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White was devastated. She had been in the Clements’ home enough times that she could easily visualize exactly where her friend and colleague died that night. But unlike after her father had died and her mother threw occasional Friday afternoon “pity parties”—in which White, her older sister, and her mom allowed themselves exactly 30 minutes to cry while eating popcorn and drinking homemade wine—White didn’t have a half hour to grieve. She told Lisa she would get there as fast as she could, she called the governor, and then she had to make sure the other 17 Cabinet members didn’t hear about Clements’ death from the local nightly news.
During the days that followed, at a time when no one in the Cabinet should’ve had to be functional, White did what she does so well—she managed the small details that were more essential than they initially appeared, and she took care of her people. “There is no one in the history of the chief of staff position that was more suited to dealing with that situation,” says Mike King, the executive director of the Department of Natural Resources. “With her background in social work and divinity, she was so good at knowing when to step into an alcove and give someone a hug.”
White probably needed the embraces as much as anyone. A week after Clements’ death and just days after authorities in Texas shot and killed Evan Ebel, a recent Colorado parolee with possible gang ties who had likely murdered Clements, White agreed to be the interim head of corrections. “We were uncertain what had happened, and we wanted to ensure our staff members felt, and were, safe,” White says. “Normally, a deputy would have been elevated. In this case, the governor and I felt it was important to be more hands-on.” For White, assuming that position meant shouldering enormous risk: If Ebel had been working with other gang members—as some people believed he had—there was no telling who might have been the next target.
For weeks, White relied on her faith to get through the long, sometimes scary days. As an ordained minister, she took comfort in the belief that she was not alone. And when she felt like she couldn’t cope with the stress any longer, White asked God to let her see the bigger picture. Sometimes, even for Roxane White, finding perspective means having to ask for help. In mid-April, the governor announced that Roger Werholtz, a retired prisons chief from Kansas, would take over for White. She was relieved but not exempt from worry: Werholtz’s safety as the interim director (and now Rick Raemisch’s, as Clements’ permanent replacement) was something she prayed for every day.
Just 49 days after white had spoken with the governor about being ready for what if, it happens. White is at a 9/11 commemorative event when her phone blows up. Texts, calls, emails—they ding in one after another. The rain, which had begun falling across the state two days earlier on September 9, was not stopping. Boulder County had already received 4.24 inches, while Weld and Jefferson counties had been soaked with more than five. The information coming into White’s BlackBerry alerts her that these areas and others are expecting another five to 15 inches of precipitation in the next 72 hours.
By midnight Wednesday, White is finished with her calls to the Colorado Office of Emergency Management and is authorizing the use of the Colorado National Guard. At 3 a.m. Thursday, White informs the governor about the possible need to contact the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). For the next few hours, White is on standby to sign FEMA paperwork, but in the meantime, she gets ahold of Cabinet members. She phones King at the Department of Natural Resources to talk about Colorado’s dams. She converses with Karin McGowan at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment about potential wastewater issues. At 8:30 a.m., White clears her entire day and begins figuring out how the state will fund the rescue and recovery from what are becoming floods of biblical proportions. The daily burn rate for the deluge will be about $3 million. To cover the cost, White will borrow from the controlled maintenance budget, use FEMA advances, and dip into the state’s water reserve fund.
Helping with the relocation of Hurricane Katrina refugees to Denver and working through the wildfires over the past two summers have given White experience with managing the fallout from natural disasters. She has learned the command structure and understands how to file the correct paperwork—experience that’s critically important in getting the right kind of help to the right places. But White has also learned that natural disasters like these are all about people; people who were OK yesterday and are shattered today. And White has a lot of experience with that, too.
White attributes her lifelong soft spot for those experiencing homelessness to the lessons she learned in the weeks, months, and years that followed her father’s death. Before he died, the White family had lived well, taking family trips and wanting for very little. After he died, money became tight and cross-country trips disappeared. Even as a teenager, White could feel the uncertainty creep in. It was a painful way to learn that life doesn’t always adhere to the notion that those who do what they’re supposed to do, who do everything right, will always have a smooth road to follow.
Surveying the damage around Boulder from a helicopter on Friday, September 13, White doesn’t just see washed-out streets, wobbly bridges, and waterlogged homes; she sees thousands of people who had a place to sleep yesterday but don’t today. “Rox is no-nonsense, organized, and can be very intimidating,” says Alan Salazar, the governor’s chief strategy officer and director of the Office of Policy, Research and Legislative Affairs, “but she’s a chocolate drop when it comes to people. It’s rare to find someone who can bring the hammer and the handkerchief effectively.”
It’s also uncommon to find someone who is so willing to give up so much of her personal life for her professional life. During the floods, White worked 18- to 20-hour days for seven days straight. She was glad to. And she’s more than accustomed to it.
Throughout her career, White has rarely held a job that didn’t require a commitment of more than the standard 40 hours a week. There were many nights when White would carry Donalyn to the car to go handle a crisis at a shelter she ran or when she would miss a dinner date with her husband or best friend. White knows she made sacrifices and forced those around her—including her kids and two ex-husbands—to make them with her. But unlike so many people, particularly women, White doesn’t strive for that balance so often mentioned in books and magazine articles. She believes “balance” is an overused word. Instead, she looks for what makes her soul sing, for what makes her happy, for what makes work feel like play. “People look at my calendar and they say it’s not at all balanced,” White says, “but my God, I have a fabulous life. I’m happy, I love my kids, I love my work, and I don’t question whether or not it has value.”