Seminar discusses emergency preparedness improvements after May Wimberley floods

Selah Maya Zighelboim

Eleven people died and 350 houses were damaged or destroyed as a result of severe flooding in Wimberley, Texas in May. On Monday afternoon, the Environmental Science Institute hosted a seminar on how the small city will improve its ability to respond to these kinds of floods in the future.

Wimberley city administrator Don Ferguson, civil engineering professor David Maidment, Harry Evans, former Austin Fire Department chief of staff, and social work professor Calvin Streeter each presented on aspects of emergency preparedness and disaster response.

According to Ferguson, who presented first, 195,000 acre-feet of water passed through Wimberley during the Memorial Day weekend — enough to flood the AT&T Stadium in Arlington 82 times. He said the Blanco River rose from five feet to 41 feet.

“The force of water, kicking in doors that a SWAT team could never kick in, shattering windows, taking counters out — it’s an amazing scene,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson stressed the importance of accurate advanced warnings. During the floods, Wimberley had used an old system of relying on people living farther upstream to call and report changing weather conditions. Ferguson said there was a reverse 9-1-1 call service to send information to residents but said he wants to add sirens to that as well as figuring out how to include social media.

Maidment spoke about a better flood forecasting system he is developing, which would be 400 times more spatially dense than the previous system and updated hourly.

Evans discussed a template for emergency response maps he is developing, which will include a map for pre-planned responses and a map of real-time flood information updated hourly. He said the maps would be for the use of a city administrator in the next flood disaster, but he said he thinks it will be accessible to community residents as well one day.

“Whenever I talk to people, they say, ‘Can I have this now?’” Evans said. “We have to be sure it’s completely accurate because if it’s not, people will lose confidence.”

In the last presentation, Streeter spoke about disaster response from a social sciences perspective. According to Streeter, the two most influential factors in a person’s disaster response are their previous experience with emergencies and their respect for authority figures.

“When we think about decisions, when we process information about hazard warning and disaster response, we think of it as a personal decision,” Streeter said. “But there’s pretty good evidence that there’s an interpersonal aspect to that as well. Our social networks have a powerful impact on our decision making.”

Cassandra Fagan, a water resources engineering graduate student who worked on creating the emergency response maps for Maidment’s and Evans’ presentations, said she found Streeter’s speech on how people react in an emergency situation interesting, and she said she thought it would help in her work designing emergency response maps.

“It helps me put myself in the shoes of people in a community so I can create a better product,” Fagan said.