Learning and Resiliency in Colorado

Source: The Denver Post

Source: The Denver Post

In 2013 Colorado suffered one of the worst disasters in state history, a rainfall event that caused flooding and landslides across a wide area of the state. The 2013 floods came on the heels of several major wildfires like the Black Forest Fire and the Waldo Canyon Fire.

I had just moved to Colorado when the floods hit. Over the past six years, in my capacity as a researcher and practitioner, I have seen a remarkable learning process spurred by the floods There are too many examples to count, but a few of my favorites:

  • Resiliencia Para Todos is an emergent organization in Longmont that works with the Latinx community to identify potential vulnerabilities and actions for disaster and climate resilience.

  • The Colorado Hazard Mapping Program is a state-funded and led effort to update hazard mapping for communities at-risk from floods, erosion and debris flows. These efforts are vital to efforts to make meaningful regulatory changes at the local level.

  • The Colorado Recovery and Resiliency Collaborative (CRRC) is a bottom-up effort by local, county and state government officials to learn from the 2013 floods and improve resiliency to future events. The CRRC’s efforts, which began with a “Lessons Learned” event in 2015, eventually led to the reform of the Colorado Disaster Emergency Act, several guides and programs that will help future local governments to respond to extreme events, and cross-sector collaborations for building community resilience.

  • The Planning for Hazards project (full disclosure, I work on this one) provides land-use planning tools and model code language for communities to mitigate the impact of future hazards.

  • The Colorado Resiliency and Recovery Office (now the Colorado Resilience Office) led a state-wide process to create a resiliency framework that incorporates lessons learned from the fires and floods.

  • Communities like Lyons have fought tooth-and-nail to recover housing for families with low and moderate-incomes, and recognized that housing affordability is one of the central issues for building resilient communities.

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Anyone who studies hazards planning and policy knows that there is a window of opportunity for learning after a disaster, a time when public support and external resources make learning and policy changes possible that might not otherwise have been possible. Nearly six years after the flood, many of the external funds that fueled our recovery have dried up, recovery staff have moved on to other opportunities, and most residents (and voters) have stopped thinking about the event. Folks like myself, who live and breathe disasters, naturally worry about the window of opportunity closing with so much more left to do. To really shape long-term resilience to natural hazards in our state, we need to reform our institutions and have real, durable incentives to plan for hazards.

Yesterday, the state legislature took a huge step in the right direction by reauthorizing funding for the Colorado Resilience Office on a deep, bi-partisan basis. The office, which works to assist communities to build resilience to future hazards and recover after disaster events, had initially been required to raise grant funding to continue operating, and its future was in doubt. This legislation will fund the office from state general funds (well, at least until 2022 when the funding is scheduled for a sunset review), and allow its 3-person staff to engage, leverage, and build on the many learning efforts that have happened post-flood.

It feels great to work in a state that is investing in resilience. Congratulations to the CRO and a special thanks to the lawmakers (Jonathan Singer, Rochelle Galindo and Joann Ginal) who sponsored the legislation.