A Retrospective On Recent Storm Alerts And What We Must Do Better

by Jerry Shaw 10/04/2001

Every year around the end of August and the beginning of September, we here in Connecticut all gird ourselves for the onslaught of tropical storms or, God forbid, direct hit hurricanes. Even for other parts of the year, natural climatic forces affect our everyday lives. The litany is becoming all too well known with names like el Nino, la Nina, Artic flows, bomb cyclones, down drafts, tornados, nor’easters etc. Now we are faced with the ravages of climatic extremes wrought by human neglect with warmed air and increased atmospheric water that bear down on our little patch of the Northeastern coast even without tropical storms. On the west coast the opposite extremes of drought, forest fires and heat domes. In the Midwest, farms are hit with devastating meteorological crop-destroying events.

On September 2nd, Governor Lamont Issued a State of Emergency Declaration for the State of Connecticut due to the extreme flooding caused by Tropical Storm Ida. Sadly, earlier that morning, we lost a dedicated State Trooper to a horrific drowning in his patrol car. Latter that day, calls to flood restoration companies revealed backlogs numbering in the hundreds. In subsequent days, there were many attempts to figure out what went wrong. This blog attempts to identify what we can do better to prepare and forewarn.

Recently, prior to Ida, we dodged a bullet as the eye of downgraded tropical storm/hurricane, Henri, just missed us and struck Rhode Island instead. Around 4 pm on Aug. 21st, prior to Henri’s arrival, came the second of three messages from our town using CT-Alert and Branford Community Alerts, with a mandatory evacuation notice. This notice was issued for vulnerable near-shore areas like Stony Creek within evacuation regions 1 and 2 and included directions to the Branford high school shelter. The mandatory evacuation notice was buried in the text of email and text messages and was not highlighted. Many in the Creek didn’t get the alert. Rumor had it that some Branford residents in Indian Neck had knocks on doors. My friends in Madison also got knocks on doors and wondered why, but obligingly complied only to happily return a few hours later. In all cases the notices were the result of conscientious officials executing their public mandates. But the execution in Branford was flawed in part because of the delivery system. Some landline CT-Alerts were labeled by “suspected spam” caller IDs, admitted as an issue by Everbridge, the cloud-based delivery contractor. In Stony Creek, two days later, association members, on their own initiative, had to go to the First Selectman to get clarification on the emergency alert protocol between the town and village, particularly for mandatory evacuations.

Then on August 29, Cat 4 Hurricane Ida struck New Orleans with 170 mph winds. By August 31st Tropical Storm Ida was knocking on our door. On that date, the National Weather Service New York issued this Tweet for the NYC-New Jersey region at 9:14 p.m.

On the following day, September 1st, NWS issued a second Tweet alert at 7:30 am with the headline: “Significant & life-threatening flooding is forecast across the Mid-Atlantic into southern New England today ahead of T.D. Ida. 3-8 inches (with locally higher amounts) of rainfall will lead to widespread major flood impacts, especially in urban areas and areas of steep terrain.”

We received only one Branford CT-Alert around 8:10 p.m. September 1, 2021, some 12+ hours after the NWS warning. Rain had already started in Darien an hour earlier and had begun in Branford. I had forwarded a 5:30 p.m. Branford Patch alert to Fire Chief Mahoney. At around 11 pm, just 3 hours later, Darien’s First Selectwoman Tweeted a report of 8 inches of rain and the Bridgeport fire department Tweeted a report of 22 cars underwater. Hours earlier in New Jersey, there were 22 drowning fatalities mostly car drivers. A Connecticut policeman drowned in his patrol car early the following morning. Fortunately, at around 1:30 am. the same morning, a motorist was extricated from a car stranded under the Amtrak overpass on Thimble Islands Road in Stony Creek.

On September 8, the Branford RTM Moderator read my letter to the RTM on this topic. It can be read in the RTM minutes.

Portions of the Town of Branford Director of Emergency Management Chief Thomas Mahoney’s response are extracted from the minutes as follows:

Chief Mahoney: “I will follow up again with Everbridge regarding Mr. Shaw’s latest concerns however, multiple warnings were sent out on many different platforms. These included, Social Media, Branford Community Messages and CT-Alert (Everbridge)”

My response: The Branford Emergency Management webpage has no mention of Social Media Links or “many other platforms”. I had to Google Branford Fire Department’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BFDCT/. See below for the September 1 posting.

The town doesn’t have an official Twitter account that I could find using Google. In addition, Branford Community Messages (BCM) is not widely used for email alerts and requires registration of an id and password (and obviously an internet account). On September 1, Ida flood alert was recorded on BCM at 5:00 p.m., 3 hours before the CT-Alert was issued at 8:10 p.m.

Note that many in Connecticut are not Facebook registrants for many reasons. This Facebook posting was at 5:00 p.m. 3 hours ahead of the town’s CT-Alert. I suspect there aren’t many followers given this post garnered 12 likes and 9 shares.

