Home is sweet, even if it's a Ward store

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San Antonio – Don Whittemore was working a fire that popped up in Lefthand Canyon in Boulder County when he got the call to head to Texas.

Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans meant thousands of displaced residents were being brought to San Antonio, and it became the job of Whittemore and other members of the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team to make sure they had shelters waiting for them.

A former Montgomery Ward store, vacant for five years, became their staging ground.

“It’s like eating an elephant,” said Whittemore, 45, a division chief for the Boulder County Fire Department. “You come into a defunct mall store and build a city overnight.”

Ordered to an area where local resources are inadequate, the team from Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming comes equipped with operations, logistics, planning and finance people.

Thirty members of the team left Denver on a plane for Dallas-Fort Worth on Sept. 2. Typically, their assignments, such as a wildland fire, last a few days. However, for most, this one will last through the end of the month.

The 180,000-square-foot shelter sprawls across two full floors of the Ward building, where concrete floors fatigue legs and the never-ending needs of more than 1,000 residents demand creativity and patience.

“We were working 15-, 16-hour shifts,” said Dave Zader, 32, a firefighter with North Metro Fire who lives in Fort Collins and is the operations chief for the shelter. “The hardest part was getting people to focus on one task at a time.”

Graham Weston, a 41-year-old San Antonio businessman and chief executive of Rackspace Managed Hosting, a website management company, donated the use of the building and sent 150 employees to assist the other workers.

“We all wanted to help, and it was something tangible to do,” Weston said.

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