How cookie dough helped save lives in a Colorado town

Another guest post from George Leopold:

Here’s a striking example of the return on investment when resilient communities prepare for extreme weather.

It all started with a cookie dough map of Lyons, Colo., a town just north of Boulder that took the brunt of recent catastrophic flooding.

Dan Barber, a county sheriff’s sergeant assigned to Lyons, saw before anyone the threat posed by two rivers that drop from the Rockies and converge in the town. North Saint Vrain Creek flows under Main Street in Lyons, a road that like many in the area was washed away by the biblical Colorado floods of the last month.


lyonsLyons, Colo., was hit hard by recent floods, but it could have been much worse.

Realizing that mountain runoff from 225 square miles collected at Lyons, Barber began warning other local officials more than five years ago that they needed to invest in a $25,000 flood warning system. Barber’s warnings initially fell on deaf ears, so he broke out the cookie dough.

“I made a three-foot-by-three-foot cookie dough map by overlaying cookie dough as mountains and ridges and valleys over the town map, and showed them that this is how the water’s going to flow and how it will cut off certain parts of the town, and they got it, and that’s exactly what happened” Barber told CBS News.

The flood warning system inspired by Barber’s topographic Toll House cookie was eventually installed in 2008. Town officials now estimate that it helped save as many as 300 lives at the height of recent flooding.

At the time of Barber’s preparedness campaign, most locals –including his own wife – thought his dough map was a joke. In the aftermath of flooding that has so far claimed eight lives and destroyed hundreds of miles of roads, bridges and railways, Barber notes, “They’re not laughing anymore.”

So, it turns out once again that an ounce of prevention – in this case, a $25,000 municipal investment in a flood warning system – yields at least a pound of cure, as Mr. Franklin observed.

The example of Lyons, Colo., must now be scaled up so that we are prepared for the next extreme weather event. Dan Barber has shown in his own ingenious way that adopting a passive, that’s-the-way-the-cookie-crumbles attitude toward emergency preparedness and community resilience is a half-baked strategy.

-George Leopold

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