“Managing during a time of distress is a delicate balance of leadership and empathy. I am so fortunate to work for a town that understands and cares for each other so deeply. I feel blessed to have the support of those around me – my family, neighbors, community, church and even strangers have shown me amazing acts of kindness and love. This gives me strength to move forward each day.”Victorian Simonsen, Town Administrator
Hero Nomination – Victoria Simonsen
You have no doubt already heard about the frightening sirens after midnight, the might of the rain and converging St. Vrain rivers, and the strata of strain befallen upon the people and pocketbooks of Lyons, Colorado.
The Great Flood of 2013 stormed in at 20,000 cubic feet per second and engulfed life in Lyons as it was formerly known. Over 2,000 residents were evacuated from this distinctively creative Boulder County enclave, roughly 30 miles northwest of Denver, when all utility systems were rendered inoperable.
Squarely in the midst of the disaster’s blurry infancy, in the surreal glow of headlamps, over the raucous uproar of the river, was the clear thinking and stoic voice of Victoria Simonsen, Town Administrator of Lyons.
Despite the loss of a precious life and the damage or complete destruction of more than 20% of the town’s housing stock, things could have been far worse: the warning system could have not been proactively in place, emergency preparedness for even a lesser 100 year event could have gone unplanned, and Simonsen could have not been at the helm.
Every morning immediately following last fall’s flood, Simonsen, with calm resolve and compassion, provided concise status updates to rattled residents. When the extent of the disaster became painfully evident and with winter so closely awaiting in the wings, evacuation of the town became necessary for everyone’s safety. A steeled Simonsen was the one who had to strongly urge her co-workers, friends, neighbors, family, and community to leave their beloved Lyons. This missive was bravely delivered with her shared intention to have everyone back “home” in time for the holidays, a promise that she was able to shepherd – with the sad exception of 200 townspeople whose homes may be simply uninhabitable.
Due to the flood’s isolation of neighborhoods and incurred outages, communications with the town’s elected trustees were nearly impossible. The mayor was out of the country. Simonsen was separated from her family and home. Yet somehow she swiftly swung into emergency response mode with acute crisis management prowess. Within hours an evacuation center was established and the direness of the disaster was urgently undergoing triage. By dawn, steps were already in motion toward gaining a fundamental foothold on the hierarchy of needs of the town’s fractured infrastructure.
For nearly three months the town’s businesses (100% independently-owned) were shuttered. The estimated loss of commercial sales approached $3.5M. Buildings, roads, parks, bridges, utilities, stream channel, and housing are all vying for equal attention each day on Simonsen’s to do list. Nearly 200 days and an estimated 1500 personal hours on the clock later, Simonsen is still on a momentous daily marathon, tirelessly leading the town’s recovery efforts and critical repairs that are tallying to a formidable price tag nearing $60M.
In identifying the community’s current state of affairs in this unprecedented and perilous predicament, so much “need” remains for the Town of Lyons. On the other hand, there is also so much that has been effectively accomplished…
Through a bounty of leadership strengths, Simonsen has been able to kaleidoscopically embrace this crisis through the lenses of patience, grace, intelligence, experience, and grit.
At one moment she can be seen shifting the focus from her desk’s mountains of demands to sincerely connect with a citizen in the throes of flood-driven decisions. Later she is wielding her way through the day’s third meeting’s agenda, aptly tracking progress on project work orders, interjecting methodical suggestions, and then taking the time to ask how a colleague’s daughter did at her last sporting event.
She masterfully juggles FEMA acronyms, insurance terms, hydrology data, habitat details of the endangered Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, municipal codes, and the inter-workings of wastewater treatment plants.
When people marvel at all that she has managed to accomplish since the disaster, such as obtaining at least four extensions for housing assistance, reopening roads that had been reduced to rubble, and spearheading spring run-off emergency preparedness, Simonsen quickly deflects the praise to the “heroic efforts” of her town hall staff, a steady stream of volunteers, an outpouring of generosity from supporters both near and far, and her remarkably supportive community. She also credits the strong role models she has worked with throughout her career for providing her with the skill set and work ethic that she turns to every day.
Simonsen seems to innately know how to deal with truly distressed people – those who have lost everything and those who may be trying to help others in dire straits. This scenario is rife with potential frustration, anger and grief over a groundswell of matters delivered straight to their doorstep due to no fault of their own. Through transparency, truth, sacrifice, hopefulness, and putting the needs of others ahead of her own, Simonsen has built critical rapport with an entire population that has had to battle with worry, displaced dreams and despair. She chooses to look ahead while continually expressing enthusiasm for Lyons’ steady progress and all the prospects in store.
Lyons, one of the hardest hit sectors of Colorado’s flood event, has a docket of over 35 ongoing FEMA Project Worksheets (PW) that are continually monitored by Simonsen and her staff. Through the formation of eight Recovery Working Groups (RWG), 59 Project Development Guides (PDG) have been generated by concerned citizens over the past few months toward a Recovery Plan (with an implementation table and action plan). Simonsen has been in the thick of this undertaking, excited to have this collaborative tool to help guide Lyons through the recovery phase and beyond into a quality future.
In her own words, Simonsen humbly reflects, “Managing during a time of distress is a delicate balance of leadership and empathy. I am so fortunate to work for a town that understands and cares for each other so deeply. I feel blessed to have the support of those around me – my family, neighbors, community, church and even strangers have shown me amazing acts of kindness and love. This gives me strength to move forward each day.”
To simply spell things out, Victoria’s very name suggests some of her strongest attributes:
She seeks value in everyone she meets and requires validity in each step of Lyons’ recovery process;
Her interest in others is genuine, she acts with integrity, and possesses an unassuming intelligence;
She has been courageous throughout this ordeal, constant in her compassion, and calm amidst chaos;
Exemplary are her tenacious and tireless efforts to do what’s best for the good of the town and its people;
She builds outstanding teams and orchestrates simultaneous projects with off-the-charts success;
She understands the realities of this recovery and remains resourceful, respectful and results driven;
Through inquiry, information and innovation she has charted new territory for Lyons’ future;
Advancements so far reflect her accessibility, A+ attitude, hands-on approach, and attention to details.
She remains at the heart of the disaster’s impact. All rolled into one, Simonsen is an attentive nurse gently capturing the pulse of a recovering patient, a lead scientist poring over critical lab stats for answers, and an elite quarterback who can run as well as throw.
“Since the night the sirens sounded,” Simonsen recollects, “I knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. It is my privilege to help lead our town through its recovery and watch as it rises from the rubble back to its vibrant, soulful self.”
……………………..by Chrystal DeCoster, 6/14/14
NOTE: Please stop by the Lyons Town Hall on Sunday, September 17, 2023, to view the video of Victorian Simonsen telling the story of the Flood. It will be shown twice: at 1:00 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. People in the know say that it is the most complete story available. Enter town hall through the small park’s door (not front door). ~~ The “Silver Linings” golf car tours will also have segments of her speech to describe the situation that happened along the tour stops.