Severe storms often cause low water crossing equipment breaks

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The technology designed to protect drivers at low water crossings may not be as durable as you think.

KXAN obtained hundreds of pages in repair logs from the city’s Watershed Protection Department, finding dozens of examples of broken equipment over the last year.

The logs detail issues such as technicians finding damaged float switches, or cameras not reporting images.

Float switches and cameras alert emergency officials when water is about to spill onto the road.

That way they can activate either arms or flashing lights at nearly two dozen city low water crossings.

Scott Prinsen manages the city’s Flood Early Warning System, and says the technology is often damaged during storms.

That’s when it’s needed the most.

“We had some damage from large boulders, trees, coming down these raging creeks,” said Prinsen. “It hits equipment and inevitably, it can be damaged.”

Close Call on Old Bee Caves Road

During severe storms the evening of May 3, three women, a dog and even an Austin police officer were nearly swept away at the low water crossing on Old Bee Caves Road.

“I saw his belt, grabbed on and said I’m holding on and not letting go,” said Officer Matthew Valli, who assisted in the rescue.

Despite the dangerous situation, the low water crossing arms designed to prevent cars from driving through never came down. 

A repair log says the “float switch was destroyed during flooding.”

A float switch previously had been found damaged here as recent as January.

Prinsen says nights like these pose a challenge for field operation crews.

Crews are notified immediately when equipment breaks, and they can place barricades in the street as an alternative. Getting to those crossings in severe weather isn’t always easy, however. Crossings can flood within a matter of minutes.

“It’s a challenge when you’ve got rain coming down that quickly, at that time of day, to get people, that fast to that location,” he said.

In preparation for possible flooding this weekend, the city’s Watershed Protection Department is boosting the number of field operation crews prepared to fix any broken equipment.

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