Photo Credit: In 2013, Colorado experienced severely damaging floods. But the community cultivated something important while cleaning up the damage — new, stronger relationships. Photo by Tiernan Doyle, BoCo Strong

What is BoCo Strong and how did it get started? Describe its role in helping Boulder recover from the 2013 flood.

BoCo Strong (located in Boulder County, Colorado) is a coalition of local, county and city governments, social service, nonprofit and business representatives, and community leaders. We facilitate relationships between organizations, communities and local government so that everyone can share resources, information and skills. Increasing the flow of information and resources between different groups is fundamental to strengthening our collective capacity. By collaborating, we can not only recover from but also adapt to the impacts of disasters.

BoCo Strong began as an offshoot of the county’s Longterm Recovery Group, which formed after the 2013 flood. The founding members of BoCo Strong recognized that it was vital to continue strengthening the relationships that were created during the disaster response. These connections have not only resulted in more comprehensive lessons learned, but they have also increased our capacity to respond and deliver resources effectively during the next disaster.

BoCo Strong held 22 community conversations after the flood to learn from the experiences of affected neighborhoods and organizations. The data that emerged from these meetings were clear: what people valued most from the flood were the relationships that they had created with their neighbors, local firefighters and aid workers.

In order to help these relationships grow, BoCo Strong applied for a resilience planning grant from the state of Colorado. Getting that support allowed BoCo Strong to create programming focused on developing networks that cut across geographic and sectoral divides. With these far reaching and diverse connections, BoCo Strong’s networks have helped with community engagement and local policy recommendations, disaster preparedness, bilingual program development, public education and outreach, and business continuity planning.

What is the Boulder County Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) group?

The Boulder County VOAD is a network of non-governmental disaster response groups. It helps the participating groups coordinate and communicate with one another during disasters, and provides assistance for longer term recovery. Our current membership includes 16 formal members, five government partners, and several churches and local groups that are peripherally involved to provide other resources during a disaster.

The Boulder County VOAD started after the 2013 flood in Colorado. Response to that event was quite chaotic, as groups came from all over the country to try and help. Though there was a preexisting Colorado State VOAD, it wasn’t able to coordinate effectively with local needs. Residents that were affected by the flood were overwhelmed by volunteer groups in some cases, and saw no help in others.

Knowing that we could do better, a few local representatives, including the citizen’s volunteer group Boulder Flood Relief, the Red Cross, and Boulder County’s Office of Emergency Management created an ad hoc partnership to promote a local VOAD in Boulder County. The BoCo Strong steering committee recognized the value of this and included the VOAD as one of the projects in its resilience planning grant. Aside from supplying some organizational infrastructure to the VOAD, BoCo Strong is mainly separate, and the VOAD has its own planning group, bylaws, officers and members. Crossover between the two groups is, however, highly encouraged, and all VOAD events are open to BoCo Strong members and vice versa.

What advice do you have for people that are interested in starting a Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) group in their community?

If you are working to build a VOAD, start with your key local players in emergency response. Look at what already exists in your area. Do you have strong governmental support from an Office of Emergency Management? Are volunteer firefighters doing most of the work? Is there a major nonprofit in your area that works with volunteers or donations? Whoever it is, talk to them. Start by researching your local emergency response context, so you know whether a VOAD is a good idea, or if there’s some other structure (Community Organizations Active in Disasters, Community Emergency Response Team, etc.) that might be a better fit. Then build a coalition of support by identifying and recruiting those key players and service providers in your area. No local VOAD looks exactly the same as another, and that’s a good thing. VOADs should reflect their specific geographic and cultural context in order to meet local needs most effectively.

What is the biggest take away you can share with people working on community recovery after a disaster?

Never forget how important the work you’re doing is. Burnout happens quickly, and it’s easy to lose sight of your progress in the mess of bureaucracy, legalese, and ongoing stress during and after a disaster. Everyone is dealing with trauma, and every step always takes longer than you would like. But always remember: working with, for, and among the community is the best work you can do.

