Austin preps for potential ‘historic’ rainfall, learning from past errors

Courtesy of KXAN

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Ahead of potentially “historic” flooding, at this time of year there’s an eerie flashback for many to the deadly Halloween flood of 2013. At the time, there was a lot of scrutiny over emergency response.

Courtesy of KXAN
Courtesy of KXAN

Ahead of the predicted rainfall that rivals floods that came before it, community leader Mario Cantu told KXAN, “You know, this kind of reminds me of the last time.”

But this time, if flash flooding does occur, Cantu is confident the response will be different. Driving around town ahead of anticipated floods since the 2013 Halloween flood, “I see extra boats, I see extra manpower, I see them being prepared hours ahead of time.”

In the months that followed the October 31, 2013 flood, Cantu went before the city’s Public Safety Committee on behalf of the Austin Neighborhood Council to push for more protocols.

As KXAN reported in February 2014, those desired protocols included the following:

• Fully activate the EOC when weather forecasts indicate a high probability of flooding (existing protocols are in the City’s Basic Emergency Plan Sect 4.3.3)
• Add USGS stream gauges to creeks outside Austin for the Flood Early Warning System (Two gauges went offline during the flood)
• EOC should monitor these stream gauges (City of Austin Watershed Protection uses the data collected by USGS)
• Expand the Reverse 911 system to include texting through social media (CAPCOG introduced such an expansion in January)
• Give the Fire Dept. more boats (AFD currently has four rubber swift water rescue craft and one hard-bottomed boat)

Thinking back to that time, Cantu recalls the motivation behind the Neighborhood Council’s recommendations. “There were some – they were in situations where it was imminent death. And they felt that,” Cantu said.

In May 2014, leaders from Austin’s 911 center and other emergency response agencies acknowledged mistakes made during the October Onion Creek flood.

Today, with increased staff and preparedness, the Austin Police Department says the 911 call center is better able to handle an influx of calls – an issue that came under fire after the Halloween flood.

Last year, KXAN reported that on the morning of October 31, 2013, between 6-9 a.m., Austin 911 received 1,567 calls. Of those callers, 998, or 64 percent, were put on hold. The 6 a.m. hour, Austin 911 received 439 calls compared to an average of 44. More than 150 people waited more than two minutes for an operator to answer the line.

Last year the city added 12 call-takers to the staff, and this year, an additional 9 people are on hand to help. There are still 8 vacancies, but officials say they’re ready to handle any situation that arises over the next few days.

APD tells us, “All critical personnel have been reviewing their ‘hazardous weather’ response plans as refresher training for these events. Regular updates are circulated to all personnel to ensure all are aware of any operational and weather changes.”

When asked what is different now than in 2013, APD responded with this:

“In 2014, Communications supervisors were provided with an operational plan that can be implemented when a hazardous events occurs and 911 call load significantly increased. These plans create an operational flexibility that allows the Comm supers to increase personnel into 911 call taking when the call load spikes. APD Communications has utilized these operational plans on multiple occasions in 2014 and 2015 (during ice events) and also for the Memorial Day flooding event. After each of these events, 911 performs an after action review to determine what went well and where improvements are needed. These plans are continually being adjusted to improve performance.”

“We’ve identified key personnel that we can have on standby,” City of Austin Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Public Information Officer Angel Flores said. “We’re just making sure that we’re as prepared as we can be. Because sometimes things CAN turn on a time and you never know what happens.”

Flores said a big part of that is staying in constant contact with the National Weather Service.

STARFlight has upped their crews ahead of any necessary rescues. Two helicopters will be prepared for round-the-clock service in case anyone needs help. Typically, only one aircraft is on call.

For a real time map of updated flooded road closures, click here.

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