The Improvisational Response to Disasters

The recent flash floods in the Front Range of Colorado bring several thoughts to mind.

First, our thoughts and prayers go out to those who have lost or missing loved ones, and those whose homes and favorite places have been damaged. One flood seems like quite enough, yet the rains keep coming and streams like Boulder Creek, Four-Mile Creek, the St Vrain River, Big Thompson River and others keep roaring down toward towns, homes and businesses.


The above image shows Highway 36, just north of Lyons. Yes, that’s the main highway between Boulder and Estes Park.


Above is Highway 7, about 12 miles west of Lyons, up the canyon toward the Peak to Peak Highway.

Our family enjoyed a reunion week this past summer in Lyons. We stayed at the Stone Mountain Lodge just past Lyons, enjoyed hiking up along the Peak to Peak Highway and even rafted on the gentle St Vrain River. Today, Lyons is cut off from the world. No electricity, no water (the city supply was overrun and breached) and no passable roads in or out. I’ve seen these beautiful places minus the water, and my heart goes out to those affected.

How does a town / county / state / nation respond to a disaster of this kind?

Of course, there’s planning. Maybe even preparedness drills. But what if the assumptions all change?

  • a 100-year flood event
  • part of the deluge hits areas that burned in the last three years, so there’s a greater tendency for landslides
  • the rain keeps coming after the first wave of flooding
  • roads cut off – and we’re not talking about places where you can “go around the other block”
  • helicopters can’t fly in the continued bad weather
  • many of the mountain residents are completely out of reach; some stay out of reach in normal times

What skills would allow for teams to adapt to unexpected circumstances?

Yes. Improvisation skills, applied to emergency response. (You probably knew that was coming.)

It’s not possible to adequately respond to disasters with pure improvisation. Life is far to complex for that. (Just think about all of the different pieces of our infrastructure that must be accounted for.) But once the plans are in place, and a disaster occurs, the actions the teams take must have elements of improvisation to succeed. You can’t apply an evacuation plan with helicopters if the helicopters can’t fly. Even more important, how do you get disparate teams to work together under that kind of pressure?

Dr. Mary Tyszkiewicz has explored the links between improvisation and disaster response. She calls it Heroic Improv, and we’ll introduce you to her in a blog post very soon.

Patrick Short fell off of his inner tube in 4 feet of water on St Vrain River in July. That was on a rapid with a difficulty rating of maybe .25.

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