Entrepreneurs / Small Business  March 13, 2009

United they stood: Aid agencies took tornado lead

Windsor Mayor John Vasquez was succinct in offering a summary of the events of May 22, 2008, during an interview with reporters that evening.

“It will be a long time before the town recovers from this,” Vasquez said – an obvious understatement. The almost unfathomable damage to property in Windsor and along a swath that an F3 tornado cut through western Weld County at midday had hardly been tallied. It would be days before the number of destroyed or heavily damaged properties would become known.

But within an hour of the storm’s passage through Windsor, the two United Way organizations that serve Northern Colorado were in motion.

“Tornadoes in Weld County are like an everyday occurrence at that time of year,´ said Jeannine Truswell, executive director of the United Way for the county. “Someone came into a training meeting we were having, and said there was a tornado on the ground in western Weld County. I looked at our 2-1-1 director, Brian Fowler, and said, maybe we should go upstairs” to the 2-1-1 phone center, a clearing house for United Way help and information calls.

A half hour later, Fowler got a call from the Weld County sheriff’s office requesting that he come to the department’s Emergency Operations Center.

“He was there for the next four days,” Truswell said.

Gordon Thibedeau, president and CEO of the United Way of Larimer County, likewise got the call about the mayhem in Weld County shortly after the storm passed through and arced northwestward into Larimer County.

“We realized pretty quickly that this was going to be a real difficult situation,” Thibedeau said. “We were heading into the three-day Memorial Day weekend, and the resources you normally would expect to find were not going to be available.”

Recognition for collaboration

Working collaboratively, Truswell, Thibedeau and their staffs divided duties to meet the most urgent needs in the first days following the tornado. The Larimer County agency set up a volunteer center in western Windsor at the Poudre Valley Rural Electric Association offices in western Windsor, well outside the tornado’s path of destruction.

“We knew that going into the center of Windsor was not the best approach,” Thibedeau said. “That was coordinated very closely with Weld. The point was to take the burden off of the Weld group so that they would take care of the most pressing needs. At the time all this was occurring, we looked at ourselves as being an extension of Jeannine’s office.”

The groups also coordinated activities with other relief groups, including the Community Foundation agencies in the two counties and the American Red Cross.

In recognition of their efforts, the United Ways have been selected to receive the Northern Colorado Business Report’s first-ever Bravo! Publisher’s Award for Exceptional Service.

“It’s very humbling for us to be recognized in this way,” Truswell said. “We accept it as if it were a cast award. We took the necessary steps, and we’re proud of what we did, but it was in concert with government and in concert with other agencies. It was a true collaboration.”


Numbers tell the story

In the five days following the tornado that tore through western Weld County, killing one person in west Greeley and destroying hundreds of buildings in Windsor, 6,514 phone calls came through the United Way’s Region One 2-1-1 call center in Greeley.

In all, 400 homes and businesses were either destroyed or so heavily damaged that the loss was total. Insured losses totaled nearly $150 million.

During the that period and after, more than $192,500 in contributions poured into the United Way, and were distributed to victims in the form of vouchers for food, transportation, storage costs. Much of the total was banked to fund programs run by the agency’s Long Term Recovery Team.

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