Many along rising Blanco River didn’t get official evacuation notice

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SAN MARCOS, Texas (KXAN) – On the night of May 23, 2015, most people in Wimberley went to bed to a Blanco River that was still within its banks. As midnight struck, the river started to rise and by 12:01 a.m. Sunday, the river was already at 32.4 feet, flood stage is 13 feet. By the time the river crested at 43 feet later that day, 12 people had already died after being swept away in the flood waters.

As emergency officials in Hays County continues working on its After Action report, an internal report from the Hays County Health Department determined there was a “lack of official notification to evacuate for many.” The 28-page report-which was obtained by KXAN News, but not released to the public-was based on surveys of flooded property owners. “Even for those residents who received official notification by telephone… [it] was not clear they should evacuate,” according to the report.

The survey of more than 130 flood-ravaged homeowners in Wimberley and San Marcos was conducted by members of the Hays County Local Public Health Department in the days after the flood and completed in July 2015. The report, written by a Hays County epidemiologist and a graduate student at Texas A&M School of Public Health, is known as a Community Public Health Assessment. The report is used to help county emergency managers gauge the kind of help flood survivors needed and the help they actually received.

One of those was homeowner Norma Stiegler who’s lived near the Blanco River for more than a decade. Her property sits high up, seemingly well away from the riverside. The night of the flood, she says her son in-law woke her up as water poured over a back deck and into her kitchen.

Other findings include:

  • Nearly one quarter of households reported the water was too high by the time they tried to leave
  • In San Marcos, 51% of households surveyed received no official notification
  • Two-thirds of Wimberley households surveyed received no official notification
  • 15% received word from neighbors telling them to evacuate

“I was in bed asleep, so I didn’t [get any warning],” Stiegler told KXAN who says she heard nothing from her phone.

In the aftermath of the record flood, many of those surveyed said they relied on word of-mouth for information relating to flood cleanup and recovery, the report found.

KXAN asked Hays County Commissioner Will Conley about why the county staff decided to not publish the report’s conclusions and recommendations last summer so property owners could gain a sense of the flood’s impact on the community.

“Our [Commissioners Court] interest  is to get a lot of these things we know we need to improve on, that would benefit public safety, moving and operational as quickly as possible,” Conley said, adding, the elected officials in Hays County are more interested in hard results.

For Conley, results like the recent installation of new river gauges as well as the ongoing effort to build out regional flood monitoring network are examples of how the county has moved quickly to fix the problems during the floods. Conley admits less of a priority has been put on actually communicating or promoting other, less visible changes to the public safety landscape in the county.

“The majority of the recommendations in the survey report have already been, or are being implemented.” Conley also said the survey will be included in a more comprehensive disaster After Action report, which KXAN has confirmed is now  being written but still unclear as to when it’ll be released.

Conley says the county has improved its emergency alerts. Now, text and telephone emergency will be more plain and use more active language such as: evacuate now. In May 2015, such messages used less time-sensitive language like “move to higher ground.”

Because eight of the 12 who died during the floods were tourists staying in a vacation home, the county is making sure tourists know the dangers of staying along the river as well. Soon, tourists renting riverside properties in Wimberley will be required to sign-off on policies showing they have read information allowing them to download reverse emergency notification apps and local emergency telephone numbers. The City of Wimberley is being asked to ensure all rental properties have telephone land lines.

The report identified several key points for the county and its neighboring cities to work on:

  • The City of Wimberley, the City of San Marcos, and Hays County need to develop reliable, effective means of notifying residents of the need to evacuate. The delivery and specific wording of the notification are both important.
  • Flood sirens for areas that are difficult to reach by road and for areas with many vacation homes should be considered
  • Communication coordination with communities upriver is crucial to ensure sufficient warning of the need to evacuate

KXAN reported in January, flood warning sirens were being tested but no final decision has been made on a vendor.

Other recommendations speak to the best ways to communicate with residents after a disaster when television or telephone lines may have been cut.

According to the report, coordination of volunteers was also lacking. Some flood victims received aid from multiple sources and other people got none, the report concludes.

In the future, the report suggests community first responder agencies make sure neighborhoods have alternate escape routes if low water crossings are blocked.

Finally, residents are encouraged to build their own evacuation kits including contacts and important medications and plans to evacuate pets and livestock if relevant.

To the other survey report recommendations, county staff say volunteer network programs have been in place since 2014. That’s when the county’s Emergency Preparedness began an outreach program called 5 Steps To Preparedness. The program helps neighborhoods, affiliated HOAs as well as assisted living and retirement centers to prepare for disasters, including creating evacuation routes. The Village of Bear Creek was the first local community to pilot the program, staff confirm.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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