Governor, FEMA chief update flood response

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At a press briefing held Sept. 16 at South Metro Fire Rescue headquarters in Centennial, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Federal Emergency Management Agency chief W. Craig Fugate detailed state and national efforts underway in response to the historic flooding that has ravaged large areas of the Front Range and eastern plains.

“We continue to be focused on search and recovery,” said the governor, who was flanked by members of the Colorado congressional delegation, most of whom were dressed in jeans and appeared not to have slept much in the past week.

Promising to hold daily press briefings while the full extent of damage continues to be revealed, the Democratic governor said: “Twenty-one helicopters are flying today. They are primarily doing search and rescue but also beginning the process of prioritizing recovery efforts.”

Neither Hickenlooper nor any of the other officials who spoke at the press briefing provided updates on flood fatalities or the number of people still unaccounted for.

But Fugate said that as of Sept. 16, some 3,000 people had registered with FEMA for emergency aid.

The governor was hesitant to offer damage estimates, explaining that many of the state’s “bridges, culverts and roadways were built a long time ago (when) our understanding of flood events wasn’t the same.”

“We’re going to hold off for a relatively short period of time, maybe two or three weeks, (before) issuing a more specific number or damage estimate,” the governor said.

The still-evolving disaster will “be a challenge” to the state’s nascent economic recovery, Hickenlooper said. “But Colorado will come out of this with a stronger infrastructure.”

While introducing Fugate, Hickenlooper praised FEMA’s response to the catastrophe. “I am very gratified and encouraged by our relationship with FEMA,” he said, referring to Fugate as “a breath of fresh air.” The FEMA chief and he “shared the same goals,” Hickenlooper added.

While Fugate estimated that damage assessments could take as long as a month to calculate, he said people impacted by the flooding can register their losses and apply for FEMA aid by calling 800-621-FEMA (3362) or by going online to www.disasterassistance.gov.

“We need to be ready as a nation to support the governor’s team,” Fugate said. FEMA financial aid, he added, would be “based on immediate need.”

Asked how this disaster compares to FEMA’s efforts to respond to other natural disasters, including the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Fugate said: “All disasters are local. I try not to compare them because if your house just got destroyed, the last thing you want to hear about is some other disaster.”

Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, who referred to the flooding as “countless liquid tornadoes,” vowed that the government’s response to the natural disaster would be as speedy and proficient as “Peyton Manning plays football. There’s no ‘I’ in Colorado. We will work together as a team.”

Picking up on Udall’s football reference, Hickenlooper said state and national officials will go about the recovery process in a “hurry-up but not foolish way.”

“This isn’t over,” said U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, a Republican who represents a vast area of Colorado’s eastern plains and who also talked briefly at the event. “We need to keep in mind that as we speak, there is still damage occurring in many parts of the state.”

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