ScoutingJanuary-February 2000

When Disaster Strikes

By Tracey Emslie
Illustration by Bob Dacey

The experiences of several troops and a pack fighting a major flood show how Scouting's community can be mobilized during a catastrophe.

The flash flood that ripped through Fort Collins, Colo., without warning on July 28, 1997, was officially called "a 500-year flood," a deluge of such force that could only be expected twice in a millennium.

In a matter of hours, normally ankle-deep Spring Creek became a roaring, brown canyon of mud and debris where horsemen and emergency crews searched for bodies. Five people drowned when water swept them from their homes. Officials estimated damages in excess of $200 million.

Prepared for the emergency

By the time television helicopters began swarming like angry wasps the next morning, representatives of the Thompson-Poudre District of the Longs Peak Council had been at work for hours, coordinating volunteer efforts of Scouts and Scouters with the city's professional and volunteer network. Even before the storm was over, Scouts were busy filling sandbags for residents.

Other Scouters can apply many of the lessons taught by this disaster for the benefit of their communities in times of extreme need.

Requirement 8a for the Emergency Preparedness merit badge requires a Scout to prepare a written plan for mobilizing his troop for emergency service. For many troops, the plan may be as simple as using a telephone "calling tree," a contact list to help spread the message "Please, come help."

In a major disaster, however, planning and experience can better harness the energy of Scouting's community by coordinating efforts on a multi-unit level.

In the uncertainty and confusion that accompany a major emergency, the differences between mayhem and effectiveness are preparedness and communication. Much of the planning that enables a rapid response can be done ahead of time at roundtable or other district meetings.

Coordination is a key

Troop, pack, or an individual Scout or Scouter's offers to help with emergency relief should be coordinated through a single source. A small committee, knowledgeable in local volunteer structure and contacts, is an enormous timesaver. When the unexpected arises (and it will), it helps to know if it would be best to call Will at Red Cross, Mary at the volunteer's clearinghouse, or Bob at city hall.

Existing calling trees and e-mail are useful within the district, troop, and pack for verifying safety, determining needs, mobilizing volunteers, and establishing the availability of resources. However, conventional phone lines may be damaged or overwhelmed in a major disaster. A list of available cell phones or citizens-band radio (CB) units in troops or packs can be beneficial.

Safety parameters are vital, especially when working with excited youth in a devastated environment. The most dramatic and immediate area of damage is probably not a situation that is safe for the boys or the place where they can be most useful to the community.

After the early devastation of lives lost and homes swept away, one of the most visible needs in Fort Collins was for restoration work along Spring Creek. This work fit well with Scouting's outdoor emphasis but presented certain problems. Thompson-Poudre volunteers, for instance, quickly decided that no Scouts should be working near moving water, unstable banks, sewage contamination, downed power lines, or other conditions that could in any way endanger the boys.

Service 'gaps'

Discussions with city emergency coordinators, the Red Cross, and United Way volunteer networks, however, determined that a major "service gap" existed in the established emergency relief system. There was enormous need for generated "muscle" in helping clean homes and neighborhoods, especially among senior citizens and disabled residents.

Less than 24 hours after the flood, radio and newspaper public service announcements told that Scouts were available to help with cleanup efforts. Two phone numbers were provided; the second one was a backup for a busy signal at the home of the district chair. Lists of requests were matched with troop and pack volunteers.

An adult volunteer checked each location on a cell phone to make sure the work and site were appropriate for Scouts. Every request for help was met, although one referral did have to be made to a Red Cross team trained in dealing with hazardous contamination.

Extra Scouters were assigned to each group of Scouts beyond the usual two-deep leadership. This provided safer levels of supervision, in case of a chaotic situation. More Scouters also meant better contingencies for sudden "call aways," as well as added muscle and experience.

Cub Scouts were assigned to "dry" (but necessary) duties, such as helping at collection points for donations of food and clothing. Scouts working at sites where floodwaters had receded had to have current tetanus shots (this information taken from summer camp medical forms), heavy gloves, and boots.

Only adult Scouters were allowed to drive trucks and trailers.

Thirteen troops and one pack volunteered their help in the aftermath of the Spring Creek flood.

They filled sandbags and shoveled mud; carried sodden clothing, furniture, belongings, and carpets from basements; loaded and hauled away trash from homes, yards, and entire streets. They mopped floors, scrubbed bathrooms and kitchens, folded clothing, stacked cans of food, and cleaned out flooded storage units.

They removed a ruined linoleum floor and helped a former Scout who lived in a destroyed mobile home park recover jamboree mementos.

Troop 83, chartered to the Kiwanis Club of Fort Collins, cleaned a retired couple's flooded basement. The wife, a former den leader, baked cookies for them. The husband fought back tears.

First-year Scout Nate Rankin summed up the prevailing Scout attitude. "We just help. We're Boy Scouts. That's what we do. We help."

Lessons learned

For the adults, it was both uplifting and humbling to watch the impact on exhausted, discouraged, and overwhelmed flood victims when enthusiastic groups of boys pitched in on heavy "crud" work for strangers, then smiled, waved, and went on for more.

Good manners, smiles, and respect can be as important as food, water, and dry clothes to someone who has lost most or all possessions. This is not the least of lessons for boys to learn.

Babbling little Spring Creek went back to being ankle-deep. People who were displaced found new places to live. Damaged homes, streets, and bridges were repaired or bulldozed. The city returned to normal.

Scouts and Scouters, as integral parts of that recovery, learned a great deal about the personal needs, community benefits, and satisfaction of a job well done in response to a true emergency.

Some newcomers to Northern Colorado breathed a sigh of relief that it was all over. Surely once a freak storm of such disastrous magnitude has hit, the area should be safe for a while.

More experienced residents, however, keep emergency plans on file. This was the second "500-year flood" in Larimer County in 20 years.

Tracey Emslie lives in Fort Collins, Colo.

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