Flood lessons put to use in this week’s storm response

Flood waters from Waller Creek in Downtown Austin (Eric Janzen / KXAN)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – City staff who were on duty during October’s deadly flood in Onion Creek say they were better prepared for this week’s intense overnight rain storm, a midsummer deluge that brought flooding to Austin’s downtown and other urban pockets.

“The one thing especially from the Halloween storm that improved in my mind was some communication between groups,” said Kevin Shunk, a nationally-recognized city engineer and part of the Flood Early Warning System team.

He was referring to changes to the way 911 call center staff now relay flood reports from callers and how law enforcement and other tweets are used to pinpoint urban flooding in near-real time.

“(Those tools were) super helpful, because…water gets into the streets, storm drains can’t handle it and that’s really hard to predict, really hard to warn (citizens),” Shunk said.

Along with outgoing social media, the catch-all reporting tool is atxfloods.com. More low water crossings are now part of the online map of the region, with staff at the cities of Cedar Park and Round Rock now contributing low water crossing information to the service. Emergency operations staff in Williamson County coincidentally finished their training on the system just last week.

A stream of tweets from APD and others helped flood managers guide the flow of information and the response. (July 17th, 2014)
A stream of tweets from APD and others helped flood managers guide the flow of information and the response. (July 17th, 2014)

Fire Department better prepared

The lengthy local government review of the Halloween flood came out in April and produced dozens of recommendations – not only for communication practices, but front line response, too.

In line with that list of action items, Austin’s Fire Department had two swift water rescue boat crews ready and a third on stand-by Thursday night into Friday. EMS moved a specially outfitted ambulance with a swift water rescue crew downtown. The crew was dispatched to four calls, but none involved rescue.

KXAN first told you this winter AFD used the October flood as a learning opportunity and repositioned its boat teams at fire stations near 2222 and 360 and by Mopac and Bee Caves Road.

There are now additional boats located at stations near Parmer and MoPac, Interstate 35 and Airport Boulevard, near the Travis County Expo Center out east, and another at Manchaca and William Cannon. Even more boats and swift water rescue training are requested in this year’s city budget.

Thursday, Austin’s Flood Early Warning crew was at the Emergency Operations Center before midnight watching high risk zones like Onion Creek, the area where floodwater destroyed hundreds of homes last fall.

Shunk told KXAN unlike that flood event where a weather system sat over the area, this week’s storm involved rain cells that blew up without much warning.

“It was the type of storm where there’s a storm right on top of you, quickly,” he said.

Local emergency notifications were not used in Travis County as they were Oct. 31 last year. However, the National Weather Service did issue alerts Friday morning to its mobile subscribers.


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