Chief Mahoney: “Unless you were living under a rock you knew about this storm and it’s potential for flash flooding. As Mr. Shaw stated, the NWS used the IPAWS system to send out immediate and urgent warnings. IPAWS is the only system able to take over a person’s device to send such warnings. IPAWS is not available to us as a local municipality without a per message approval from the Governor.”

My response: . The phrase “Unless you were living under a rock you knew about this storm and it’s potential for flash flooding.” is a bit over the top. None of us are professional meteorologists but depend on those who are. The extent of Ida flooding blindsided everyone, even the professionals. IPAWS, a FEMA alert system that depends upon the NWS was not mentioned by me or considered relevant. NWS and Branford Patch alerts were mentioned. These Twitter messages were published 12 hours before the 8:10 p.m. Branford CT-Alert.

Chief Mahoney: “The CT-Alert message was broadcast immediately after we sent it, We sent the message via CT-Alert at 20:13 warning that roads could be blocked. We purposely use CT-Alert sparingly as it is a documented fact that people will simply opt out or ignore these messages if they receive too many. We waited to send it out to add urgency to the many messages and weather reports people were already receiving.”

My response: Branford citizens on Tuesday August 31st and Wednesday September 1st were in the middle of their workweek, not glued to their cells nor aware, as was stated above, of the severity of impending danger. Some were preoccupied with preparation for the approaching Labor Day festivities or may have been out of town. To delay an alert by 12 hours is not acceptable. Around 8:10 p.m., rain had already started — hardly leaving time for preparation. Someone returning home was trapped in waters under the Amtrak overpass. Knowing sooner, the driver may have returned home earlier. If I was living in a basement apartment in Queens, I would have been in trouble. The aftermath on September 2nd and the Lamont State of Emergency based on storm damage is evidence of the importance of early flood warnings. Companies like Paul Davis Restoration and Servepro continue to have weeks of backlog Many did not prepare in time.

The Chief’s delay statement is founded on the assumption of a uniform demographic of high-tech users who already are subscribed to other emergency alert applications. And yes, recent reports suggest an alert overload. However, some residents do not have cell phone or internet connections, or do not subscribe to CT-Alert and depend upon E911 registered landlines for Branford Town emergency messages. I assume that the CT-Alert was broadcast over the traditional E911 registered landlines that are not listed with CT-Alerts and for whom timeliness may be extremely important.

My view is that the Chief’s response evades the issue as to whether Branford should issue regional alerts. Regional storm alerts should be managed by the CT DEMHS district, not individual towns in the district. CT DEMHS has a lot of work to do to make CT-Alerts viable. This includes transparency on alert threshold options and recognition of alert criteria, as with FEMA and NWS cell apps. The Everbridge cell app is problematic – why do I get alerts for Suffolk County?. CT DEMHS also has to work with Everbridge on message delivery hiccups.

There may be an alternative weather alert strategy for cell phone users. Do we need CT-Alerts?

Twitter users can follow either or both NWS-NYC and Connecticut Department of Emergency Management and Homeland Security (CT DEMHS) Twitter feeds. This approach can augment registering for email alerts using either Branford Community Alerts or CT-Alert. Landline registration is optional with traditional E911 messaging as a fallback. As stated above, there were two NWS tweets conveying the life threatening nature of TS Ida, more than 12 hours before Branford’s CT-Alert. These NWS Tweets were retweeted by the CT DEMHS Twitter feed. See this retweet on September 1 from CT DEMHS at 9:43 a.m. It should be noted that Darien does not use CT-Alerts.

Suggested To-do List

  1. Revamp the Branford Emergency Management Website.
  2. Add Branford Twitter accounts, one for the First Selectman and one for Emergency Management. Have them retweet CT-DEMHS and NWS-NY tweets. See this one from the latter.
  3. Review what other Connecticut towns are doing. Here’s Madison’s approach to CT-Alert instruction and Darien does not use CT-Alerts.
  4. Bridgeport Alerts has an interesting approach on the demographic profile of those with special needs. Many Branford residents are senior citizens.
  5. Publish an updated Emergency Management Plan that was recently submitted to the State. The currently listed one is 13 years old and the link is not noted on the Branford website.
  6. The website does not identify who, besides Chief Mahoney, is involved in emergency management decisions. Here’s an example of a multiple tiered emergency management structure : https://www.newtown-ct.gov/emergency-management. This may be a budgetary issue and require a reorganization.
  7. Enlist representatives from neighborhoods such as Pine Orchard, Short Beach, Stony Creek to form an Local Emergency Planning Committee, perhaps modeled after Branford’s Resilience Commission.
  8. Explore alternatives to CT-Alerts. Talk to Darien who does not use them.
  9. Publish (perhaps in the update Emergency Management Plan) the events that trigger alerts.
  10. Issue a FAQ such as done by SUNY using NY-Alerts.
  11. Remain aware of what’s happening in neighboring New York. See the aftermath of Ida in the press. Ida was a big surprise to a lot of experts. It is to be noted that NY-Alerts uses Everbridge.
  12. Warning fatigue and what to do about it. Following NWS tweets instead? See this, too.
  13. An example of Ida’s fury in CT documented by Twitter feeds.

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