En"gaged" in Flood Preparedness and Response June 2017

It's Friday afternoon and the weekend is just around the corner. Meteorologists are calling for severe thunderstorms in [insert your area], but knowing Texas weather—that is, its unpredictability—you wonder if the storms may blow past. Texas weather has a mind of its own.

A few hours later, the rain and wind have really picked up. You flip on local [insert news channel], and the meteorologist is urging viewers to take caution and be aware of low water crossings. A message from the National Weather Service cuts in with a reminder to "turn around, don't drown," and provides an update on road closures and flash floods. Minutes later, residents along [insert nearby river, creek, or stream] are encouraged to evacuate and seek higher ground.

Probably best to stay in tonight and keep an eye on the situation.

History tells us that floods have occurred all across Texas. Geography and weather patterns tell us that some areas are more prone to flood than others. But no matter the location or frequency of flood, all Texans can agree that safety and survival are top priorities when flood comes to town. A community's ability to respond to flood starts well before the rain starts to fall. Accurate flood forecasts and early warning systems can mean the difference between lives lost and lives saved.

Following the disastrous 2015 Memorial Day weekend floods in Wimberley and Houston, among other areas, flood preparedness and response have been on the minds of Texans. During the 2015 Legislative Session, Senator Kirk Watson authored an amendment that directed flood funding to the state's Disaster Contingency Account. Governor Greg Abbott then authorized the transfer of $6.8 million from that account to the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) to expand the state's streamgage network and to provide additional technical assistance and outreach for floodplain management and planning.

The state's streamgage network provides the primary data by which weather forecasters and communities can make decisions regarding potentially dangerous flood conditions. As a result, the network's role in flood prevention is critical. Streamgages measure the elevation of water in a river or stream and transmit this data via satellite to the United States Geological Survey (USGS) who operates most of the state's gages. The data is collected and transmitted every 15 to 60 minutes and available on the USGS website. From there, first responders and citizens can view the data and quickly assess the situation in their area and upstream. The National Weather Service also pairs the information with weather data to make flood predictions.

When flood conditions occur, the water may be powerful enough to knock streamgages out of place, rendering them useless. A floodgage—or flood-hardened streamgage—is a fortified gage built and positioned to withstand higher and stronger water flow. It usually has a back-up gage set farther away and higher up from the river or stream's main flow and oftentimes can be seen near bridges. Floodgages collect and transmit data to the USGS every 15 minutes, putting timely and accurate information more quickly into the hands of those who need it during critical periods.

That means first responders are receiving near real-time updates from the floodgage data and can alert their communities appropriately through sirens, road closures, evacuations, and other life-saving methods. The National Weather Service can use this near real-time flow information when making flash flood warnings and forecasts to local news stations.

Since we received the Disaster funding, we have expanded Texas' streamgage network in especially flood-vulnerable areas by funding and installing 23 floodgages, with an additional six to be installed by the end of summer.

The gages are also a high priority for the National Weather Service, whose ability to develop flood forecasts hinges on the network of streamgages. In summer 2016, the TWDB commissioned a study to determine where gaps exist in the existing weather station and streamgage network and identify communities with the most pressing need for improved flood forecasting. The streamgage study was completed in December 2016; a total of 42 new floodgages were recommended. Pending funding from the most recent legislative session, those floodgages will be our next priority for installation.

Another important data point needed to adequately assess flood dangers is the amount of rain falling. To help fill the gaps on rainfall data, the TWDB and partners developed the TexMesonet, a weather station network of high-quality data to support flood monitoring and flood forecasting efforts by the National Weather Service, regional river authorities, and local emergency responders. We have recently added five- to seven-day weather forecasts from a location-based homepage to the site.

In addition to our efforts to provide critical data for flood forecasting, the TWDB authorized $3.5 million in flood protection grants with funds from the Disaster account. Of the applications received, 17 projects around the state were funded. Each includes an early warning component and represents an important first step in implementing critical flood protection efforts.

The City of Leon Valley is the first completed project, a flood early warning siren installed behind the city’s Department of Public Works. The city has more than 275 residential homes in the floodplain and was forced to close roads due to rising waters more than 25 times in 2015. The siren will increase the audible range of the city’s current system to include the northwest portion of the city. The remaining 16 projects are on track for completion by August 2019.

Another of the TWDB's efforts resulting from the Disaster funding was the launch of TexasFlood.org, a year-round resource for Texans. The website serves as a centralized location for flood-related data and information on what to do before, during, and after a flooding event. Through the site, visitors are able to access resources such as the TexMesonet and the recently updated Flood Viewer.

The Flood Viewer tracks flood conditions by monitoring streamgages, weather radar, and weather warnings—all provided by the National Weather Service—and statewide lake conditions provided by the TWDB. All data is displayed on a web-based interactive map, making access to data on rising rivers, streams, and reservoirs more easily accessible. Recent updates include a new mobile-friendly user interface, location-based URL links for improved data sharing, new Twitter features, "locate me" and "follow me" functions to track your locations, and updated animated weather radar with improved lake conditions display. One of the most exciting new features is the ability for users to subscribe to streamgages and receive phone alerts when gages have reached a flood stage. Visit the TWDB social channels for upcoming announcements and more information.

Flood, like drought, is inevitable. That's why it is crucial that Texans—whether you travel or live in Flash Flood Alley or arid Far West Texas—are equipped and educated to respond appropriately when flood conditions strike. The progress made in the last two years is making a real difference. We can't change our geography or history, but with the tools we are putting in place, we may be able to change our future.