Can’t Tell Where It’s Flooded? Look At Your Phone, Stay Safe

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The warming climate means more intense rain in many places, and that's helping cause more frequent and more dangerous flash floods. In one example of just how quickly people can be caught up in them, you may have seen the video that went viral after a bride in New Jersey had to be rescued traveling from her wedding ceremony to the reception.

As communities grapple with record breaking rainfall and flooding there have been a slew of new technologies, known as 'disaster apps,' to help alert people and keep them safe. Now, Austin, Texas, is developing its own system, one it hopes will expand to other places.

The city is in a part of Texas already known as Flash Flood Alley. 75 percent of flash flood deaths in the state happen on roads, often at low water crossings where cars are swept away by flooding creeks. That fact led to Austin's latest effort to keep people off dangerous roads: a network of cameras that will let people actually see the rising waters.

The power of an image

Austin already has flood gauges, and a website to tell people about road closures. Now it plans to have cameras send pictures of flood prone intersections, updating every few minutes. They will be connected to a mobile friendly website so people can check flood conditions on their smartphones.

Matt Porcher, with Austin's Flood Early Warning Team, thinks people may be more easily convinced if they know ahead of time that a certain intersection is flooded.

"Rather than someone having to drive up to this low water crossing and try to make a decision there, 'Well, can I make it, it's only a couple inches of water,'" he says. The hope is they will check for water beforehand and decide, "'I am going to stay off the road today.'"

The city was first approached with the idea by Joel Aud, a former state Department of Public Safety employee who now works for Beholder Technology, the company the city contracted for the project.

Aud says during his time at the DPS he knew that cameras on the border with Mexico were used to interdict drugs and human trafficking.

When a women he knew lost her son in a flash flood in Central Texas, "it was a natural leap to say, 'All right, if we can do interdictions we should also be able to monitor flood levels.'"

Along with installing cameras, Austin is working on a way to alert people about specific crossings. Other flood-prone cities, including Miami, are developing similar ways to warn people.

Dr. Nicholas Kman thinks images can be a powerful online tool. He's a medical manager for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's urban search and rescue team in Ohio, and has studied the rise of 'disaster apps.'

But he warns that this type of tech often relies on cellular services or Wi-Fi to get information to the public.

"A lot of times in a disaster those things will go down," he says. "So if there's no cell services and you're relying on your cell phone to power the app, and there's no wifi, then you're not going to be able to use it."

In fact, spotty cellular coverage has been a challenge in at least one place in Austin.

The city now has seven cameras posting photos online and hopes to put up around 20 more by the end of the year.

Porcher says they've also received calls from neighboring communities who are interested. He hopes one day there will be a statewide system of cameras trained on Texas creeks and rivers, helping to keep people out of harm's way.

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