Flood report reveals communication breakdowns, lack of rescue boats

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A draft report into how Austin’s Fire Department responded to the deadly Oct. 31 flood around Onion Creek revealed there is no formal process within the department to activate the Emergency Operations Center.

The EOC oversees the response to any major disaster by having representatives from fire, police and other city and local agencies in one room. Without that face-to-face coordination, responses can be delayed and time-sensitive information can get lost.

The 19-page ‘After-Action Report’ obtained by KXAN showed the first obvious signs of flooding began at 10 p.m. on Oct. 30 when a train crossing near MoPac and Duval Road was washed out. The region’s Emergency Operations Center was not officially activated until 5:30 a.m. on Oct. 31.

By that time, five neighborhoods from Pflugerville to Onion Creek were under feet of water and hundreds of homeowners either fled or were trapped on their rooftops for hours. Five people in Travis County would lose their lives that morning.

GOING IN-DEPTH // Austin Fire Rescues

  • Between 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 30 and 8:30 a.m. on Oct 31, AFD responded to 800 flood incidents.
  • 370 people were rescued by boat, helicopter or firefighter assisted walk-outs.
  • 253 families were advised to self-evacuate.
  • 50 animals were rescued or evacuated.

A KXAN Investigation in late 2013 reported City of Austin Watershed Protection staff were at the EOC from about 1:30 a.m., in time to notice US Geological Survey water height gauges go offline. But the EOC was not formally open at that time, suggesting few, if any, senior fire staff were on hand to activate a possible flood response.

The report also found once Onion Creek breached its banks the morning of Oct. 31, miscommunication could have cost lives:

“Someone representing the City of Austin issued a “mandatory evacuation order” for the South Pleasant Valley Incident Command area without consulting, approval, or even informing the Incident Commander,” the report noted. “The Austin Fire Department Facebook page posted the “mandatory evacuation order” at 0628 hours, October 31st. This is especially critical since the only deaths from the event came from citizens who were not in or had left their homes.”

Recommendations:

Adding rescue boats: The draft report points out a major flood hits Austin about every 10 years. It’s calling for the city to acquire more portable rescue boats and to have more staff trained and on stand-by to use them. It is already being done with AFD’s year-old wildfire team.A portion of the report reads: “AFD identified a need to proactively staff resources for pending weather during the wildfire season of 2011. As a result, a successful wildfire staffing plan is now in place with finite benchmarks for activation. Additionally, resources are placed in opportune areas as seen fit by the on-duty Division Chief.”

On the morning of the flood, the report showed three boats with motors were available and used in hundreds of rescues. There were two other boats available. One had just returned from repair and was not inflated. A second was kept at AFD maintenance shops on 51st Street. As the flooding started late on Oct. 30, AFD staff tried to ready these watercraft. They were told to stand down after an assessment said the weather was moving out of the area.

The report found both boats eventually made it into the rescue fleet by 6:30 the next morning.

Using ‘outside’ rescue squads:  Among seven area agencies have boats in their fleet, including the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service. They have two boats and helicopter rescue swimmers. The report found the day before the flood that boat team was put on alert but was never put into action.

Vetting information coming from the EOC to field commanders: During the flood, the report showed someone at the EOC sent out word to Incident Commanders at five locations waters were set to rise another 13 feet. That would have put people sheltering-in-place on rooftops or on islands, placing many rescuers in the waters. That stark realization forced commanders to plan for the worst – including sending in crews with life jackets for victims and even the possibility of mass loss of life, including firefighters. Fortunately, the waters receded quickly.

“It turned out that the flood water crest prediction was completely inaccurate. Personnel from the Flood Early Warning System embedded within the EOC called for Onion Creek to rise from 36 feet to 40 feet. Where this breakdown in communication occurred between the EOC and incident commanders is unknown,” the report showed.

The report went on to reveal Incident Commanders made a calculated decision to rely on information from their own teams rather than the EOC. For example, the Onion Creek Division Supervisor within the South Pleasant Valley Incident Command used fire department poles (pull-down hooks) marked with duct tape every two inches, as water gauges. Even though the EOC was calling for an additional crest in Onion Creek, these impromptu flood gauges said differently and provided Command with more accurate information. (Story continues below)


What’s been done since the flood? In January, AFD moved inflatable rescue boats from a central location downtown to places where they’re likely to be needed quickly. There is now a boat and trained staff at four stations close to flood-prone areas.The report also showed, perhaps coincidentally in October, AFD conducted a comprehensive training drill specific to removing victims from vehicles stuck in the water.

AFD also created its Turn Around Don’t Drown public education campaign. That’s the one advising people not to drive through low water crossings in a flood. The report calls for that program to be enhanced. Some of the fatalities happened when people tried to escape through low water areas that had become torrents.

AFD is accustomed to responding to flood-related events and does so multiple times each year. The actions and lessons learned from the 2013 historic Halloween Flood should be incorporated into AFD response paradigms,” AFD’s draft report concluded.

A final ‘After-Action Report’ from Austin’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department is expected sometime this spring.  It is expected to include reports and recommendations from other major city agencies.

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