“Challenging” was the word most used during the informational special meeting sponsored by Town of Lake City and Hinsdale County Wednesday evening, May 8, at the Armory. The mission of this initial meeting was to update the public on the unprecedented avalanche debris concerns, upcoming evaluation of the two dams along CR20 up Henson Creek, and the potential for flooding as the temperatures warm.
Town of Lake City opened the meeting with a brief but official ratification of the Thursday, May 2, declaration of a local state of emergency. In attendance for the vote were Town Trustees Dave Roberts, Alan Rae, Jeff Heaton, Richard Moore, Jud Hollingsworth, and Mayor Bruce Vierheller. In her opening remarks as she asked the trustees to ratify the measure, Town Manager Caroline Mitchell noted, “The debris presents an unprecedented challenge for Lake City and Hinsdale County and declaring the emergency last Thursday was required to have the state help that we need.”
Following the unanimous vote to approve the emergency declaration, the town meeting was quickly adjourned, and town trustees stepped away from the conference table, yielding the floor to County Commissioners Susan Thompson, Kristie Borchers and Stan Whinnery, County Administrator Jami Scroggins, County Administrative Assistant Sandy Hines, and Sheriff Justin Casey.
Henry Mitchell, currently the Emergency Manager (EM) for San Miguel County, was introduced as Hinsdale County’s acting EM for the coming watchful weeks, as all eyes are on the numerous melting debris fields left by the avalanches this spring. Mr. Mitchell, who hales from St. Louis, Missouri, comes to Lake City on loan from Telluride where he has headed that department for the past two years.
Mr. Mitchell holds a Master’s of Science degree in Disaster Preparedness and Biosecurity from St. Louis University. He has been an Emergency Manager for five years, four of them in Colorado. He served in Boulder prior to the San Miguel County position.
In addition to Mr. Mitchell’s help and expertise, Scroggins announced additional workers were arriving to aid in the removal of river debris. With the declaration, she also noted additional state experts would be coming to continue the assessment of the wide-ranging problem.
The Armory was filled with interested citizens of Lake City and surrounding areas wanting up-to-date information on the changing conditions. Scroggins, in her capacity as the Hinsdale County Public Information Officer, outlined the legal requirements necessary in such a declaration. She stated that Colorado Governor Jared Polis had also declared the State of Emergency for Hinsdale County this week, which triggers the process for emergency disaster assistance and broadens the scope of technical assistance and a state emergency operations center. She listed a hefty slew of state agencies which could potentially be participating.
Repeatedly stating that there is currently no imminent threat to the community, Scoggins added they just want citizens to be informed and prepared. As areas of concern and assessment, Scroggins noted the county has experienced “an unusual avalanche season that left us with massive amounts of debris, blocking both roadways and waterways.” She emphasized that CR 20 and the Henson Creek area are of “particular concern,” as are low-lying residential areas and infrastructure.
Two dams up Henson Creek are also being assessed, Hidden Treasure and the Ute-Ulay. The 100-year-old dams have had some breaching in previous years, and a structural engineer is being brought in to assess the structural integrity.
Scroggins stated, “There is potential for possible flooding and a debris drop as it all melts out.” She added that as of Wednesday afternoon it was determined that County Road 20 was to be closed indefinitely from the Snowden Meadow and beyond, noting “it will be posted and closed to all traffic, including pedestrians.” She also emphasized that both children and adults stay off any of the avalanche runs. “There is a real danger of collapse.”
Hinsdale County and their new influx of expert consultants are currently working on:
• Accurate mapping of the high risk areas. The public is encouraged to check the Hinsdale County website for updates.
• Everyone was repeatedly advised to sign up for the new Code Red Alert warning system.
Handouts at the meeting gave instructions. To receive the messaging in case of emergency, one must be signed up via http://public.coderedweb.com/CNE/en-US/BF7ED953CC69
Assistance, if needed, is available at Public Health office at 304 W. Third Street or at the county administrative office. Those who sign up will receive a variety of messaging on their phone or via email should conditions dictate notification, ranging from READY, indicating that a blockage has been identified, to a GO NOW warning. Tourists and visitors may also sign up for Code Red warnings.
• Implementation of a siren system is pending atop the Armory or administration building.
