Connecting state and local government leaders
In a place wracked by fires and floods, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers says that “we’re always educating ourselves on best practices” plus building up fiscal reserves to deal with the next disaster.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers says there’s an upside to the fact that his city has been ground zero for a string of headline-grabbing enormously destructive natural disasters over the last decade. He says that Colorado Springs officials probably don’t have to work as hard as officials in other cities to make the case that building up local resilience should be a top public policy priority.
“I see it as just an ongoing process, just continual,” he told Route Fifty in August. “I’m talking about the work of updating equipment, educating citizens, building resources—we’re always educating ourselves on best practices.”
“The fact is, disasters are up and federal money to meet the challenge is down,” Suthers said. It’s just the “new reality,” as he put it. “People complain, but this is how I just see the world now. There’s less money available for all kinds of things—even basic infrastructure, highways.”
A highly respected Republican Party figure in Colorado, Suthers was state attorney general for a decade before winning election to the mayor’s office in a landslide in 2015. Since then, he has convinced residents of conservative Colorado Springs to pay additional taxes to fund long-overdue upgrades to stormwater infrastructure.
“We’re now committed to spending $500 million,” he said.
Suthers is quick to add that the city budget also now includes as much as 17 percent reserves, which will be there if needed to shore up disaster preparation and response. “I’d like to get that to 20 percent before the next economic downturn,” he said.
Particular Threats, Particular Resilience
In an era when the federal government bounces day to day between political chaos and legislative gridlock, state and local governments around the country are wrestling with major shortfalls in health care and education funding, affordable housing crises, crumbling infrastructure, dipping pension funds and, increasingly, climate-related disaster, including drought, crop failure, dust storms, flash flooding, heat waves and wildfires.
Officials have responded by pursuing policy that bolsters local resilience tailored to their needs.
In Colorado Springs, the main threats come in the form of flood and fire.
Just 70 miles south of Denver, the city’s roughly half a million residents live against a wildly colorful stretch of the Rocky Mountain foothills—the area’s jagged red and purple rock formations famously mix with green trees and blue skies. Like other cities along the state’s Front Range, Colorado Springs includes large stretches of wildland-urban interface, where mountain forest and brush run up against houses and schools.
In the spring and summer, storms rumble to life in the mountains above the city, often out of sight and earshot, sending walls of water rushing down into the city to overtake urban streams and creek beds in a flash. During what is now the year-round wildfire season, blazes fed by soaring temperatures and dry forest and scrub rake the greater metro region and the El Paso County plains that spread out to the east.
In 2013, the Black Forest fire scorched 22 square miles and destroyed more than 500 homes. It was the most destructive fire in state history. It also came on the heels of the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire, the state’s second-most destructive blaze, which burned through 30 square miles of the Pike National Forest just northwest of Colorado Springs and destroyed nearly 350 homes.
The week Route Fifty spoke to Mayor Suthers, a storm hurled softball-sized hail out of the sky above the city, killing zoo animals and shattering auto-windshield glass.
Collaboration and Consolidation
Suthers said that, in recent years, there has been “more energy” around resilience collaboration and that has translated to more groups getting involved in working together to prepare for and respond to the area’s flash floods and wildfires.
“You have to include the broadest range of groups possible,” he said.
Colorado Springs has entered into intergovernmental agreements with nearby cities and with surrounding El Paso County. It also works with large private landowners, national and local nonprofit organizations, the U.S. military, and the U.S. Forest Service.
The city is a member with El Paso County of a regional resiliency and recovery collaborative, which meets twice a year, a local chapter of the state’s Resiliency and Recovery Office, created in 2015 in response to unprecedented fall flooding that drenched the state, upended oil tanks, washed out roads, crumbled bridges and stretched thin emergency resources.
When disaster strikes, Colorado Springs can also tap resources available at the many military installations that dot the area, including the Fort Carson Army Base, Peterson Air Force Base, Schriever Air Force Base, and the United States Air Force Academy. “There are lots of air resources,” Suthers says. “Very fortunate in that regard.”
The city’s education efforts include regular disaster drills and evacuation trainings for residents. “People, especially in the wildland-interface neighborhoods, practice where to go, which local high schools to gather at, where to find their pets, and so on.”
Over the last decade, Colorado Springs has ramped up fire mitigation programs, earning the city fire department nods as a national leader in the area. City employees now make home visits and recommend how residents might best manage their property to prevent and contain fire. The city conducts “brush pickups” three times a year using college-student and private-contractor crews. It also helps that the city has received significant grant funding to do mitigation work, Suthers says. Over the last six years, the federal government has kicked in $39 million and the state has delivered $3 million. Local foundations have given $500,000.
Suthers says the city and other organizations have also put money into trail and open-space funds. “If we can acquire private stretches of land in those areas and keep it from being developed, that’s better for all of us,” he says, adding that there is less neighborhood development being undertaken in the mountain areas than there used to be. “I think maybe we’ve hit a plateau on that kind of building.”
Colorado Springs and El Paso County are currently exploring how best to merge the city and county emergency management offices in order to save resources and improve communication and planning.
Tests, Responses, Rankings
August has ended, so the hottest days of the year are likely in the past for Colorado Springs residents. Still, some of the state’s worst rain storms have erupted in September. There will be more fires and floods and softball sized hail.
But Suthers says Colorado Springs has been tested by great disaster and that it has come out stronger for the way it has responded.
“I want to just add that Colorado Springs was also ranked one of the best places in the country to live this year by U.S. News and World Report,” he joked. “I just wanted to point that out to your readers.”
John Tomasic is a journalist who lives in Seattle.