Alert never sent for site of deadly flood

Flood damage on Citation Avenue (Amanda Brandeis/KXAN News)
Flood damage on Citation Avenue (Amanda Brandeis/KXAN News)

AUSTIN (KXAN) —  Travis County sent out seven emergency phone alerts through a regional system, but a KXAN Investigation found it never sent such an alert to Citation Avenue and Thoroughbred Farms – the same neighborhood where waters swept away and killed 67-year-old Inez Garza.

“No warning. Nobody [called] us,” said Tina Aleman.

Aleman became trapped in her home when the floodwaters rose on Citation Avenue in Travis County on the morning of Oct. 30. She says the water rose higher than she had ever seen. Aleman says she has lived in the neighborhood since the 1970s. Her son says he got general severe weather warnings on his phone, but he says nothing raised his alarm to imminent, life-threatening danger – until the flood water rose in the home.

“All I was doing was praying, you know, that’s all I could do,” said Aleman. Aleman says the water went up to around her neck. Then, it began to recede.

KXAN Investigates obtained county records, spoke with Travis County spokesperson and interviewed a fire chief who oversees that area. The consensus: Although the county decided to warn and evacuate some neighborhoods through a regional system, it never sent the warning to the neighborhood where both Aleman and Garza lived.

Travis County Fire Rescue (ESD 11) chief says – like Aleman – he had never seen the Thoroughbred Farms area flood so badly where it did.

“We started getting about 30 to 40 minutes into the event itself overall, we got our first 911 call there with about a foot of water in the house,” said Chief Ken Bailey.

The calls kept coming in. The water kept rising.

“We don’t have any monitoring for Dry Creek. Unlike Onion Creek or the Colorado River, we don’t have a gauge that comes back to us and says ‘hey, this is what the flow is,” said Bailey. “So we didn’t have that early warning ourselves until we started receiving 911 calls. But by that time, it’s way too late.”

Like the people in the neighborhood, those coordinating response also were not at first realize the severity of the impending flood on Thoroughbred Farms. Bailey says, although the creek sometimes rises over its banks, he hadn’t seen the level of flooding that happened in the neighborhood neighborhood in October. Even with more information, Bailey says an evacuation may not have been the best option.

“Where are we going to send these folks? And it is a high risk to send them blindly into the roads, which quite frankly a lot of people will try to move through the moving water, and that’s where we had at least two of the three fatalities,” said Bailey.

Some of the people in the neighborhood escaped the floodwaters and climbed onto their roofs. Some of them had to wait for rescue as the water cut off easy access to the neighborhood. Bailey says his crews have to weigh whether to move people off of their rooftops as well. Sometimes, that could mean a greater risk in the transportation and relocation compared to simply letting the flood victims staying in place. At the same time, crews are prioritizing and positioning limited resource in an attempt to save lives.

“We look back and say ‘we want to be everything for everybody.’ We can’t obviously do that. It is our job to try and protect these people and it’s our job to assist these people and in this particular case, we wish could have been in that place in that moment in time,” said Bailey. “That’s not a reality. Our area serves residents of 30,000 people. We have three fire stations. There’s only a limited number of resources that we can stretch out.”

Bailey is now considering possible changes. He says his department needs boats so the craft are available to Travis County crews while staying available for Austin. Bailey says he is also considering additional training and other equipment. He says fire leadership called in more staff, but they didn’t have enough equipment for the additional people who came in to work.

“We’ve identified the need for some boat assets here locally,” said Bailey. “We were very fortunate in this event that the City of Austin, the special operations division of the fire department and the special operations division of EMS, along with the National Guard and STAR Flight all provided resources in this area where people were removed from their vehicles, out of trees, off of their rooftops.”

Travis County Fire Rescue is also looking at which areas could get cut off from emergency crews in a flood. That way, leadership can pre-deploy equipment and personnel to an area under threat for flooding.

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