New tech can forecast when and where creeks, rivers will flood

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Central Texas has seen two deadly and devastating floods in the past year. In several of the cases, the water rose so quickly people didn’t get the message to evacuate until the water was already at their doorstep. In Blanco and Hays Counties, officials say emergency managers relied on people upstream to call in reports of the rising water. Even then, the low tech warning gave only minutes of lead time.

The technology, developed in a nondescript, single level laboratory building on the J.J. Pickle Research Campus in North Austin, hopes to radically change how forecasters predict flash flooding in the future. From such humble academic digs, Dr. David Maidment, director at UT Austin’s Center for Research in Water Resources, and his team of students recently created a water forecast model that incorporates existing data sources such as daily weather reports, stream flow gauges, historic creek levels, watershed maps, FEMA flood plain and topographical maps. Think of it as combining existing sky forecast information with ground level data.

And while weather forecasters have long been able to predict rainfall over a general area, the lack of effective knowledge of exactly when a flood is coming and where is about to change thanks to Maidment’s technology that experts concede is a game changer.

“What we’re doing is treating the whole country as one big flow network like it was a set of pipes under the city. All the rivers and streams in the country, just one, big network. Atmosphere to the oceans, coast to coast,” said Maidment.
Putting that meteorological, geographical recipe into the school’s supercomputer, 3,600 forecast existing points were extrapolated to 2.7 million stream reaches (a point between two tributaries) and catchments nationwide.

For instance, in the Austin-area the National Weather Service gleans information from official forecast points like the USGS flow gauge at Onion Creek at U.S. Highway 183. There are only half a dozen of those in the whole area. The new model gives Travis County 520 forecast locations. Williamson County has 500 locations where each creek and each stream is added into the water data mix.

The resulting potential is staggering.

“Today, weather forecasters see regions. The new model can ‘see’ every river and stream to within meters,’ said Maidment, adding the latest rendition of the supercomputer model can churn out fresh data in about 10 minutes. That’s an updated water forecast every hour for the entire country.

It is technology that stands to eliminate the guesswork the nation’s weather forecasters who can sometimes struggle to indicate when and where a flood is happening until it already is.

With an eye to actually predicting a looming flood, last summer, Dr. Maidment’s students were part of an experiment that zeroed in on one particular water crisis. Using only weather and land data that existed prior to last May’s Shoal Creek flood in central Austin, they succeeded in recreating the event. It appears virtually identical to the actual flood.

Shoal Creek GIF
Animation of Shoal Creek rising and receding on May 25, 2015. (Courtesy: UT ENG student Cassandra Fagan)

A Flood Prediction Hub

Dr. Maidment tells KXAN the trial his students conducted is the backbone of what is being shared with the year-old National Water Center (NWC) on the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa. The NWC is a unique blend of civil service and academic contributors and shares a similar mission as its sister agencies (Hurricane Center and National Storm Prediction Center): to protect lives and property.

This June, the ‘Maidment model’ will go live at the NWC, creating a literal waterfall of creek, stream and river data that can in turn, be used to predict flood events, possibly hours if not days, ahead of time. In turn, that real-time water information will be analyzed and pushed to the nation’s 13 River Forecast Centers—the one in Texas is in Fort Worth. From there, the plan is for the information to go on to National Weather Service offices and your local forecast outlets such as KXAN’s First Warning Weather Team.

National Weather Center on the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa. (KXAN Photo/Robert Maxwell)
Inside the National Weather Center on the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa. (KXAN Photo/Robert Maxwell)

Sorting through the amount of data the NWC’s staff will receive will be an enormous task. Flood predictions aren’t expected to be produced for the general public for many months. Although the timetable could be pushed up, Cmdr. Nathan Hancock, the NOAA Corps officer who manages the Water Center, says they don’t want to rush it because they want to be accurate every time.

“I think out of sheer determination it will work. I believe that this will not fail. I think we have people from many different backgrounds all focused toward making it happen,” Hancock told KXAN’s Robert Maxwell during a recent tour of the National Water Center. The open, airy campus building has the feel of a high-tech firm, more than a government office. Eventually, 200 engineers, hydrologists, scientists and support staff will work there.

“These [predictions] would be the models that go out nationally and that will be implemented across the nation,” explained Hancock.

With daily flood forecasting targeted at the street level about a year away, the sense of relief and excitement from people who have lived through a life-changing flood is palpable.

“I’ve always been frustrated there’s no way to know where it is going to flood. You’re just telling me it’s going to flood somewhere in Austin. Where? I mean which creek, how much? Is it going to flood my house, is it not?”

The flurry of questions came from Susan Gammage whose home on Parkway Drive flooded when Shoal Creek came out of its banks last May.

If Gammish had known about the rapidly rising waters an hour ahead of time, she said she would’ve reacted differently.

“If I had had just an hour, we could have saved photographs. All my photographs… of my daughter when she was a baby were gone.” Now, every time there’s a possibility of flooding in the forecast, Gammage says she and her husband will leave work early and put out sandbags to block any water from coming in their backdoor.

Mapping the Response Ahead of Time

Sending out an accurate regional water forecast is only part of the game. The other piece is making sure first responders have the tools to plan ahead. Providing a visual translation of the NWC’s computer model for local fire and EMS rescue staff is the task enthusiastically taken up by a retired Austin fire chief.

Harry Evans was at the helm when historic floods hit Austin on Halloween two years ago. Today, Evans is working with Maidment to make the massive computer models easy to understand for first responders.

Draft copies of brightly colored street address maps, soon to be tested aboard Austin fire engines, are strewn across Evans desk. The maps show firefighters what neighborhoods, streets and homes would be affected by a minor, moderate or major flood. The map tool also includes steps to take for each scenario, from where and when to call for evacuations to the safest routes to take, ideally decisions that will happen hours ahead of time.

Flood Address Map (KXAN Photo/Robert Maxwell)
Flood Address Map (KXAN Photo/Robert Maxwell)

Evans knows it will only be a matter of time before Austin floods again and the maps will be put to the test. He hopes firefighters will then provide feedback on their accuracy and usefulness.

In 2013, during the Halloween flood, fire rescue crews with only a few boats had to search door-to-door looking for victims. At one point, some firefighters themselves became cut-off by the rising water from Onion Creek in southeast Austin.

“If Onion Creek were to flood a year from now, the Austin Fire Department wouldn’t be flying nearly as blind [as it was in 2013] using this technology?” asked KXAN’s Robert Maxwell.

Evans replied: “That’s absolutely correct because they’d have information beforehand about the severity, and they would have… already preplanned out their actions.”

For Maidment, the work he’s accomplished with the National Water Center comes from a personal motivation. Last year, his wife’s car was inundated by flood waters as she drove her car on Woodrow Avenue. Like so many, she had no warning. The car was ruined, he said.

His motivation also comes at a larger level too. In September 2014, Travis County Sheriff’s Deputy Jessica Hollis, an experienced first responder trained in water rescue, died when she was swept away while putting up a barriers at a low water crossing on Fritz Hughes Park Road.

“I still get upset about that,” Maidment said. “It had been raining there for two hours already.
And we have a good forecasting system running at the national level. We would have warned her, [had the new water forecast system been up and running]. We could have had communications into the vehicles [saying] ‘Don’t go there.’”

“Any loss of life is tragic, but the loss of a first responder, that’s a community-level tragedy.”

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