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Flood Early Warning System Keeps Austin, Texas, Prepared

Technology incorporates multiple data sources and predictive modeling to help keep residents safe from floods in Austin, Texas.

When heavy rains trigger rising waters in Austin, Texas, an early warning system is giving city officials and residents a heads-up on what to expect.

Called FEWS — Flood Early Warning System — the technology provides predictive modeling based on real-time data. With precision flood maps, decision-makers and emergency personnel can make timely evacuation decisions and potentially save more lives.

Although a version of the system has been online since 1985, FEWS operators only had access to numbers on a screen to indicate flood danger. In the old system, there weren’t maps of flooded locations or automated reports showing road closures.

Work began on the new version of FEWS in 2008 and was completed in 2010. The new system features a city-built Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) running via a human-machine interface. The SCADA interface incorporates flood-related information from a variety of sources to determine, up to six hours in advance, which roads will flood and what areas need to be evacuated.

Data is compiled by the system through an assortment of sources, including a privately hosted gauge-adjusted radar rainfall system, which pulls in rainfall data from the National Weather Service Doppler radar and then adjusts the radar and data based on what a network of 4,883 virtual ground rainfall gauges in the Austin area are recording.

A vendor-hosted hydrologic and hydraulic model runs every 15 minutes using the gauge data that shows peak stage and flow of flood waters at various locations throughout Austin. The models are then calibrated against sensors operated by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

The advanced warning system is a far cry from what existed in years past. In 1998 and 2001, the city had to evacuate hundreds of citizens because of flooding. Since predictive modeling wasn’t yet in place, the evacuations occurred at the height of the flood waters.

That shouldn’t happen again. FEWS now provides Austin with much greater lead time if a flood situation begins brewing in the city.

Belinda Perez, an IT manager for Austin, said the large number of rain gauges out in the field and the telemetry they send into FEWS is the key cog in determining if there’s a potential flood situation. Perez explained that the mapping system and observation of the USGS data allows city officials to create a dependable prediction based on past events.

“We will look at the historical data and that will tell us based on what we are seeing from the USGS, how much water is coming and will help us predict what could potentially happen,” Perez said.

The system apparently has been a success. According to a narrative about the system prepared by the city, since FEWS’ launch in 2010, there have been no vehicular deaths in Austin due to flooding. The only exception happened two years ago, when a driver went through a barricaded road during Tropical Storm Hermine.

Development Challenges

FEWS involves many data sources and a variety of people rely on the modeling to do their jobs. So coordinating the project in 2008 was a challenge, according to Perez. She said IT staff and the city’s engineers weren’t communicating well at the time.

The problem boiled down to not everyone understanding what the engineers really needed.

“They kept asking for things that other folks were telling them to ask for — and no one was taking the time to really understand what their business was and how to give them solutions,” Perez said, referring to IT’s initial efforts to build an interface. “Instead of talking about technology, it was wiser to talk about the business and then come up with a solution to help them.”

Once the initial difficulties were ironed out, IT staff set to work. They custom-built the SCADA and the human-machine interface for FEWS. But it wasn’t smooth sailing. One of the key members of the city’s engineering team, Don Palmer, who did the design for the telemetry that relayed data wirelessly to the system, passed away during the middle of the development process.

Ultimately, Palmer’s work was completed by a couple of the city’s wireless technicians. By the end of the project, 35 people representing different internal work groups throughout the city had a hand in building FEWS. Approximately 10 vendors also contributed.

City GIS staff also built the predictive mapping application for the system. Those mapped and modeled results indicate in advance how severe flooding will be, when the worst water levels will be, and whether roads will become impassible. Those maps are given to emergency personnel to facilitate evacuations.

The total development cost for FEWS was approximately $10,000. In addition, because Austin no longer has to hire external consultants to complete the predictive models, each time one is completed it saves the city $50,000. According to the city, 13 watershed maps have been developed since the system went live, resulting in a $650,000 savings.

FEWS isn’t complete yet, however. While it’s fully functional, the public-facing end of the project remains unfinished. Originally once FEWS was live, residents were supposed to have access to the predictive modeling and automated features of the system.

Budget constraints have delayed that access, however. Perez said citizens have the ability to see some of the raw data, but they can’t see some of the automated mapping and which roads are closed in their area. Austin plans to someday make flood data accessible on mobile phones.

“We want to have a system that will push out to them and say, ‘Hey, you are in danger, get out of there right now,’” Perez said. “So that is the part that’s still missing.”