During the first 12 critical hours of devastating floods that overwhelmed much of metropolitan Columbia for days in October, local officials sent one reverse-messaging telephone alert to residents about rising floodwaters, according to state and local 911 officials.
That 5:51 a.m. notice on Sunday, Oct. 4, was issued to tell residents to stay off the roads after some drivers had ignored barricades, said Derrec Becker, spokesman for the state agency that sent the notice at the request of Richland County emergency officials.
“I did not get a reverse 911 call” warning of rising waters or of a need to evacuate, said Larry Bates, who lives on Rickenbacker Road in the hard hit Kilbourne Road/Shady Lane neighborhood. “I don’t know of anyone who got a (reverse) 911 call.”
About 103,600 phone numbers are connected to the reverse calling system in Columbia and Richland County, according to 911 center director Kimberly Gathers. All but about 4,800 of that total are for landlines, she said. Calls can go out to large groups or to people in a small area.
Neither Columbia nor county emergency management officials employed the 911 alert system to warn residents as floodwaters rose at pressure points across the county. City leaders said a major reason Columbia didn’t use it was that shelters were not open in time. Rescuers had to resort to the winter shelter for the homeless because they had nowhere else to take some 90 evacuees.
“What we encountered was our first responders were evacuating people but they didn’t know where to take them,” city manager Teresa Wilson said. “These were issues we were facing into Sunday morning. As city officials, all we could do is wait on the county.”
Under state emergency procedures, counties are the lead agencies in selecting and opening shelters in coordination with the Red Cross and other public agencies, Becker said.
Columbia spokeswoman Leshia Utsey said, “When contact was made (with the county and the Red Cross), they did not give us any confirmation that centers (shelters) were open. They were still working through that.”
Columbia fire chief Aubrey Jenkins, who had 145 firefighters working in the storm that night, said of not requesting phone alerts, “There was so much happening so quick in so many areas that we did not talk about it because we had no place to put them.”
A Richland County spokeswoman said she’s unaware of any delays in opening shelters. Friday, spokeswoman Beverly Harris said she had been unable to reach the county staffer who would have that information.
Three shelters opened during the storm at local schools, Harris said. The shelter at A.C. Flora High School was closed temporarily because of low water pressure, then reopened, she said. A few churches also served as shelters.
Richland County emergency services director Michael Byrd said his office issues reverse alerts only when there is credible verification of an emergency. The emergency services office sent eight alerts over the first three days of the storm about possible dam breaks in Northeast Columbia because state regulators confirmed the danger, he said.
Besides, Byrd said, residents had plenty of prior notice that a big storm was coming through the media and repeated news releases.
“It probably would not have hurt anything (to have issued reverse 911 evacuation alerts),” Byrd said. “But we do have to be careful about crying-wolf syndrome.”
Some residents complain about reverse notices if an emergency does not affect them directly, he said. “Why in the world were we putting them out when there was no flooding at their houses?” Byrd said of complaints the county received about calls they did make.
Do phone alerts work?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency calls phone notifications “an effective way to alert and warn the public about serious emergencies.”
Plus, so many people now carry their phones with them that they would get a message wherever they were – even when trapped in attics or otherwise away from their landlines – and whatever time of day, considering this disaster struck in the middle of the night.
That’s what officials in Nashville learned during floods in May 2010 that inundated parts of their city, a spokesman for the mayor’s office said.
“A lot of people were saying that from inside their houses they couldn’t tell how bad it was,” spokesman Michael Cass said. “They didn’t know what they were supposed to do until they got that call.”
Police agencies use phone alerts regularly, including in missing children cases. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott employed the system, for example, in February 2012 to help find 10- and 8-year-old siblings missing from their Olympia homes. Calls went out to homes in the children’s neighborhood. They were found about 3 miles away at the home of a friend of their parents.
In 2009, Lexington County authorities were about to issue an alert about a poisonous ammonia spill at the Tanner Industries plant near Swansea. The alert was canceled after officials at the scene said the cloud had dissipated.
The amount of rain that fell that October Sunday in metropolitan Columbia was the equivalent in one day in some areas to what normally falls in three months. It became the area’s worst natural disaster in memory, overwhelming many response capabilities.
Dam alerts, other forms of notification
After the predawn alert that Sunday, the next reverse call notice was almost 39 hours into the worst of the deluge.
It was a 2:53 p.m. alert on Monday, Oct. 5, and it was targeted to people who live around Upper Rockyford Lake dam in the Forest Acres area, according to Richland County records.
Seven more alerts would go out on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of that week – all at the request of the state environmental agency that was monitoring neighborhood dams in the WildeWood and Windsor Lake Park neighborhoods, according to information from county officials.
