(Another) failure to communicate

The county is working on better emergency alerts, but this week’s flooding signals major problems to address

Early evening on Tuesday (April 2), the day Oroville Dam’s newly constructed spillway was tested for the first time, the National Weather Service issued a tornado warning for eastern Glenn County and west-central Butte County. A few hours later, the agency issued the first series of flood warnings.

Didn’t hear anything? You’re not alone. Some residents reported receiving emergency notifications by way of texts or Amber Alert-type messages. Others received nothing at all.

Butte County and the city of Chico are able to issue warnings via a system called CodeRED—it allows the agencies to send out texts or other messages to residents—but it isn’t a cure-all. That’s because it’s an opt-in arrangement. Residents have to sign up to get them.

County officials are aware of this inadequacy, and to their credit they attempted to step things up for this week’s severe storm. However, there were some pretty major hiccups.

For starters, the county did not issue a warning about the tornado, giving no explanation for that oversight. Meanwhile, flash flood warnings went out not only through CodeRED, but also by way of the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System and Wireless Emergency Alerts. The problem is that those alerts were targeted to precise geographical regions as opposed to the greater population—leaving many unaware of the problems to come.

According to a Chico Police Department press release, issued in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, officers were swamped with calls related to flooding. The department reported depths of more than 3 feet in certain low-lying roadways and intersections. And it called in additional staffing to address the emergency, working with public works and fire department personnel for several hours after the rain stopped to unplug drainage systems and move abandoned vehicles from public rights of way.

As of press time, this newspaper was getting varied reports of damage. Multiple businesses were inundated with water and the Chico Unified School District sent out a press release asking parents of Chico Junior High students to keep their children home, if possible, due to extensive flooding on the campus.

While law enforcement have not attributed any fatalities to the storm—the silver lining in a county increasingly plagued by disaster—the same can’t be said for Nov. 8. As we know, 85 people perished during the Camp Fire—an event exacerbated by inadequate alerts. Here we are five months later. While the county seems to be bettering its emergency communication protocols, it’s clearly a work in progress.