Emergency Alerts During Texas Floods – Were They Effective?

June 17th, 2015

By CHHS Extern Elizabeth Millford

Memorial Day weekend brought a lot more than patriotic celebration to Central Texas. More than four weeks of near-constant rain culminated in a flash flood that devastated towns and homes and ultimately claimed the lives of at least 23 individuals, including many children. In the span of just a few hours, the Blanco River in Wimberley, Texas crested more than three times flood stage, measuring 44 feet before the gauge was ripped away in the current.

In 2005 hurricane Katrina’s widespread devastation, which resulted in the loss of more than 1,000 lives, led to a nationwide push for better forms of emergency alerts. Following that storm’s journey up the gulf coast, the National Weather Service (“NWS”) implemented a wireless emergency alert system, while many state and local jurisdictions also implemented their own forms of wireless emergency alerts. Now that the NWS system is used nationally, the public is often notified of potential natural disasters well before they are in immediate risk.

In the aftermath of Texas’ flood disaster, officials are beginning to question what went wrong – why did so many people choose to stay behind despite the repeated warnings and emergency alerts that were sent out? Post-disaster analysts have provided some reasons why individual judgment about the risk of staying behind seems to have overruled the urgency of the emergency alerts sent out by local authorities and the NWS. These possibilities include: (1) the local residents have become desensitized to the alerts, (2) the alerts themselves were insufficient, and/or (3) flood disasters are unpredictable and it is therefore difficult to judge their severity.

The first reason identified poses a serious and significant question – have the residents of disaster-prone areas become desensitized to emergency alerts? The answer, unfortunately, seems to be yes. A study performed by the State University of New York in Buffalo concluded that people who “ride out” disasters tend to become complacent in future disasters. This complacency also appears alongside a lack of sufficient education about the danger – many do not understand the severity of the emergency, regardless of whether they receive an alert.

During the Texas flooding, local police officers called landlines and went door-to-door, advising people to leave. And yet many still chose to stay. Such a high level of complacency has clear dangers, as evidenced by the death toll in this recent disaster. However, this leads into the second problem identified above – were the alerts sent out by the NWS sufficient to adequately warn people of the danger? The first NWS alert was sent at 8:23pm and said “MOVE TO HIGHER GROUND NOW. ACT QUICKLY TO PROTECT YOUR LIFE.” The urgency of the message is undeniable, and yet many people chose to stay behind.

It is possible that people stayed behind because of the late hour of the alert. By 8:30pm, many were settling in for the night – this creates a two-fold dilemma. First, because they were settling in, many did not want to pack up and leave. And second, because of how late it was, it is likely that they could not see the severity of the flooding when they looked outside. Additionally, the lateness of the alert brings up questions of the NWS’ timeliness in responding to early warnings of the flooding. The first alert on Saturday for Wimberley residents was sent at 8:23pm, but there were reports of severe flooding much earlier in the evening upstream in Blanco County. Despite the fact that the flooding was at its worst just after midnight, some roads further upstream were impassable as early as 5:45pm.

There is also a potential flaw in the NWS alert system itself – the alerts are sent out via cell towers, on a county-by-county basis. However, counties can be quite large, and one part of a county might suffer extreme damages while another remains largely untouched. When residents receive frequent alerts that do not apply to them because it is taking place in a different part of the county, they will eventually begin to ignore those alerts, which ties back into the concept of desensitization. This is particularly true in the Wimberley area, where weeks of rain leading up to Memorial Day weekend resulted in numerous emergency flash-flood alerts.

The third problem is the volatile nature of flooding. Flooding is the “quiet killer” because water can rise very quickly and can come from very far away, creating an unpredictable and dangerous situation.

Early estimates of the Memorial Day flooding from the West Gulf River Forecast Center predicted at 7:15pm that the flooding would reach a maximum height of 12 feet. And then 45 minutes later, they predicted “minor flooding.” It was not until nearly midnight, when the flooding was almost at its worst, that the Center called for “major flooding.” Technology to adequately predict flooding has been successfully implemented elsewhere – perhaps Wimberley, one of the most flash-flood prone areas in the country, could look more closely at options to improve predictions of the likelihood of a dangerous flood. Local technological enhancements could also possibly have filled in the gap where NWS was delayed in distributing the initial warning.

The overall lesson here is two-fold: (1) we cannot rely on emergency alerts alone to adequately inform the public of the severity of natural disasters, and (2) steps must be taken to educate the public on the importance of these alerts – people need to understand the danger that they place themselves in when they choose to ignore weather alerts.

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