Five of the seven involved Beaver Creek dam, which state, local and private officials scrambled to keep from collapsing.
Richland County’s Byrd said its policy is to issue such notices only after an emergency has been confirmed, preferably by a reliable, on-site person.
“If someone calls and says there’s a dam about to break, we’d have to go out and verify,” he said. “This event touched areas that don’t normally see flooding. We can’t ... send (reverse alerts) on hearsay.”
Richland County officials say residents had plenty of notice through news releases that were widely distributed by the media and by weather radio alerts.
“The best way to get information out to the mass numbers of people is the weather alert system,” Byrd said. “We continue to encourage people to get weather radios. We even give them away.”
But many people don’t have weather radios.
Changes being considered
Since The State newspaper first inquired about the use of phone alerts during the flood, Byrd has said he is open to reviewing procedures and to making changes if he’s convinced they will improve the system.
Asked in mid-November if the county will re-evaluate its practices, Byrd said he’s open to that. “But are we going to achieve a better outcome?”
Last week, city and county officials met to discuss the shelters issue. The outcome of their talks is unclear.
The Red Cross has been invited to participate in a county-created task force, said Jennifer Heisler, spokeswoman for the organization in South Carolina.
“The Red Cross has accepted the invitation to join the Richland County Sheltering Task Force,” Heisler said. “We are continually collaborating with our partners to ensure effective planning and service delivery.”
Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission is considering changing regulations so that electronic weather alerts can be as long as 360 characters, rather than 90. Messages could contain URLs, telephone numbers and perhaps more digital data. All three are prohibited now.
Columbia city manager Wilson mentioned her shelter-opening concerns during her remarks to a legislative committee that is reviewing the flood’s impact.
The problem could be inadequate protocols or procedures that were not followed, she said in an interview, citing rules that set counties as the agencies to select and coordinate opening of shelters during emergencies
“Why that did not play out on Oct. 4,” Wilson said, “I don’t have the answer to that.”
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.
Reverse-messaging 911 alerts
Here’s what to do if you want to make sure your name and number are on the phone alert system for Columbia, Richland or Lexington counties – or if you want to add a mobile phone number to the system.
Go to the city’s online home page (www.columbiasc.net) and scroll to the bottom of the page. Look for the “Citizen Alerts” icon in the lower lefthand corner. Click on the icon to be routed to the registration link. You may register home or mobile numbers or both.
If you prefer to talk to someone, call the city’s Customer Care Center at (803) 545-3300.
Go to the county’s home page (www.richlandonline.com) and scroll almost to the bottom of the page. Look for the “Emergency Preparedness” icon on the lefthand side. Click on the icon to be directed to the registration link. You may register home or mobile numbers or both.
If you prefer to talk to someone, use the same phone number as for the city. The number is (803) 545-3300.
Lexington County residents who work in Columbia or Richland County may register their cell phones and or e-mail addresses if they would like to be notified of events in the capital city or in Richland County. Follow the same steps as residents do.
The majority of Lexington County businesses and homes, their landlines are registered in the system. But mobile phones, pagers and email addresses must be registered separately.
Go to the county’s home page (www.lex-co.com) and look for Departments on the top right side of the page. Click on Public Safety on the drop down menu. Then click on Emergency Management Division toward the bottom of the page. You should see the Registration button.
FEMA’s guide to 911 alerts
Federal Wireless Emergency Alerts, or WEAs, are free messages sent directly to your cell phone. They warn about severe weather, AMBER alerts for children, and threats to safety. Alerts already may be enabled on your wireless cell phone or tablet. Here is what the Federal Emergency Management Agency suggests about emergency alert systems.
▪ Confirm your mobile device can receive wireless emergency alerts.
▪ Sign up for text and/or email alerts from your local jurisdiction. Consider purchasing a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio. Some jurisdictions give them away.
▪ If you do not have a landline, check to see if your jurisdiction has options for mobile phones to be connected to systems.
▪ Sign up for listservs and alerts for the workplace, schools, houses of worship, or other community organizations you’ll want to hear from in an emergency.
▪ Download relevant hazard alerts and warnings apps.
▪ Create a list of all the alert systems available to you, and make sure everyone in the household receives the alerts as part of your family communication system.
▪ Test internal communication systems to ensure all individuals in the organization can be contacted.
▪ Designate individuals to be responsible for distributing alerts from official sources.
▪ Consider purchasing a NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards.
▪ Develop a list of all the alert systems available for your community and your organization as a guide for members.
▪ Encourage friends, family and neighbors to sign up for alerts and warnings, and assist them with finding any needed information.