I had initially planned to write this post solely focusing on the 2015 Memorial Day flooding that occurred across the Houston metro. But Houston being Houston, it rained again. A lot. The 2016 Tax Day flooding saw a return of historic flooding to portions of Houston and surrounding areas. The locations, amounts, and onset of the heaviest rainfall were different during these events… but both were fatal.
Houston has a problem. But it’s not just Houston. This problem is everywhere… it’s a larger issue centering around a misunderstanding of the risk heavy rain poses to an exposed population. And once that exposure happens, what that population is actually supposed to do in response. It’s a problem of perception… but it’s just rain, right? How bad can it really be?
Talking about weather communication is a little difficult without knowing the weather involved, so here’s a quick overview of both events.
Memorial Day: May 25-26, 2015
A slow-moving line of thunderstorms moved south across Southeast Texas during the evening hours of May 25, with additional isolated to scattered thunderstorms developing southwest of the Houston metro and merging with the southward moving thunderstorm line. This resulted in several hours of heavy rainfall across portions of the Houston metro, with rainfall totals generally in the 8-10 inch range along a swath stretching from Sugar Land to northwest Houston by the early morning hours of May 26.
The first Flash Flood Emergency ever issued by the National Weather Service Houston/Galveston forecast office was sent at 10:52 PM for parts of central Harris and Fort Bend Counties. The Flash Flood Emergency was later expanded to include southern Harris County.
Tax Day: April 17-18, 2016
Showers and thunderstorms began developing across an area stretching from Bay City-Pearland-College Station during the late afternoon and early evening hours of April 17, and eventually developed into a slow-moving west-to-east oriented thunderstorm complex across parts of Austin, Waller, and Harris counties by late evening. Parts of northwest Harris County saw anywhere from 10-15 inches of rain during the early morning hours of April 18, with rainfall totals exceeding 20 inches in neighboring Waller County.
A Flash Flood Emergency was initially issued for northwest Harris County at 1:45 AM and later expanded to include portions of 9 additional counties.
Watch, Warning, Whatever
Historic flooding. In a highly populated area. When it’s dark outside. How do you show people how serious a situation is, so they can protect themselves or those they care about? What is the warning?
Is it the Flash Flood Warning that the National Weather Service issues? The barricades that Harris County/the City of Houston use for underpasses and low water crossings? The electronic messages conveyed by a local transportation group (Houston TranStar) advising of road closures? Is it what the broadcast meteorologists say during wall-to-wall coverage?
All of these are warnings. (I can hear the collective gasp from here… stay with me, folks.) The NWS warning is the official warning, but warning messages (the actual statements of weather risk to a certain group) come from many different sources and through many different channels. And they’re all trying to do the same thing… change a person’s behavior to prevent some kind of negative impact from the hazard that’s occurring.
The warning messages above were utilized (in addition to many more) during these two events to advertise the dangerous situation unfolding for many Southeast Texans. The weather community worked (very) hard through both of events to provide people with information to make decisions to save themselves and their families. The NWS issued 19 Flash Flood Warnings (including Flash Flood Emergencies) for the 2015 Memorial Day flooding and 21 Flash Flood Warnings (including Flash Flood Emergencies) for the 2016 Tax Day flooding and this doesn’t begin to encompass the numerous other warning messages transmitted by other members of the weather community via television, the internet, social media, etc. during the events. The warning messages were out there.
But we still had people die. Seventeen between the two events, if we’re counting. Twelve of which were vehicle-related. There has to be a disconnect somewhere.
So what is it?
Focusing in on the vehicle-related fatalities, it could be that people are unfamiliar with the flood prone areas around Houston. Over one million people have moved to Harris County since 2001 (U.S. Census), which is when Tropical Storm Allison dumped 30-35” rain over parts of Harris County and inundated much of the Houston metro. That’s a lot of new people who may have never experienced a flood.
It could be that people were in an environment (their vehicles) that limited the channels through which warning messages were available to them. It could be that time of day (evening to night) encouraged the decision to drive into flood waters by not recognizing how deep water was or how quickly it was rising. It could have been the complete ignorance of a warning message that was being delivered. One of the 2016 Tax Day flooding fatalities consisted of the victim driving around a barricade and into a flooded underpass. The victim spent a little less than 10 minutes in their vehicle before it became fully submerged in flood waters.
Even when there is ample warning availability, even when there is visual confirmation that the hazard is occurring, there is still an incredible difficulty in personalizing the threat that flooding poses. In recognizing that you may actually be at risk. Following the 2015 Memorial Day flooding, Texas Monthly posted an account of a survivor who drove their vehicle into floodwaters and became stranded. This individual ended up having to climb out of their vehicle through their sunroof before being rescued. In the account, the survivor provides this summary of their experience:
“I did not realize at that moment [last night] that I had just come out of a potentially life-threatening situation. I didn’t get it. At least not until this morning when I started seeing news coverage that people died in their cars…. In short: life-threatening situations don’t seem life threatening when they are happening.”
A “Delugeonal” Problem
So here lies the weather community’s “delugeonal” problem: the disconnect between what the weather community is saying when it comes to flooding and how people interpret what is said. Risk perception with flooding is low, even when the hazard is (literally) overwhelming an individual.
Flooding preparedness information now largely hinges on “Turn Around, Don’t Drown”… which is designed to remind people to avoid flood waters in a flooding event. When a dangerous flood situation is unfolding however, does this adequately convey the risk at hand? During both of these events, the weather community shifted its message from “Turn Around, Don’t Drown” to a more severe “stay off the roads” in an attempt to convey how serious conditions were across the Houston metro.
Additionally, how do we prepare people when things go from bad to worse, recognizing that they may be in a situation (like a vehicle) that limits their ability to receive or process warning information? I’d argue that we have to do more to talk about the more “uncomfortable” aspects of weather safety well in advance of these events… namely training people to recognize when their life is in danger. What happens if you don’t follow “Turn Around, Don’t Drown”? If your vehicle has an electrical door locking system, have you trained yourself to unlock the doors when encountering flood waters as you may be unable to open the doors if the vehicle’s electrical system fails? Do you have a glass breaker in your vehicle if you become trapped? Do you know how to use it?
I don’t have the answers to the questions I asked. I’m not even sure if they’re the right questions for the problem… but it’s one the entire weather community faces when it comes to communicating hazard information. We have to start somewhere.
But it’s just flooding, right? How bad can it be?
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