Elbert County's Heroes Respond to March Blizzard

Elbert County’s Heroes Respond to Epic March Blizzard

On Wednesday, March 13, Elbert County endured the strongest blizzard in years, and your dedicated County government employees were ready. The storm, called the “Bomb Cyclone” in some media accounts, was as strong as a Category 2 hurricane, with wind gusts up to 70 miles per hour. Although only 10 inches of snow fell, there were some drifts in the County up to 20 feet tall.

By Wednesday morning, while it was still raining, nearly all of the 53 Elbert County Road and Bridge employees, even those who weren’t scheduled to work that day, had arrived at the Road and Bridge shop in Kiowa, ready to go. They were up to the challenge of keeping County motorists safe, clearing as much of Elbert County’s 1,300 miles of paved and gravel roads as quickly as they could. Many of them worked overnight on Wednesday, and up to 12-hour shifts on Thursday and Friday. After a short rest on Saturday, many were back to work on Sunday, getting the roads ready for the Monday morning commute.

Residents of Elizabeth, Kiowa, Simla and unincorporated areas of Elbert County responded to the storm emergency by helping neighbors, keeping in touch on social media, and sheltering stranded drivers. The sun came out a few days later and snow drifts are barely visible now, but we won’t forget the heroism of our friends, family, and neighbors, including County employees who drive snowplows, deputies who responded to calls for help, and emergency management personnel who coordinated all the elements of the response, from feeding people in shelters to making sure cell phone towers were working correctly.

Rory Hale, Director of Public Works, said, “It’s impossible to single out one specific person - literally every staff member went above and beyond. Starting from the top with Monty Hankins, our Road and Bridge superintendent, to all the foremen and each and every employee who selflessly sacrificed sleep and time with their families to serve the citizens of Elbert County. I’m privileged to know and work alongside each of them.”

On Wednesday afternoon, County Commissioners declared a state of emergency, which allowed us to access state resources. Shortly after that, troops with the Colorado National Guard were on their way. All in all, County Road and Bridge employees and Elbert County Sheriff’s Office deputies helped on 218 rescues, partnering with Rattlesnake, Elbert, Kiowa and Simla Fire Districts, the Colorado National Guard troops and responders from other counties.

County Commissioners Chris Richardson, Grant Thayer, and Rick Pettitt expressed their thanks for everyone’s efforts during the blizzard. “It is an honor to serve with you and it is clear that our citizens appreciate your service as well. Though recovery efforts are still underway, the reports are extremely positive. Events such as these are the ultimate reason Elbert County government exists. Though most in our County are self-sufficient and ready, able, and willing to help their neighbors - some events are just too big and require a well-trained and dedicated group such as you to lean in…You are very much appreciated and display exactly what it means to be ‘Public Servants.’”
One week after the storm blew in, Alex Jakubowski, Director of Elbert County’s Office of Emergency Management, brought together representatives of the County, local and state law enforcement, the towns of Kiowa, Simla and Elizabeth, fire and school district representatives, and Red Cross volunteers to talk about the storm response and share lessons learned. They came up with ways to improve communications, keep residents safer, and be more prepared for future emergencies and disasters.

The cost for Elbert County to respond to the storm was upwards of $300,000, including Road and Bridge and Sheriff’s Office employee overtime pay, materials & repairs to County equipment, and contracts for help with clearing roads. This is a significant portion of Road and Bridge’s annual budget of $7 million and the Sheriff’s Office budget of nearly $5 million and can be offset by the Contingency Funds established in 2017 for just such events to ensure planned operations for the rest of the year will not be impacted.

Other heroes included the Red Cross volunteers who opened shelters at schools and businesses, local businesses who donated food, water and supplies, and local media who shared important information on TV, the radio, and online.

Alex Jakubowski expressed his appreciation for a resident who worked in the shelter at the Elbert County Fairgrounds for the duration of the storm. “Pam Witucki, who’s a longtime community volunteer, was prepared to support volunteers who were scheduled to arrive Wednesday to work on a wildfire mitigation project. When those volunteers couldn’t make it because of the storm, we used the exhibit building at the fairgrounds as a shelter for dozens of stranded motorists, and a check-in point for staff and first responders to warm up and get something to eat. Pam stayed at the fairgrounds for more than three days, cooking the food she’d brought for the volunteer project, comforting the families at the shelter and making sure everyone who was working had enough to eat. Volunteers Shayne Nelson, Jeff Nelson, Thomas Nelson, Nina Roudebush were there working hard the whole time – they’re all the real heroes.”

By Thursday afternoon, Elbert County Road and Bridge employees began plowing the County’s gravel roads, using front-end loaders in many places where the drifts were too deep for a motor grader. The department also reached out to two local construction companies with front-end loaders for help.

While it’s a blessing that no one in Elbert County was seriously hurt or killed as a result of the blizzard, it’s not all due to luck. Training, preparation, and a culture of commitment to Elbert County friends and neighbors all helped.