going door-to-door to ensure businesses and residents are prepared to head to higher ground at the first sign of flash floods. He said volunteers with CUSP have also been patrolling neighborhoods in areas near Fountain Creek and helping people plan flood mitigation and escape plans.

Ribeiro said that people are "hungry for information" and the public meetings have only enhanced that.

The city will send officials around town to monitor the situation when the National Weather Service issues a flash flood watch near the Waldo Canyon fire burn scar. And the town's emergency siren will sound if a watch turns into a warning.

The weather service will bump the status to a warning when spotters see at least a half-inch of rainwater per hour hit areas of the scar. At that point, Ribeiro said, the siren can also be used to broadcast instructions to people all over the Manitou Springs flood plain.

The chief wants folks to know, however, that flash floods move very fast and carry large debris such as fallen trees. Manitou officials want people and businesses to share their plans with visitors and get to safety before an event becomes life threatening.

"In this kind of flash flood situation, if somebody ends up in the water, it's probably not a survivable event," he said. "So there probably will not be a rescue."

North Pole and Santa's Workshop

For North Pole and Santa's Workshop owner Tom Haggard, the real concern is with potential fire, not floods.

Haggard has a "been there, done that" attitude when it comes to preparing to evacuate the amusement park at the base of the Pikes Peak Highway near Cascade.

He points to experience from June 23, 2012 when his staff spotted smoke from the Waldo Canyon fire coming from the hills across U.S. 24.

"There wasn't any fear," Haggard said, noting that concerned customers began to leave the park just after noon on that day and his staff monitored the situation.

By 4 p.m. they saw flames and closed the park early - at 5 p.m. - to ensure customers' could access U.S. 24 and get to safety.

"It wasn't an evacuation. It was just a closing," he said.

The plan for 2013 has not changed. Haggard said his attraction is in close contact with the Cascade Fire Department, which is located less than a mile away.

In the event of a fire, the owner will simply shut down the rides and alert patrons. The park has 120 workers on busy days and attendance usually caps out at 1,200 customers during the busiest times. Haggard said once rides are stopped, communication will be no problem.

"You just have to talk to the customers," Haggard said. "React to it before it is critical."

The biggest hurdle could be getting people off rides if fire takes out the electricity. But Haggard said the park has power outages every season and is equipped with generators to run the rides during an evacuation. He said they've done it many times in the past.

As far as floods go, Haggard said Cascade fire officials will look to the park to help them.

The North Pole sits much higher than the fire station, which is in the flood plain. According to Haggard, he has agreed to let the fire department use the parking lot as a staging area during a flood. He said if floodwaters are bad, customers will remain at the attraction until it is safe to leave.

Are we Ready?

Emergency preparedness has taken on new urgency in the Pikes Peak region after several disasters last summer and the threat of more to come. The risk of flash floods is heightened in and near the Waldo Canyon burn area, and wildfire danger remains high. In a week-long series of articles, The Gazette takes a look at how ready we are for the next disaster.

Resources

- El Paso County: The sheriff's website has links to the county's "Ready, Set, Go!" information on evacuations, as well flood information. Click on the tabs at shr.elpasoco.com.

- Colorado Springs: The city's website has extensive information on emergency preparedness, including a new 76-page guide. Go to springsgov.com, and under departments, click on "emergency management" to see everything that's available.

- Teller County: Provides a variety of information. Go to co.teller.co.us and click on Office of Emergency Management under Features & Services.

- Red Cross: Provides information and training on emergency preparedness. Go to redcross.org and enter a zip code to find information for your area.

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