Flood Warning Systems: A Cost-Effective, Essential Solution

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Jim Keith

Stormwater Engineer

The growing death toll from Hurricane Florence emphasizes that having a flood warning system in place is more important now than ever.

The National Weather Service estimates that floods were the leading cause of weather-related deaths in 2017 — ahead of heat — with 116 lives lost. Floods can occur at any time of the year, in any part of the country and at any time of the day or night. Cities must not only build resilient structures to withstand flooding and other natural disasters but also have a robust and reliable system for alerting residents. 

Flood warning systems can be cost-effective, and cities can implement them with available grant funding.

Here are some key components of an effective flood warning system:

Web-based system. The City of Grand Prairie uses a web-based system to send out alerts during weather emergencies, including flooding. City staff can access the information from desktop and mobile applications and receive alerts based on user-defined thresholds.

Physical barriers. It takes just seconds for a car to become submerged. Drivers often don’t realize how deep the water is when they encounter it on a road. Flashers at low-water crossings, flood gauges and gates that lower when water overtops the roadway offer options for stopping motorists from driving into flood water.

Social media. The power of social media can rapidly spread alerts directly to your audience, whether it’s via Twitter, Facebook or other outlets. A good example is the City of Austin’s Flood Early Warning System Twitter account @ATXfloods. It sends tweets with up-to-date information about low-water crossings and road closings. 

Outreach and education. Direct public outreach can let the public know beforehand about the dangers of flooding. Mechanisms include face-to-face interaction at a town-hall meeting or booth, or campaigns such as the National Weather Service’s Turn Around Don’t Drown. The NWS uses videos and public service announcements, along with collaborating with state departments of transportation to remind drivers not to head into flood waters.  The goal of a flood warning system is to help the public understand their flood risk and get out of harm’s way during times of high water.

For questions or more information, contact Jim Keith, who has experience in developing flood warning systems working with local government clients.

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Jim Keith, PE, CFM, is an Associate and the Stormwater Manager in Dallas.