Central Texas floods expose gaps in high-tech warning systems

Some look for a return to piercing public sirens.

On May 23, the extended Taylor family had just sat down for dinner at their River Road house when the phone rang. It was a pre-recorded call from Hays County emergency officials warning residents with homes along the Blanco River that the water was rising quickly and flooding was likely.

It was the first of several such calls his father-in-law took during the course of the meal, recalled Scott Sura. “But he sort of brushed it off. He’s been through several floods, and he wasn’t worried. In fact, he later went to bed.”

Across the river and downstream, on Flite Acres Road, Frances Tise said she and her husband Charles also fielded the emergency calls that evening. “But I had seen the river rise before, and it just came up to our backyard,” she said. “We just didn’t realize how fast it was coming up.”

Both families narrowly escaped with their lives. By the time the Taylors were plucked from their home by a rescue boat, at about 3 a.m. May 24, the water had risen to their second floor. The Tises, both in their 80s, were forced to flee in the dark to a house across the road and, later, climb a fence to outrun the swirling waters.

In many respects, the flood warning system employed by local and federal emergency agencies over the Memorial Day weekend worked as intended. Hays County authorities sent out three “reverse 911” notifications to homes in harm’s way alongside the Blanco River. The National Weather Service broadcast flash flood warnings throughout the evening to cellphones. While more than a dozen people lost their lives in the flooding, many others were saved by the alerts.

Yet it is also apparent that the disaster, which caused tens of millions of dollars in property damage in Blanco and Hays counties, exposed significant gaps — both technological and psychological — in the high-tech warning systems. The Wimberley area lacks alarm systems used in other Texas river towns, as well.

Now, with the waters back in their banks, some are calling for changes to head off future loss of life. “There’s nothing about the Blanco River to prevent this from happening again,” said Wimberley Fire Chief Carroll Czichos, who over his 45 years with the department has by necessity become an expert on the river’s behavior and water rescues.

The warning system used over Memorial Day weekend “was the bare minimum, but it’s what we had at the time,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that flat didn’t know about it.”

The gaps meant that with the river rising quickly and many still in their homes, sheriff’s deputies, local firefighters and other emergency workers found themselves resorting to the oldest of emergency warning systems: pounding on doors and yelling to residents that they needed to leave immediately. Worried about getting trapped behind low water crossings themselves, the responders had to move hastily, making the door-to-door alerts catch as catch can, Czichos said.

Last week, Linda Persohn stood on the porch of one of two rental homes she owns on River Road, pointing to houses and recounting the varied warnings each received: “Over there, they got phone calls, but no one came to their door. One house over, someone came to their door.

“Here, they said they didn’t hear anything.”

Getting word out “a struggle”

With Texas home to more than its share of natural disasters, and Central Texas having earned the name Flash Flood Alley, state and local officials have spent millions of dollars to install quick and reliable disaster-warning systems. Yet experts concede that each method also has weaknesses that can become glaring during extreme events.

The Regional Notification System (the term “reverse 911” is trademarked), for example, in which emergency officials use an automated system to phone imperiled residents in a specific area, primarily reaches landlines. But hard-wired telephones are fast becoming an artifact as more and more people rely exclusively on their cellphones.

Tourist towns such as Wimberley pose an additional challenge. Although individual details might never be known, some of those who drowned two weeks ago were out-of-town visitors who might not have answered the landlines in their rental units.

Most local emergency notification systems have been upgraded in recent years to include cellphone numbers. Yet unlike with their landlines, cell customers must actively register their numbers with local emergency management authorities to receive alerts.

Ed Schaefer, homeland security director for the Capital Area Council of Governments, which administers the system in Central Texas, said it’s impossible to know how many of those in Wimberley over the Memorial Day weekend had registered. But the odds that a significant number received reverse 911 notifications are low; only 23,500 cell users in the 10-county region with a population of more than 2 million have registered their numbers.

“It’s been a struggle to get the word out,” Schaefer said.

Even if cell owners do register their numbers, the local notifications arrive only from a cellphone’s home location. While owners are given the opportunity to register additional locations where they can receive local alerts, such as vacation homes or regular travel destinations, many do not.

