Flood report shows response gaps; staff offers little comment

Past flooding at Onion Creek Credit: Austin Police Department

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Nearly six months after the deadly flood in Austin, city leaders finally released the report that details what went wrong, and what needs to happen to ensure the next disaster . But three days after its release late on a Friday, few city staff have permission to talk direct about the report.

The report revealed that the Emergency Operations Center should have been activated sooner, not at 6 a.m. just as the flood waters were rushing through Onion Creek.

The report also found the Travis County Sheriff’s Office never received a page about the center’s activation. There was no system in place to track road closures and there was no plan to coordinate air support, a key component in some of the water rescues, the report said.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing with such a significant report was absence of a formal news conference, no news release and no open discussion. It came out at the end of a work week and only online.

City staff told KXAN Monday it was posted to a link of the city website as soon as the city manager finished looking it over, but not placed on the front page, or made easily searchable. Staff say the city manager received the report mid last week.

KXAN wanted to hear directly from fire and police chiefs about that night, who previously said they would speak to how they would improve emergency response based on what was learned from the flood once the highly-anticipated came out. Instead on Monday, they directed questions the city manager’s office.

In the 84-page report, City Manager Marc Ott remarked on the overall successes of the morning of Oct 31st, 2013. “Responder agencies reacted quickly to this incident…to offer high-quality services to affected persons,” he wrote.

Ott’s cover memo also notes the rescue boats deployed working well. Later the report showed 911 calls were not adequately triaged so boats did not get to where they were most needed.

One critical public safety source tells KXAN the report itself is not user-friendly and that it lacks an obvious timeline, adding to the confusion about when and where problems arose — such as why more people did not receive early notification calls warning them sooner the water was rising.

No mention is made of how each of the deaths happened.  Earlier Austin fire staff publicly stated all deaths happened while people tried to escape the rising water on foot or in their vehicles.

Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Otis Latin’s department oversaw the compilation of the report. He said he will be checking in to see how department heads are putting in place recommendations and changes over the next few weeks.

For example, Austin’s Fire Dept. has already moved its five rescue boats closer to flood prone areas. The final report notes AFD will also put in place plans to increase rescue staffing when severe weather is predicted. There are 171 such actions across 31 city departments plus county and other agencies.

Since November, KXAN investigated long delays in the city’s 911 center the morning of the flood. Hundreds of people in danger were put on hold, some as long as 10 minutes. KXAN found no mention of that in the main report findings.

KXAN also showed how emergency alert calls in both English and Spanish didn’t go out for hours. It is now recommended bilingual notices go out more quickly.

KXAN also reported how USGS early warning flood gauges washed away, impairing predictions of how quickly Onion Creek was rising.  Those gauges are now being made more flood resistant.

The Table of Contents for the full downloadable report on the city site lists a number of appendices showing letters from various local and state government leaders for assistance.  There is also a list of three attachments where readers can download the internal reports from departments within the city, county and other ‘stakeholder’ agencies.

Latin told KXAN they were included to show nothing was done to change those original reports, that his work is a transparent compilation. The original download did not include the attachments. After KXAN pointed it out, a City of Austin spokesperson said the issue is being worked on. The link to them is above.


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