December 1, 2012
The neighborhoods nestled in the foothills in northwest Colorado Springs are quiet in the middle of the day.
A couple strolls. Joggers jog. Deer graze, or doze, in front and back yards.
All is quiet — except for the occasional clatter of construction; jarring, sporadic interruptions in an otherwise idyllic setting.
Just as oddly out of place are the cavernous maws of large blue dumpsters, portable bathrooms and heavy equipment that rise like dinosaurs, groaning, heavy-necked earth movers.
A silver Jeep Compact silently eases by, road by road, almost as if it is sneaking, barely moving at 15 mph, with four high definition cameras recording the day’s events as it rolls.
To Andrea Szell, a doctoral student in geography from Kent State University and navigator in the Jeep, what she sees is unexpected. She’s here, with fellow PhD student and Lab Manager Adam Cinderich to record the area’s recovery from the Waldo Canyon fire. Both are with the GIS Health and Hazards Lab.
Szell expected to see a lot more damage.
“I am surprised so much has already been done,” she said. “So much has already been cleared. I expected to see more rubble and more damage.”
The duo is part of a project to record the recovery of disasters using spatial video technology. Back at Kent State, the video will be used to develop a color-coded map showing stages of recovery. In six months, they will be back, cruising the neighborhoods again to see “what has recovered and what has stagnated,” said Cinderich.
Cinderich is less surprised by what he sees. He has family in Stetson Hills and when the fire roared through the area last summer, he was on the phone with them daily. He’s also the veteran of the two, having spent time in Joplin, Mo. observing recovery from the monster tornado that ripped through the city. This is Szell’s first foray into a disaster scene.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said.
The project is funded by a grant from the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Natural Hazards Center. The pair is using a new geospatial technology called spatial video that links video surveying to a geographic information system to map and analyze recovery over time in disaster areas.
Other areas where this technology has been used by the lab include New Orleans’ recovery from Hurricane Katrina and wildfires in San Diego.
This is the first stage of study at the Waldo Canyon wildfire recovery site, said Jacqueline Curtis, project leader and assistant professor in the department of geography at Kent State. She is also associate director of the GIS Health and Hazards Lab. Her husband, Andrew Curtis, is lab director.
“What we are doing now is the six month post survey and one-year post survey. Then there will be larger spin-offs, interviews of survivors who are willing to be interviewed, interviews with state, local and federal agencies on policies, the role of organizations,” Jacqueline Curtis said.
“We look at different disasters holistically, not in silos. We can learn from all of them,” she said.
The results — and the video — will be available to the public.
“After Katrina, we had a lot of people contact us,” she said. “Whatever we do on the research side has to provide a service to the community.”
One place sure to get the data is the city’s Office of Emergency Management. Cinderich and Szell met briefly Friday with division Manager Bret Waters.
“I believe it will be helpful when we evaluate the recovery,” Waters said. “Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.”
Documentation, he added, “is always valuable. We learn from disaster and in this case we can learn from recovery efforts and how fast recovery is moving in that area.”
Most of the areas that Szell and Cinderich saw Thursday were either unscathed, in mid-repair or reborn.
On Aubrey Way, there was landscaping work. On another street, two homes were being rebuilt.
One of the questions under consideration, said Cinderich, is the pattern of rebuilding. For instance, if one homeowner rebuilds, then the homeowners next to that follow, does that establish a core that spreads, creating a sense of community and spark further rebuilding?
At the same time, if rebuilding is scattered, can that prevent further rebuilding because homeowners won’t know if the empty or burned out lot next to them will have a house rebuilt on it or not? Such gaps could slow recovery.
“If you don’t know if the person next to you is going to rebuild, you might not either,” he said.
Also to be considered, he added, is the type of damage and the scars left behind, both physical and emotional. Some people may not want to rebuild because of emotional scars.
“Here, trees are still standing,” he said. “They’re charred, but they’re here. In Joplin, they were gone. What is the emotional impact of seeing dead and burned vegetation all around?”
In one area of Mountain Shadows, burnt trees are scattered around like skeletons. There are foundations that survived, toasted earth, shards of glass.
One homeowner marked the corners of what was once their home by sticking large plastic candy canes in the ground. A festive, bright red, garland graced another empty foundation.
“I just put up my Christmas decorations before I came,” Cinderich said, shaking his head. “This is kinda sad.”
“This is the worst of the areas we’ve seen,” Szell said.
Still, there are positives.
A mural has been painted on a concrete foundation below ground level, once a basement, with the garland. “Hope,” it says.” “Rise.” And a birthday note. “Happy Birthday, Jim.”
A sense of humor, too, shines through.
There is a glass outdoor table in that basement, as if one could sit and have dinner, and a pile of firewood for those cold nights in the open air. On top of the foundation is a wood train engine, a ceramic frog, an iron planter and miscellaneous flotsam. Survivors, it seems, of the wildfire.
A row of beautiful, untouched upscale homes overlooks this scene. They are within yards of each other, yet one is like the landscape of the moon. The other a neighborhood mostly teeming with life.
This seems to be the pattern; one area untouched, another devastated.
“They share a backyard,” Cinderich says. “The only difference is one is standing. One is not.”