Tornado warnings and lashing rain kept sending Pat Conroy ducking for safety as he and a Colorado emergency preparedness team headed south while Hurricane Irma churned north through Florida Sunday.
The team was headed in the wrong direction Sunday for all the right reasons.
“It’s about helping people,” Conroy said. “It’s an absolute passion, plain and simple.”
Florida’s emergency managers had tapped four six-person Colorado crews to bolster their emergency operations in the wake of the storm that pummeled Florida on Sunday.
Conroy, UCHealth’s Director for Safety and Environment of Care, has been in many tough spots before. He has assisted with hurricanes in the past, fought fires, worked as a paramedic for decades, prepped to fight Ebola outbreaks and back in 2012, served as the hospital’s incident commander for one of the most tragic emergencies of his career: the Aurora theater shooting that brought 23 victims to UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital.
As Irma grew larger and more ominous by the hour last week, Florida’s state emergency managers issued a call for help and Coloradans stepped up, offering teams of experts to assist after the hurricane.
Conroy and other first responders from 17 Colorado agencies flew to Tallahassee on Saturday. They are part of a 24-member team under the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. States have compacts to help one another during emergencies and federal disaster funds will reimburse home agencies for the work.
The team’s initial destination was the Florida Keys, a chain of islands that suffered a direct hit early Sunday before Irma spun north, pummeling Florida’s west coast and drowning the entire state with pounding rain and storm surges.
This morning, the team has been redirected from the Keys to the Miami-Dade Emergency Operations center, where they will cover shifts as local officials begin to survey Irma’s damage. The Colorado team plans to stay for several days.
Irma destroyed up to 90 percent of buildings on Caribbean islands. It’s unclear how badly Florida suffered, but Conroy said early reports he has seen show “total devastation” in the hardest-hit areas.
“Reports are just trickling out now. We don’t know if we could have even gotten to the Keys. Route 1 (the only highway connecting the islands) might not be passable. There are 42 bridges. The only way to get there might be to fly,” Conroy said.
Team members spent their first night at Florida A&M University, sleeping on cots on a basketball court in the school’s field house. They dubbed their area Camp Colorado. They were there with about 80 other emergency responders from across the country.
“We filled the entire floor with cots,” Conroy said.
On Sunday morning, the team met Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who thanked the Colorado crew and many others for their support. They then left Tallahassee and drove through 60 mile-per-hour winds and driving rains to get from Tallahassee to Orlando. They faced multiple tornado warnings and hunkered down Sunday night in a warehouse at a Florida state logistics coordination center, where Conroy slept on the floor. Dinner was a military MRE or meal, ready-to-eat.
This morning, in a fleet of eight large SUVs stocked with sleeping bags, rations, water and Gatorade sufficient for three days, the team is trying to make it to Miami. On a good day, the drive would take about four hours. But they don’t know what kind of obstacles they’ll face.
Once they arrive, they’ll provide some relief to emergency workers who have been on duty around the clock. Conroy is used to jumping in and adapting to the local scene. The politics can be different from region to region. But the priorities are always the same: ensure safety and help emergency responders do their jobs as efficiently as possible.
“Once the storm leaves Miami, the water will start to recede and the damage assessments will begin,” Conroy said.
The key lesson, so far, has been to “stay flexible.”
“We were expecting to go the Keys. Then priorities changed. Incidents evolve and you’ve got to stay flexible,” Conroy said.
The Aurora theater shooting left Conroy with enduring lessons that he now shares with first responders across the country. His three main takeaways include:
- Training and preparedness work.
- Partnerships and collaboration are critical.
- No matter how bad it gets, nothing diminishes the human will to overcome adversity.
As Conroy heads into Irma’s wake, he also remembers how much good emerged from the evil of the Aurora shootings. As the hospital’s former CEO, John Harney, said on many occasions: “The entire UCHealth family did extraordinary work under extraordinary circumstances.”
No matter how much damage Irma has wrought, Conroy expects to see that same extraordinary spirit among Floridians this week.