The after-action report said when the rains first appeared to threaten significant flooding, Army Corps personnel failed to respond to Corps commander's initial email about flooding potential. The report said delays resulted in "slower communications up the chain of command regarding the potential severity of the event". The emails were not raid, the report said, "perhaps from an overload of emails in inboxes".
No doubt many of you are wondering if email is really how the Corps communicates. Well, apparently so, according to the after-action report. In our response, we said, "While email can be an effective way of communicating certain information, it is a poor way of disseminating critical information that requires immediate action". Clearly, an automated notification system would have helped. The Corps' after-action report said they would start using "telephonic notifications". We said good move, but encouraged the Corps to look beyond simply using telephonic notifications. Instead, adopt a system that automates the phone process and uses other modes of communication as well.
The Corps also noted significant challenges in communications with the public. The Corps said it really doesn't have responsibility for notifying the public; that's responsibility of the National Weather Service. Yet, the report cited several significant public notification challenge.
- Corps personnel "fielded numerous phone calls from the public during the flood event requesting information on the extent of flooding expected in their area."
- "With minimum personnel available the calls diverted staff time away from developing and implementing reservoir system operations plans."
- "This event occurred over the weekend, when limited personnel were in the District office to handle communications with the public."
So, even if the Corps doesn't have "official" responsibility, they've clearly got a problem on their hands. The public wasn't well-informed and, whether the Corps was ready or not, the public turned to the Corps for information.
In our response, we didn't suggest that the Corps take over responsibility for informing the public in a significant flood event. However, we did encourage the Corps to take an active role in supporting a strong public notification program. They need to consider themselves a partner in such, roll up their sleeves, and get involved in any initiatives to improve the public alerting situation...including supporting a modernized Emergency Alert System in Tennessee.
Despite the very serious flood event, the middle Tennessee area was, well, lucky. Communications could have been much worse. For the most part, power was not interrupted. Had it been, which is common occurrence in flooding, the situation would have been much worse.
Let's all learn from the Corps. They may have not a number of things right, but they're being open about their challenges and seem genuinely interested in doing better next time...and, there will be a next time.
All the best,