May 28, 2013
They're not building arks, but some area schools are battening down the hatches in case flood waters, much like last summer's flames of fire, come rushing toward the door.
Nearby communities that send students to the Manitou School District 14 were evacuated for periods ranging from a day to a week during last year's Waldo Canyon fire, the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history.
So this year, officials are holding their breath.
'We need enough moisture to keep fires down but not enough to flood," said Tim Miller, D-14 assistant superintendent.
It's a sentiment echoed by Pikes Peak area school administrators who are charged with keeping students and staff safe in potential danger zones if Mother Nature goes awry.
But Miller and the others are relying on a lot more than hope, having reviewed and strengthened evacuation and shelter plans. And while most schools are out for the summer, some have summer school or other events in their buildings, and day care centers in the area operate year-round.
Like many districts, D-14 buildings are designated emergency shelters but could not be used last summer because of the fires looming over nearby ridges. This summer, Manitou High School is again poised to be an evacuation site for the American Red Cross, which has placed a trailer there.
The district's playground at Ute Pass Elementary School was destroyed last summer by a flood in the aftermath of the Waldo Canyon fire. The grounds were covered with mud and debris after heavy rain rushed down adjacent Sand Gulch. El Paso County engineers have since installed a four-foot high sand bag-like barrier hundreds of feet long, intended to divert water away from the school and towards Fountain Creek. The new playground was moved uphill 100 yards east and away from the glulch.
D-14 also monitors rock slides along U.S. 24, which is used to bring students to and from neighboring communities. As recently as May 9, school was delayed because of slides. If the Ute Pass corridor is closed, students can be sheltered in place, Miller noted. The school now has on hand emergency rations such as granola bars and bottled water.
Colorado Springs School District 11 and Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 will provide emergency transportation if D-14 buses are stranded at the Ute Pass bus barn, Miller said.
Sandbags are in place at the Alpine Autism Center off Flying W Ranch Road, which treats children diagnosed with autism.
The center has gotten a lot of attention and assistance from fire and police as well as volunteer groups and neighbors, who are all worried about flash flooding in the burn scar, according to Tana Rice, operations manager.
"We have been told we are in one of the major areas of concern," she said.
The school backs to the Flying W Ranch, which burned to the ground last year, and is in the direct path of floods that could come from heavy rains barreling down the charred hillside and canyon. Among mitigation efforts, the city has removed debris from the area, is maintaining holding ponds and has reseeded, Rice said.
Because the center's 27 students work one-on-one with teachers, evacuation will be easier than traditional schools, Rice said. In the event of an emergency, each teacher will be responsible for the child in their charge. They'll use personal vehicles to leave the property and meet at a designated off-site location.
The staff at the year-round school also monitors a city-supplied weather radio for flash flood watches or warnings, Rice said, and police have patrolled the area when it rains.
Last month, members of the southern chapter of the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado installed drought-tolerant landscaping around the building, to further protect it and catch branches and sludge. "We've worked with different people to figure out the best thing to do," Rice said. "We have close relationships with our parents, and I think they feel pretty comfortable with the plans."
Cheyenne Mountain High School was used extensively last summer as a shelter by the Red Cross and is ready to continue in that role.
"We are prepared, but God forbid we need it," said Superintendent Walt Cooper. "We learned some things last go around, so we can be of greater help."
Even small things make a big difference. Last year, they had to scramble to get enough power strips for emergency workers' computers so have now stocked lots of extras.
Cooper said that Cheyenne Mountain Elementary is at the highest risk, located on Farthing Drive in Broadmoor Bluffs - but near a fire station. The school has detailed evacuation plans to bus kids to other schools, including nearby Pinon Elementary, where parents can pick them up.
The district also has done mitigation; there are no shake roofs or siding, or vegetation close to buildings, plus there are sprinklers.
"Wildland firefighters will tell you that usually there is no safer place to be sheltered than a school, and that is why so many are designated emergency sites," Cooper said.
Colorado Springs School District 11 has worked with city officials to determine which of its schools are in danger of flooding, said spokeswoman Devra Ashby. While all schools have evacuation protocol, some, such as Howbert Elementary, in Pleasant Valley, have specific plans to respond to a flood. At 1023 N. 31st St., the school is near Camp Creek and a drainage channel.
"That school is of most concern right now because of their location," Ashby said. "Parents have been made aware of the plan through newsletters, meetings, the parent-teacher association and emails."
Students will walk to The First Evangelical Free church for staging and would be picked up by D-11 buses, which would take students and staff to Holmes Middle School for parent pick-up.
Another D-11 school, Chipeta Elementary, in the Mountain Shadows neighborhood that lost 347 homes in last summer's fire, created a program with Aspen Pointe, a local mental health provider, to help students feel empowered and prepared for natural disasters. Earlier this month, students received a supply pack for aid in a crisis situation and heard a presentation, "I'm Not Scared When I'm Prepared."
Day care centers in the path of potential flooding also have updated evacuation plans, including Mountain Shadows Kindercare, at the bottom of Flying W Ranch Road. If needed, the center plans to evacuate its 80 students to other Kindercare affiliates across town, according to Katie Anderson, director.
"Parents will know where their children will be instead of coming here," she explained.
Flood preparations also include a NOAA radio alert system on site.
"We watch the news, and our heads are turned up to the sky," Anderson said.
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.
- 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.