The Town of Lyons:
Communicating with Residents in an Emergency
By Victoria Simonsen, Lyons town administrator
During the early hours of Sept. 12, 2013, Lyons (population 2,035) was inundated by a 500-year flood event, declared as a national disaster by former President Barack Obama. More than 100 homes were destroyed, and all infrastructure systems (including water, sewer, gas, electricity, and bridges) were compromised, resulting in a townwide evacuation that displaced residents for six to 12 weeks.
Even before anyone could evacuate, residents were quarantined for 36 hours immediately following the flood. The flood’s torrent resulted in six “islands” across Lyons, leaving residents immobile — many of whom were stuck in the elementary school gym. During this time, communication proved difficult. Without utilities, there was very limited phone and internet access: cell phone batteries died, and most landlines and wireless internet modems were inoperable. On top of the unmet power needs for e-communication, most cellular networks were down due to damaged infrastructure and cell towers.
Yet the first three days following the flood may have been arguably the most critical. Each day, Deputy Sheriff Kevin Parker and Town Administrator Victoria Simonsen met with residents at a gathering place on each island to share information on timelines and updates from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), National Guard, and other sources. When available, municipal staff and residents sent information to family and friends located outside of Lyons, who helped disseminate that information regionally by means of social media and neighboring media sources. Otherwise, within that time, the main source of communication within Lyons remained word of mouth.
After the initial few days, the community was evacuated. Neighboring entities opened their doors to Lyons — the evacuation center was housed in a Longmont church (LifeBridge Christian), where the entire community met week after week to get up-to-date information and see neighbors and friends. The City of Longmont allowed the Town of Lyons to use its facilities for weekly board of trustee meetings. The meetings were broadcast online and through a cable network, which served as a useful tool in disseminating information to residents who were now spread throughout the county and beyond. Holding meetings remotely had its own set of challenges, as records were inaccessible, protocol disrupted, and recording capabilities compromised.
The weeks and months following the flood, when residents slowly moved back to the disarray of a community decimated by nature’s strength, the many lessons learned were implemented.
A townwide e-blast system was developed. Recovery had only begun, and this system was a crucial tool in keeping the community informed, and it remains as such today. Server security and cloud backup were also top priorities (especially since the Town had a cyber attack that drained its bank account).
While rebuilding and bringing residents home remained priorities, future preparedness had an underlying precedence in continuing operations. All recovery project plans were developed with the key element of resiliency, staff safety trainings became mandatory, a plan for continuity of operations was strengthened, and new policies of formal documentation, procurement, and other processes were implemented. Within the community, Lyons Prepared was established — a volunteer-driven organization with the mission to support communications and neighborhood preparedness in an emergency. In coordination with the Lyons Fire Protection District, Lyons Prepared has established communication trees across town, including ham radio clubs, and designated points of contact on each island. There also have been discussions on utilizing solar hubs for energy stations for backup electric, as well as a landline communication center.
More than four years after the flood, there is still much to be done. The Town of Lyons has added a new layer of decision making through a preventative and preparedness lens. Lyons is still in recovery, with a couple of more years to go. Yet, from the devastation, the community has become stronger and more resilient.