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Halloween flood report points to shortcomings of emergency response

Tuesday, April 15, 2014 by Mark Richardson

An after-action report on the City of Austin and Travis County’s response to the Halloween flood released last week said that there were myriad serious problems with the response to the emergency. Chief among them was a lack of ability for emergency officials to communicate with people in the affected area.


According to the report – compiled by more than 40 city and county agencies — torrential rains falling on Oct. 30 caused several creeks in the area, particularly Onion Creek, to overflow after midnight, overwhelming flood monitors placed along its banks, killing six persons, damaging or destroying more than 600 structures and doing more than $100 million in damage.


The report said as the city’s early warning flood system was being overwhelmed by floodwaters, city and county emergency officials had difficulty communicating directly with residents in the path of the rising floodwaters.


In his cover memo to the report, City Manager Marc Ott said that poor communications was only one of a number of problems the report brought to light.


“While responding to and recovering from any emergency presents challenges, organizations are afforded the opportunity to take a closer look at response efforts and identify areas for improvement,” Ott wrote. “Out of the 227 total findings contained in the report, 106 worked well, 123 need improvement and only 48 items (about 20 percent of the total) did not work.”


The report is based primarily on separate inquiries by 10 county agencies and 31 city departments, including Austin-Travis County EMS, Austin police, Austin Fire Department and the Austin Community Emergency Response Team.


According to the report, the Emergency Operations Center should have been activated earlier than 6 a.m. as the floodwaters began flowing out of Onion Creek. The report also found the Travis County Sheriff’s Office never received notification about the center’s activation. It also said that there was no system to track road closures and there was no plan to coordinate air support, a key component in some of the water rescues.


Mike Levy, vice chair of the city’s Public Safety Commission, said in an email that the report indicates that the city manager’s office failed to “provide appropriate overall event command and leadership” during the emergency.


“No significant attention is given to role of the emergency response agencies, most especially the fire department whose personnel, at great risk, saved many lives during the night, despite a lack of sufficient resources such as rescue boats,” Levy wrote. “At a recent Public Safety Commission meeting, fire department executive staff said the department recognized the need for more (10-15) appropriately placed rescue boats that cost only $250,000 each for boat, motors and equipment. This is not mentioned in the report.”


He also criticized the fact that the report did not contain a timeline of events.


“The format of the report does not bring clarity to what occurred in emergency rescues. The mixing of important emergency response events with non-emergency events is confusing and results in a loss of perspective,” Levy said.


Among nine public health recommendations , the main one is to create an “effective, urgent and accurate notification system for high-risk areas,” with alternate plans and methods of notification.


Other items in the report included:

·         A call for improvements to the city’s ability to “provide public education, … as well as timely communication and dissemination of information to the public, especially to the non-English speaking populations.”

·         Ensure that staff with the city’s “flood early warning system” should have direct access to 911 calls about flooding in order to better locate the flooded areas;

·         Develop plans to evacuate, search for and rescue horses and other livestock; and

·         Provide city utility workers with access to flood-damaged facilities earlier in the event.


The report pointed out that areas in need of improvement or that didn’t work were included in a “Corrective Action Plan.” The report suggests that city and county agencies make those corrections within the next six months.


Ott’s office released the report last Friday by posting it on the City of Austin’s website. Officials did not hold a news conference or make Fire, Police or EMS officials available to discuss its findings. All requests to speak with city staff about the report were referred to the City Manager’s office.


The full, 86-page report can be found here.

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