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Text messages between city leaders show delay, confusion with Marshall Fire evacuation alerts

Louisville Fire Chief John Willson is among the higher-ups meeting behind the scenes to prepare answers that residents are looking for.

LOUISVILLE, Colo. — Text messages between city of Louisville leaders show confusion and a delay in getting evacuation notices to residents during the Marshall Fire.

Those text messages, along with city emails, were obtained using the Colorado Open Records Act. The city of Louisville stopped answering questions about the Marshall Fire evacuation process in late January.

After submitting the open records request, 9NEWS discovered nearly a dozen residents had also emailed the city wanting the same answers about the emergency notification process on Dec. 30.

On Jan. 1, Tawnya Somauroo, who lost her home in the Cornerstone neighborhood, wrote Louisville Mayor Ashley Stolzmann an email. Part of that email read:

"I am not traumatized by losing my house, but I am haunted by the fact that the City’s emergency services failed to help warn my neighbors and as a result we could very easily have had multiple persons that died. I need to know what happened? It is very hard to convince people that they are in danger and need to act immediately without the legitimacy of the emergency services signaling the same."

The mayor responded the same day and copied the reply to Louisville's interim city manager Megan Davis and Louisville Police Chief Dave Hayes. Stolzmann wrote:

"I am so sorry for your loss- it really is beyond words. We are going to get through this together as a community. Thank you for sharing the disturbing information. There was a reverse 911 that went out and other messages. I will see to it that the emergency operations folks investigate what happened and determine where the failure occurred. The people who have to do that investigation are still actively responding to the emergency, so it will take some time before they can complete any investigation."

"There's no kind of, official, city response," said Somauroo.

She lived in a neighborhood just south of South Boulder Road that received an opt-in emergency notification at 1:25 p.m. The neighborhood just south of hers did not receive a notification until 2:51 p.m. Multiple residents have told 9NEWS that their homes were burning by the time that notification was sent.

The emails and text messages do not provide any answers about the reverse notifications, which were issued through the Boulder County's Office of Emergency Management (OEM). The records do show confusion about those alerts and a delay in sending messages out through Louisville social media and a city email list.

RELATED: County approves contract for Marshall Fire debris cleanup

RELATED: Videos show Marshall Fire started by 2 separate ignition points less than a mile apart

Based on a map provided by the Boulder County Office of Emergency Management in January, the first evacuation order sent through the county's opt-in reverse notification system was at 1:08 p.m. for an area near Coal Creek Golf Course, north of Highway 36, south of Cherry Street and east of McCaslin Boulevard.

The next areas in Louisville to receive alerts were sent evacuation orders at 1:15 p.m., 1:25 p.m. and then 2:51 p.m. That 2:51 p.m. notification area is east of McCaslin Boulevard, north of Cherry Street and south of Via Appia.

At 2:04 p.m., Emily Hogan, the city's assistant manager for communications, texted the city's interim city manager Megan Davis. Hogan had just talked with a communications specialist who was at the OEM.

"She's saying there isn't an evacuation order from the county for Louisville but she's checking."

By 2:04 p.m., a reverse notification had been issued for but one area of Louisville.

A different text exchange between Gloria Handyside, Louisville Communications Specialist and Hogan showed confusion and a delay in getting the evacuation notification out through city social media and the city's email list.

At 2:30 p.m., Handyside texts a screenshot of Facebook showing posts from both Louisville Police and Louisville Fire stating that the entire city is under a mandatory evacuation.

Handyside then asks Hogan, "Want me to share?"

Hogan replies "not yet," followed by: "We're still waiting to see who evac order is coming from and what area."

At 2:48 p.m., Hogan writes "Megan (interim city manager) doesn't want to put anything out as it's bumper to bumper traffic. Waiting to see what chief suggests."

"The way it happened, there was still a traffic jam. It seems to be that I would have rather had the notification," said Somauroo. "There were cases where people could have saved their pets, they could have saved their wedding rings, a lot of things. And everyone of those little things means a lot to you when you lose your house, your neighborhood and your community."

RELATED: Boulder County declined to have state send Amber Alert-like notification during Marshall Fire, official says

RELATED: Why did this part of Louisville get an evacuation notice later than others?

"You need to be ready to use a variety of channels, deliver a unified message, and be prepared for the fact that each of us, individually, are going to have our own individual preference on how we're communicated with," said Louisville resident Paul Crowder.

Crowder also emailed the Stolzmann and his city councilman about the lack of notification.

On January 27, Crowder wrote:

"I was grateful that I didn’t lose my home in this fire. That my family and I didn’t also lose our lives in this fire was a real surprise, given the completely dysfunctional way that the evacuation of the City of Louisville was rolled out. My family learned about the evacuation order only because one of my kids happened to see news of the order on Twitter. It is clear that my family’s experience was not unique. This is completely unacceptable."

The same night, Stolzmann replied:

"We at the City agree that the evacuation and emergency notifications were not acceptable and were failures. I am committed to studying the details of what happened and implementing solutions to address the deficiencies. I am so thankful that we got lucky and the loss of life was not higher. We need to fix the system so we don't have to rely on luck in a future emergency."

"If there had been greater loss of life, I think that there might be a whole lot more focus on what happened," said Crowder.

"I don't know why, it seems like nobody really wants to talk about it. And it seems like the focus moved away and that scares me because this could happen again," said Somauroo.

"I'm hoping within a month, we'll have the answers for them," said Louisville Fire Protection District Chief John Willson.

Willson is among the higher-ups who have recently met behind the scenes to prepare answers for residents like Somauroo and Crowder have asked for.

"Just trying to get all of our ducks in a row before we can give this information to the people, but we are working very hard between the county, the city and ourselves, to get it out soon," said Willson.

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