• Assurances were given that more public meetings would be forthcoming as more concrete information develops.
• Hinsdale County is working with the state to place monitors in Henson Creek to warn of rising water levels or a breach.
• Alternate locations for critical infrastructure components such as the Medical Center and the Fire Department are being considered.
Sandy Hines gave a brief but important overview of basic preparations that everyone should make. The list started with signing up for the Code Red Alerts and also included staying aware of surroundings and coming weather conditions. She recommended those in low-lying areas move valuables to higher levels in their homes. Preparations of food, water, and essentials to last a minimum of 72 hours were recommended.
Also encouraged were family plans for evacuation and communication in case of an emergency, being prepared for power outages, honoring the road closures, and to never drive through standing water. She encouraged folks to review FEMA guidelines for emergency preparations and to follow instructions.
Testing of the Code Red System is to be implemented in coming days, and Scroggins again encouraged everyone to get signed up for that program without delay.
As the floor was opened to questions, Jodi Linsey asked how Henson Creek was being monitored now. Henry Mitchell responded, “Three different areas have been marked with T-posts. He and county staff, including Road and Bridge crew, are monitoring the locations visually several times a day, taking photos which are filed for comparison as conditions change with warming temperatures.
Questions were asked regarding estimates for opening CR20 and the Loop. Scroggins replied, “We just don’t know at this point.” Commissioner Borchers adding, “We are working on Economic Development plans as well. We know how important CR20 is to the local economy.”
Don Booher, who has a cabin located up CR 20, asked if the road was actively being worked on now, or if the county was waiting. Commissioner Whinnery responded they were waiting. “Yesterday we made it to Capital City.” He added, “Galena Gulch has new avalanches to the bottom of the river. So, we don’t want to put our guys in harm’s way.” SNOTEL Sites located at Red Mountain, San Juan County, in similar mountainous terrain now measure 210 to 215 percent above average. Indicating that Cinnamon Pass may be in contention if too much snow is found on Engineer Pass, Whinney said, “We would like to get one pass open as soon as possible…simultaneous with the early warning system. We are just asking everybody to bear with us.”
Bank Manager Carolyn Hull asked how much time low-lying residents would have should they receive the GO NOW warning on their phone. Scroggins and Henry Mitchell both indicated that GO NOW meant just that, and such a message would indicate immediate action out of the low-lying areas, explaining the need for preparing ahead of time. Commissioner Thompson interjected that people should be receiving a series of lesser updates and warnings before any GO NOW warning is issued. Hull responded, “Keep in mind that our cell phones often don’t work when we need them here.”
Rick Hernandez inquired if resources such as large machinery or temporary bridges were being pre-positioned and stored in handy locations. EM Henry Mitchell replied, “Today were looking at that equipment. We put in a request for heavy equipment with CDOT to stage near the Henson Bridge.” Also on his list were large messaging boards around town for current information, as well as light towers with flood lighting to enhance visibility for workers should something happen at night.
Harvey DuChene asked what the National Weather Service projections were for this area and also expressed evacuation concerns for the two low-lying areas of Highway 149 — one in the narrows near Valley View Ranch and the other near the Packer Massacre site leaving town toward Creede.
Town Manager Caroline Mitchell reported that the National Weather Service has begun weekly briefings this week for the western regions. “Currently, they are predicting higher than average temperatures and precipitation May through August.”
Lake City Community School Superintendent Rebecca Hall expressed safety concerns for the school children, as well as conditions during the upcoming build of the new facility onsite. Whinnery noted that new LIDAR flights were scheduled to hopefully get a more accurate assessment of the conditions in a timely manner.
Troy Mead, the previous Emergency Manager for the county, asked, “What is the evacuation plan should the town and county flood? When the Code Red message goes out, where are you sending people? Where are the shelters where they should go?”
“We are not to that point yet,” Scoggins replied, and again repeated, “There is no immediate threat.”
Scroggins assured, “All these things, such as the pinch points and the debris blockages, are currently being assessed. I want to emphasize this is all predictions at this point. There are many factors to consider, and we are doing the best we can. As soon as we have new information, we will share it.”
Area resident Jesse Kendall assessment, “I want to thank you all for being proactive and not reactive,” was met with applause from the audience.