Friday, August 12, 2011

Collaboration: A Tale of Two Floods (Part 2)

Last week, we looked at the Nashville flood of May 2010, and how collaboration between agencies helped to get quick and accurate information out to the public.

Down the road, in my neck of the woods in Memphis, we had our own flooding issues this past May. Unlike the Nashville floods, which were caused by a huge amount of rainfall over a couple of days, the Memphis flooding was slower to develop. Our situation was the culmination of heavy rainfall along the Mississippi in the spring, as well as a large volume of melting snow along the northern part of the river. Memphis was by no means alone, as the Mississippi River flooding took its toll on Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

While a relatively small geographic section of Memphis was affected, it still was a serious blow to those in the flooded areas, and the uncertainty associated with the flooding caused a huge amount of public concern.

The Mississippi continued to rise as April progressed, and as the month ended, flooding was a forgone conclusion. The flooding became a reality in early May and on May 10, the river crested at 47.8 feet, its second highest level ever. To date, 3,282 Shelby County residents have registered for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

As a utility, the flood brought new challenges for us. In April, we were hit by three separate large storms that knocked out power to 50,000+ customers each time. We had never experienced more than two storms of that size in a year previously. For outage restoration, our communications are both proactive and reactive, and we use a variety of mediums to keep customers updated. In short, it's a response system we're very familiar with. The flooding was a very different creature.

MLGW was more of a supporting cast member in the flood response, but it seemed that rumors and emerging issues kept popping up, increasing the unpredictability factor. Our communications included:

  • Information about areas where we were shutting off utilities due to the flooding.
  • A YouTube video showing customers how to turn off their gas services if they were evacuating.
  • Safety information about water damage to electric outlets, reporting gas leaks, and more.
  • Assuring the public that our water pumping stations were all above the flood areas. A downtown water main break really didn’t do us many favors at one point, with customers in one neighborhood associating the discolored water with flood water contamination!

Collaboration with other agencies became extremely important to our messaging during this time. We had to pass along information like road closures to help our employees navigate their way around town. For customers, we also passed along information from the Shelby County Code Enforcement department, Emergency Management Agency, the city and the county. Having quick access to accurate information from these entities was a tremendous boost to our efforts.

At the center of the communications coordination for the Memphis flooding was Steve Shular, Public Affairs Officer for Shelby County, Tennessee. For Shular, his goal was to “ensure the public had the latest and most accurate information. To accomplish this, news releases were written in bullet points with specific information linked to particular parts of the emergency. For example: flood conditions, homes damaged, shelters opened, people rescued, health concerns, etc.”

To coordinate the response from multiple agencies, all agencies involved in the flood reported to the Shelby County Office of Preparedness Emergency Operations Center to share facts and statistics before they were released to the public.

In terms of sharing information with other entities, Shular said his goal was simple: “Ensuring the public knew the dangers of the flood so they would have adequate time to act. It was also vital to keep information flowing about the response and recovery effort through daily updates broadcasted and delivered each morning, afternoon and evening during the crisis.” Weekend updates were also provided, allowing for other agencies to have continual accurate information about the flood response. Shelby County also created a special phone number and e-mail address for citizens to call that helped them get answers and info.

One of the key communications components for Shelby County during the flood was a special website the agency developed, The website was staffed by an on-site webmaster who immediately posted news releases and other information, and the site became a central source of flood related information for the public.

In reflection of the lessons learned from the flood, Shular said, “We learned that information technology and a spirit of openness by the Director of the Office of Preparedness determined much of our success.”

He also saw some opportunities to improve, stating “for the next community crisis, we'll have some additional people cross-trained to check/field messages and answer the large volume of calls that we’d expect.”

Shelby County, Tennessee: Another example of Good Communications....Good Government

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