Flood survivors call for better warnings, more rescue boats

Volunteers provide flood assitance
Volunteers provide flood assitance

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Property owners who survived the Onion Creek flood in October 2013 want more high water gauges installed in tributaries of flood-prone creeks and more Austin Fire Department rescue boats available the next time the city and Travis County are in the path of a potentially life-threatening storm.

Mario Cantu with the Austin Homeowners Council told the city’s Public Safety Commissioners his group would also like to see the Austin-Travis County Emergency Operations Center fully activated well ahead of predicted damaging weather.

“Everyone knows what needs to be done,” he told KXAN. “It’s a matter of executing those particular items in disaster management.” Earlier he told Commissioners the Oct. 31 response was ‘a team disaster.’

Neighborhood Council Recommendations:

Before the next major flood, the group that represents 119 Austin neighborhoods is calling for new protocols to:

  • 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)

At Monday’s Public Safety Commission meeting, senior fire safety officials indicated the ANC’s recommendations will be part of the city’s After Action Review. Austin Fire Chief of Staff Harry Evans told commissioners the full document will be ready for the city manager in mid-March. The city manager will then share it with the mayor and city council.

Evans told commissioners the time between the event and release of the report (four and a half months) is in line with the report done after the 2011 wildfires.

The review will be publicly examined at the Public Safety Commission meeting in April and is expected to be a compilation of reports outlining the response and recovery efforts put forth by various city and county agencies including police, fire, EMS, Watershed Protection and Public Works.

On Jan. 30, a KXAN Investigation revealed further gaps in emergency response coverage, including:

  • A fire department call center that briefly scaled back the number of call takers before the heaviest rains (a page subsequently went out for more call takers)
  • Some 911 callers going into a ‘hold’ queue for more than a minute at the height of the flood

Five people died in Travis County when Onion Creek breached its banks.  In the days that followed , city fire officials confirmed none of those who died were in their homes, but instead were in or near vehicles swept downstream.

Cantu maintains there was no warning, telling commissioners on Monday no one heard any loudspeakers. Also, KXAN’s Investigation revealed the first of four reverse 911 calls went out at 7 a.m., well after the peak flooding.

The torrent of muddy water destroyed or damaged 500 properties over a few hours. The City of Austin agreed to buy out 116 of those properties which were built in a floodplain in the south part of the city. Travis County is buying out others. Many other homes have been abandoned as owners seek federal aid.

Cantu also suggested a new element of the city’s flood early warning system could be the implementation of a Blue Flag Day, similar to Red Flag Days often issued now during burn ban periods when high winds and dry conditions raise fire danger levels.

It’s a concept that has also been raised by Austin Fire Association President Bob Nicks who served as an incident commander the night of the flood.

“There is not a lot that’s new,” said Cantu. “This is pretty basic.”

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