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Four counties, three emergencies and one life-saving tool

May 16, 2019

Floodwater and ice chunks covering a road

“The Stevens County Sheriff is advising no travel due to dangerous road conditions. Visibility is near zero, roadways are slippery and covered with snow. If you are currently driving, go to a safe location and stay until the storm has passed. No travel is advised.” Everyone with a cell phone in Stevens County, MN received that emergency message on March 9, 2019.

Stevens County had been hit by a similarly serious storm only days before. It left travelers stranded in the snow, the local public safety answering point (PSAP) overloaded with 911 calls, and first responders straining to reach all of them. But emergency managers learned from the experience, and when the second storm rolled around, they were ready with their emergency message.

The public reacted well – many of them had not realized how serious the storm was. Visibility was so bad, even the snowplows were grounded until the next day. But because of the emergency alert, fewer people ventured out into the storm, and the call volume at the PSAP dropped.

This is exactly the sort of situation Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) were created for. Every cell phone that has been manufactured since 2012 is pre-programmed to receive WEAs, so you can’t miss them unless you disable it in your settings. It’s part of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), which also includes the Emergency Alert System (EAS) on television, cable and radio stations. In the event of an emergency or disaster (such as severe weather), emergency managers can choose to activate a WEA, EAS, or both, getting important safety information to the public when they need it.

Freeborn County activated both a WEA and an EAS on Thursday, April 11, when a storm brought very cold temperatures and winds strong enough to down power lines: “Freeborn County Sheriffs office has issued a travel advisory for all roads within Freeborn County. Over 200 power poles are down. If traveling within the county please use extreme caution. Do not drive around barricades or emergency vehicles. Watch for downed and low hanging powerlines.”

And although downed power lines made travel dangerous, that was only the beginning of the problems they caused. Without electricity, many homes were left without heat – and with the outlook for restoration of power days ahead and more cold weather on the way, those families needed safe, warm places to stay.

Later that day, Freeborn County issued a second alert advising residents of three open shelters in Albert Lea and Alden. Steele County followed suit with a WEA about a shelter in Owatonna where residents remained safe and warm until power was restored.

The month before, Scott County was facing a very different sort of emergency: spring flooding. Huge chunks of ice measuring as much as 3 feet high and 10 feet across had formed an ice jam on Sand Creek, causing it to rise 4 feet within a few hours. The creek spilled its banks at the Valley Green Mobile Home Park, endangering approximately 1,000 residents with 2-foot floodwaters.

Working quickly, Scott County emergency managers sent a WEA to all cell towers in the city, advising that residents would be evacuated and could shelter at Jordan High School. The alert went out mere minutes before fire trucks showed up to do door-to-door checks, and between the two safety measures, residents were safely evacuated.

The WEA worked exactly as intended. Jordan residents were effectively notified of the impending danger, but the WEA helped them in another way: Those who were not directly affected came out to support their neighbors by offering shelter and providing food and other comfort.

Ultimately, WEAs and the EAS are designed to reach you wherever you are, whether it’s sitting at home watching TV, in the car listening to the radio, or anywhere with your cell phone. The idea is to make sure that, when a disaster is happening that could affect you and your community, you know about it as soon as possible so that you can take steps to protect yourself, your property and your family.