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University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus

University of Colorado Denver, Newsroom

Disaster Leaders

Alumni, grad students lead state during flood crisis

​by Vicki Hildner | University Communications 

In September 2013, some Colorado counties received more rain in a matter of days than they typically get the entire year. Colorado flooding made national headlines with what some experts called a 1,000-year rain and a 100-year flood.

Road collapse during Colorado floods

Behind the scenes, state, local and federal experts in emergency management worked to respond to crises, assess damage, prioritize resources and advise communities on recovery. Many of those experts serving in key positions are CU Denver graduates or graduate students.

Deb Thomas"Our students learn technical skills, which they blend with emergency management know-how,” said Deborah Thomas, associate professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences and co-director of the School of Public Affairs program in Emergency Management and Homeland Security. “Their skills are so marketable.”

Traditionally, emergency managers have come from a military background, but in the past two decades, the field has been professionalized, with more people seeking degrees specializing in emergency management. For interested students, CU Denver has several options:

  • The GISci Certificate is also an interdisciplinary option for graduate students from all schools and colleges. 

“Disasters can be depressing—it’s disease, injury, death—but we prepare students, who can then go out and change the world,” said Thomas. “They do amazing things.”

Meet four of our alumni and current students who are making a difference in the lives of Coloradans who lived through the 2013 floods. 

Amy Danzl:  “How are we going to get resources to Boulder?” 


Amy DanzlDegree:

MPA with concentration in Emergency Management and Homeland Security (in progress)

Current Position:

Emergency Management Specialist, Boulder Office of Emergency Management

What did you do during the floods? 

Well, the response was quick and intense, and it didn’t let up for nearly two weeks. We ran our emergency operations center 24 hours a day for the first eight days, then moved to 16- to 18-hour days for another six. The rains started three years to the week after the Four Mile Canyon Fire. With burn scars in two steep canyons, we knew to expect flash floods and had been planning for them, but flash flooding typically comes quickly, and then subsides. This time, the repeated flash flooding over four days was more serious than anything we had expected, and it hit every single drainage in our county.

I was working as logistics section chief, mobilizing resources into Boulder County. My husband was in Denver, and he called to say he was stranded because all the roads into Boulder were closed. Suddenly, I thought, “If he can’t get in, how are we going to get resources into Boulder?” But we did it. We brought in rescue teams, aircraft, generators, water, [portable restrooms], shelter supply trailers, cots, blankets and meals. 

What’s rewarding about your job?

I love that we actually make a difference. We are doing things that potentially save lives. I also love that we are quiet and behind the scenes. We aren’t on the front lines like law enforcement and firefighters, but we have broad and great impact. 

How does your degree help you do your work?

Getting a master’s degree helps you learn how to research and find answers. You learn to teach yourself, rather than expecting someone to teach you. Also, the connections I have made at the university have been awesome. 

Nikki Robles:  “It’s always haunting to look at the images that come in.”


Nikki RoblesDegree:

BA in Geography, Certificate in GISci

Current Position:

Geospatial Analyst, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Region VIII

What did you do during the floods?

As the lead GIS coordinator with FEMA during the flooding event, I was coordinating the gathering of data as the flood moved across the state. I worked with the State of Colorado to determine locations where we should send planes to take pictures of flooded areas, and as the flood moved downstream, I worked with the National Geospatial Agency to task satellites to give us the best picture of what was happening on the ground. From those images, we could get a bigger picture of what areas had more damage, so we could prioritize our assets to provide assistance. One day, we would say, “Jamestown needs help” or “Lyons needs help.” Another day, it was “Boulder needs help.”

It’s always haunting to look at the images that come in. I spent three and a half months working on GIS on the East Coast after Hurricane Sandy, but this event hit [me] harder because I was born and raised here. I remembered an Estes Park coffee shop I liked, and then I could see from the images that it was really flooded. This hit in my backyard. 

What’s rewarding about your job?

By providing scientific information to decision makers, I can help them make better decisions for the future. If I can show policy makers with my data that an area is vulnerable—that perhaps people should mitigate their risk by adopting better building codes—then I help these communities. I can’t lift walls of homes or dig holes, but this is my way of helping the community.

How does your degree help you do your work?

I was incredibly well prepared by my degree and by working with Deb Thomas. The GISci certificate program is a very strong program at CU Denver; I highly recommend it. When I came to work for FEMA, I already knew how to do the job. I just had to learn to do it in a different setting.

Iain Hyde:  “All disasters are local.” 

Iain HydeDegree:

MPA with a concentration in Emergency Management and Homeland Security (in progress) 

Current position:

State Disaster Recovery Manager 

What did you do during the floods?

I started my position the day before the Waldo Canyon Fire began in June 2012. With the floods in 2013, we have had back-to-back disasters. There was a lot that was surprising about the floods. We saw rivers moving into new channels, we saw entire neighborhoods cut off because roads were washed out, and the sheer duration of the storm was something I had not seen in my lifetime. Our focus at the state level is to provide support, with many other state agencies, to local communities in the midst of a disaster, support that will help both short-term and long-term recovery.

All disasters are local. They start local, and they end local. The true champions of disaster recovery are local—the non-profits, the citizens, local governance. Our role at the state level is to support them in any way we can. We attend meetings, work through the multitude of recovery issues that arise throughout the process, help communities with grant applications, coordinate other agencies and resources that are needed and support planning for the future. The community that has gone through the disaster has to drive the vision of what it can be in the future. Our goal is to help a community realize that vision. 

What’s rewarding about your job?

Everything is rewarding. We have the tools to provide support, and we’re in a position to help folks’ lives get better. That’s what gets you up every day. 

How does your degree help you do your work?

Deb Thomas was terrific on the subjects of hazards, risk and social vulnerability. Studying public administration, you learn how the government works at the local and state level. You learn the fundamental skills of being a public servant. 

Jesse Rozelle:  “We’re using cutting edge technology to help people.”


Jesse RozelleDegree:

BA in Geography, Certificate in GISci 

Current position:

Risk Analyst/GIS Coordinator, FEMA, Region VIII  

What did you do during the floods?

We watched reports from the weather service very carefully, and when we saw flooding, we started mapping the extent of the flood inundation. Our main goal was to paint a comprehensive picture of the extent of damage from community to community. That helps provide decision makers with the best information possible on communities impacted, so they can triage, do search and rescue, start recovery efforts and fix roads. We were very busy, and we still are.

These floods were challenging, because for two weeks, we had significant cloud cover, and that made it difficult to gather plane and satellite imagery. When we finally got the images, there were many shocking ones, but the sheer extent of the flooding damage in Lyons really stood out.

I live in Golden, and there was a stream near my house that rose to high levels. I was working the flood all day and then going home and keeping an eye on the river by my house. 

What’s rewarding about your work?

We provide decision makers with information on the impact of disaster as quickly and efficiently as possible to help them respond with staff and supplies. We’re using cutting edge technology to help people.

How does your degree help you do your work?

My job allows me to use my study of earth sciences, social sciences and GIS, connecting fields into one medium. That’s what studying geography is all about—not just memorizing the capitals of states.
Published: January 20, 2014