Emergency officials also depend heavily on the federal Wireless Emergency Alert system to get the word out to endangered residents, particularly during weather-related disasters. These are most commonly broadcast by the National Weather Service, which sends out text warnings accompanied by a piercing alarm. The system connects with cellphones in a particular area by bouncing the alerts off specific local cell towers.

As the floodwaters approached Wimberley from the west, the weather service broadcast several flood warnings to Hays County residents, including one at 8:23 p.m. on May 23 stating: “Flash flooding is expected to begin shortly. Move to higher ground now. Act quickly to protect your life.”

Yet the federal system, too, can fall short. Some customers choose to block the alerts. Others — particularly those on vacation, and especially at night — simply turn off their phones. Sura said he never received any of the National Weather Service’s Saturday evening alerts: “My cellphone wasn’t charged.”

Experts say a more pernicious problem is so-called warning fatigue. During extended events over a wide area, the weather service’s alerts arrive with a frequency that might become annoying — or at the least become background noise lost in the digital clutter.

“We have to be careful about how we use the warning system,” said Travis County Emergency Management Coordinator Pete Baldwin. “We don’t want the alerts to get to where they’re like car alarms.”

Even so, “a lot of people get them so much they just turn their phone off,” said Czichos, the Wimberley fire chief. “I turn mine off.” He said citizens tend to especially ignore the warnings when they are being alerted to a threat that isn’t immediately apparent — such as an upstream flood being fed by heavy rains falling miles away.

Austin resident Laura Cottam Sajbel conceded she tuned out the warnings she received on her cellphone Saturday evening at her vacation home on Flite Acres Road. “If we had any idea it was going to be that bad we would have left,” she said. “It wasn’t even raining that hard.”

Old-school methods

As such gaps have been exposed in the wake of local disasters, some Texas communities have embraced additional warning systems the Wimberley area doesn’t have.

On the Guadalupe River, the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (which, despite its name, doesn’t include much of the Blanco River) uses a color-coding system to let people know precisely how concerned to be during floods. As water flows increase on specific stretches of the river, residents of individual communities can log onto a website that uses a color system — green is lower, red indicates historic flood levels — to convey how dire the emergency is.

“There is no comparable system on the Blanco River,” said the authority’s general manager, Bill West.

Others have returned to an old-school method that can be as effective as more recently installed high-tech alert systems.

Following a devastating flood in October 1998, Guadalupe County installed a series of 15 sirens in densely populated communities along the river; eight years later, after another flood, it added eight more sirens. Each unit cost about $15,000, plus $500 a year to maintain.

But Guadalupe County Emergency Management Coordinator Dan Kinsey said the cost was worth it: The sirens were effective during floods in July 2007 and again in June 2010. Hearing “a siren is kind of universal,” he said. And “you don’t have to have a phone or a cellphone.”

The city of New Braunfels also saw their value after floods swept through the city in June 2010. The river came up so fast the only way people were warned was by sending out first responders to tell them in person, recalled Steve Harris, the city’s emergency management coordinator. A man who’d been camping near Gruene was swept away to his death.

After that, Harris, who said he began to appreciate sirens while working in communities below the Hoover Dam in Arizona, said the city decided to install eight of them along the Guadalupe and Comal rivers. Their positions were determined by topography studies demonstrating how sound would travel along the river. Since then, he said, the city has used the system successfully three times to close or clear people away from the rivers.

Czichos — whose 7A Resort just upstream of the village lost 15 of 20 cabins in the floods two weeks ago — said that’s what he’s hoping will come out of the Memorial Day weekend tragedy for Wimberley. “I think we need them on every river, especially in Central Texas,” he said. He said he has already raised the idea in a meeting with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who toured the damage last week.

In fact, Wimberley had a siren once. Located at the old fire station downtown, it was used primarily to muster volunteers, but it could also be used to alert residents, he said. The siren was decommissioned when the department moved to its new station on Green Acres Drive in 1995, though it can still be seen next to Cackleberry Mercantile.

Travis County’s Baldwin noted sirens have limitations — they can’t be heard inside and might mean different things in different parts of the state, leading to confusion. Even so, said West, the river authority’s general manager, “They can be awfully practical.”

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