What could people working on community resilience in other regions replicate from your work?

A lot of my work involves setting up learning opportunities and meetings for people to meet face-to-face. This is something that is often overlooked in resilience work but really goes a long way in strengthening relationships that will be needed in response to a disaster. We also promote communication between network members and share news from around the county. This allows organizations and community leaders to plug into their areas of interest.

Networking has also been crucial for our leadership program. Making connections helped community leaders identify and propose projects that were needed in their towns or neighborhoods. BoCo Strong facilitated relationships between citizens, local government, businesses and nonprofits so community leaders could find the resources that they needed for success.

What do you like most about your job? Least?

I like getting to know new people. There are an incredible number of fantastic people working on really important projects in Boulder County. It is an absolute privilege getting to know them and trying to connect them to each other so that they can do even more. The part that I struggle with is working with uncertainties. I like to be able to measure and visualize progress. Working with communities can at times be frustrating because it is never linear. It is necessary to go back and forth to figure out whether we are working equitably and effectively. I don’t like stepping backward, but it is often necessary as well as rewarding. And even though working in this space is a challenge, it continues to be the most incredible learning experience. I am humbled by how much I’ve learned from everyone in Boulder County.

If you wrote a community-recovery memoir, what would you emphasize the most?
Man loading cases of water bottles

“The biggest strength after a disaster is being able to identify what’s needed and getting the right resources there. Be a networker. Find the resources, and you will be able to put them in the right place.” Credit: Tiernan Doyle, BoCo Strong

People are strong. Communities are even stronger. Empowering people to take part in their own recovery creates much better long-term results than simply doling out resources according to some preexisting organizational structure. Adapt in order to meet the needs on the ground.

Relationships are key to adaptation. They make recovery a lot more flexible and effective. This is true at all levels from individual to organizational to governmental.

Get everyone involved. Everyone has skills to share, though it might not be immediately obvious. The biggest strength after a disaster is being able to identify what’s needed and getting the right resources there. Be a networker. Find the resources, and you will be able to put them in the right place.

What are you most excited to work on next?

I am most excited to show people how much connections matter when problem-solving. It’s challenging to know when a relationship will suddenly be needed or when it could be useful. I love thinking about how the pieces of our network fit together and how new partnerships could be created to solve problems. As part of the resilience planning grant, BoCo Strong completed a resilience assessment of Boulder County to see how and where we could become more resilient. I now get to research new partnerships and connect people to fill the resilience gaps that we found.

Any closing thoughts for our readers?

Being part of a network isn’t necessarily something that’s immediately and obviously of benefit. Making a network more effective requires exchanging lots of information and a strong willingness to recognize others’ strengths. Especially in disaster response, we all have a tendency to want to be Superman. Everyone wants to be the one to deliver everything that’s needed. Recognizing that this isn’t possible is hugely important, and very difficult. With the willingness to look outside ourselves for partnerships, assistance and resources, the true power of a network becomes clear. We don’t have to bankrupt our time or bank accounts when we have effective and willing partners to call on.

Tiernan and Katie taking a selfie

Tiernan (left) attending a community engagement conference in Vancouver. Credit: Katie Arrington, Boulder County

Tiernan Doyle works for BoCo Strong as the VOAD and Resilience Network project coordinator. For the Resilience Network, this means promoting communication between network members, organizing network events, and connecting people in order to build partnerships and capacity. She also works with the Boulder County VOAD, supporting their website and communications structure and organizing response to natural disasters. Both of these roles are primarily focused on building and maintaining the relationships that are key to community resilience. Prior to this role, she worked as the executive director for Boulder Flood Relief, a citizen response group assisting with volunteer management, community response, and cleanup during the 2013 flood in northeastern Colorado. Tiernan also worked for the USDA Forest Service, doing environmental monitoring in the Station Fire post-burn area of the Angeles National Forest.

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