Giving Thought: Planning for disaster key is dealing with recovery

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen

It is hard to believe that even though the mountains have not quite closed, fire season is right around the corner. This past weekend’s Duck Pond Fire, along I-70 near Gypsum, demonstrated it is never too early to start thinking about preparation and planning for disasters.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, our community was moved to action and Aspen Community Foundation established the Community to Community Disaster Relief Fund to channel resources into the impacted areas. The fund was activated again for the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 and other natural disasters in the U.S.

Then in 2018, disaster came to our own backyard with the Lake Christine Fire. While there was significant damage caused by the fire, it was fortunately not as devastating as it easily could have been.

As a community foundation, Aspen Community Foundation is committed to connecting generosity with need. Reflecting on the impact and response to the Lake Christine Fire, it became clear that because of the unique makeup of the greater Roaring Fork region, a more coordinated disaster response system was needed to equitably serve community needs. This event highlighted the lack of coordination across organizations and disparities and gaps in communication across different populations.

In 2020, the pandemic emerged as another type of disaster with an impact on our community. Knowing that disasters often have a long tail of recovery and that a coordinated response has broader impact than individual efforts, ACF committed to exploring ways to maximize response across the full timeline of recovery.

ACF contracted the support of The Center for Disaster Philanthropy in 2021 to assist in the creation of a playbook and structure to better coordinate efforts across government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and philanthropists to best meet the needs of those impacted by disasters. This work is focused on preparation for natural disasters.

Since February of this year, ACF has convened stakeholders across Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle counties for three meetings to explore what might be possible for our region, to identify gaps and to begin creating a structure for deployment should another disaster occur.

The first meeting engaged over 50 partners across the region. County emergency management teams from across the valley shared the structures that are already in place from a governmental perspective. Partners then discussed what needs have gone unmet in past disasters and where there were gaps in communication across the community.

Several partners involved in this process represent those who need additional support in times of crisis. Jill Pidcock, executive director of the Arc of the Central Mountains, says, “Emergency/Disaster Preparedness is important for all of us. The Arc of the Central Mountains supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities as well as Access and Functional Needs. Helping people to pre-plan for their own lives enables and empowers people to protect themselves and give them peace of mind as it relates to a disaster. Our stakeholders have additional factors to plan and create accommodations for like: durable medical equipment, alternative methods of communication, unique medical needs, differing levels of independence.”

In the second convening, Kim Maphis Early, the meeting facilitator from The Center for Disaster Philanthropy, shared four models that other communities have used to better prepare for disasters and the partners explored what might work best for our region. Ultimately, partners agreed to move forward with the creation of a Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD) structure.

April’s meeting marked the final convening with the larger group as Early shared the next steps for creating the structure. Representatives from nine organizations stepped forward to create a steering committee to further develop the structure and continue creating the response plan to ensure equitable and accessible assistance is available when it is needed.

Angela Mills, Executive Director of United Way Battlement to the Bells, has learned from this process and joined the steering committee to continue support the process. “Our area provides some unique challenges in the face of disaster response, but our shareholders’ fortitude, commitment, and creativity are energizing. The group of people who attended meetings from the beginning of this process and those now involved in the planning process will ensure our area has an inclusive community-centric COAD set up for success,” she said.

While this community may have unique challenges to contend with in times of disaster it also has a committed group dedicated to improving outcomes in times of adversity.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.