AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Continued investments in flood science are needed to keep Texans safe, emergency management and water experts say.
“Long gone are the days when emergency management is just red and blue flashing lights chasing after a disaster,” Kharley Smith, director of emergency services for Hays County, said. “It’s our responsibility to plan for and mitigate against.”
Smith has seen Hays County shift to gathering data from sensors and gauges on its area rivers, which are resources she and her colleagues didn’t have when her community flooded in 2013 and 2015. She reflected on the county’s response and her experience from the 2015 floods during the Water for Texas Conference in Austin, which was hosted by the Texas Water Development Board.
“It literally was a rancher from Blanco County that called our office and said, ‘I’ve lived here for 40 years, I’ve never seen the river get this high this fast, so you all are going to flood,’” Smith recalls. “That’s the only thing that generated a response in Hays County. We had very little rain in Hays County so it was all coming downstream.”
Hays County has since partnered with the Texas Water Development Board extensively, Smith says, to further develop access to emergency information and real-time data related to flooding. Grant funding has helped over the years.
“We have more notification systems in place,” she said. “We have more data-driven sites that we can reference. We’re improving.”
The website Hays Informed contains emergency information and a flood warning map. Smith was a part of a panel at the conference focused on flood monitoring and mapping. She spoke alongside Jerry Cotter from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Michael Ouimet from the Texas Division of Emergency Management. All agreed there is value in investing more in flood monitoring and mapping tools to help public safety and said there are also challenges they currently face when trying to inform residents and plan for emergencies. Data that isn’t sharable across different platforms is also another barrier.
“In any given event, we’re checking eight to 12 different websites or information sources, trying to formulate our own opinion on what all this different information means locally,” Smith said.
“Ultimately if we can get this information to our local emergency managers and to the public, they can make better pre-emptive decisions in advance before their home is flooded out, it benefits everybody,” Ouimet said.
Making the science from the screen stick with the general public is key.
“Try to stay more relevant and try to stay more current and relate it to individuals’ perspectives,” Smith said.
Thursday’s keynote speaker, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, told conference members though drought is common in Texas, the state started 2019 with its highest water supply in 25 years. But he emphasized there remains a need for long-term planning to prevent the state from running out of its water.
“Water is an issue that affects all of us,” Bonnen said. “It’s from the Red River to the Rio Grande Valley, from El Paso to Orange. We need to prepare ourselves as if we’re in the year 2011, by developing sustainable water plans designed to withstand our worst possible drought scenario.”