Flood warning system will trigger sirens when water rises

Nov. 15—By summer, Haywood County will have a siren alert system in place that could help save lives down stream when floodwaters rise.

The need for such a warning system became evident after the flood of August 2021. Six individuals lost their lives when the East Fork of the Pigeon River rapidly rose and sent a wall of water downstream, sweeping away all in its path. Scores more shared tales of harrowing and narrow escapes that could have easily ended in tragedy.

An early warning system will now be installed to alert the public when flood waters are rising, thanks to a $750,000 state grant to enhance public safety and disaster preparedness.

River gauges that detect rising water will trigger a series of sirens downstream, followed by a verbal message broadcast over loudspeakers from the siren sites. There will be nearly 20 siren sites in all — from Lake Logan and Cruso, through Bethel and Canton, and onward to Clyde and Lake Junaluska.

The gauges will also trigger an alert pushed out to all operable cell phones in the risk zones. However, relying solely on phone alerts wouldn't suffice due to the lack of cell service in some areas and the possibility of communication systems getting knocked out — thus the network of sirens.

It was also critical that the system could be manually triggered without relying on river gauges — also due to the possibility of communication systems being knocked out, as they were in the August 2021 flood.

The siren and alert system can be activated by the Haywood County 911 center or at the physical site of the sirens.

"If we lose infrastructure, fire departments can manually activate on site," explained Zach Koonce, Haywood County emergency manager.

Koonce provided an overview of how the system will work for the Haywood County Board of Commissioners last week.

The installation of seven river gauges and four rain gauges that are the frontline of the siren and alert system were covered by a $175,000 grant previously awarded last year — also from the N.C. Department of Public Safety's Emergency Management Division.

The only river gauge operating during Tropical Storm Fred was one at Mundy Field Road, which was at a lower elevation, well after the rising water had made its way downstream. The additional gauges higher up will provide much earlier warning.

While the siren and alert system are grant funded, the county solicited bids for the work, with approval resting with county commissioners.

Koonce said a team of emergency personnel did plenty of research before recommending one of the five bidders, including reaching out to other counties and states with alert systems to learn what they used.

A key factor in the decision was that the new system could seamlessly integrate with the county's existing alert system, Everbridge. Another factor was the system's ability to notify those who may not have power or available cell phone service.

The combination river gauge and siren system will provide much earlier notifications than the current National Weather Service alerts out of Spartanburg, South Carolina, Koonce said.

Another advantage to the system is that it can be used for more than just flood alerts. Other emergencies such as wildfires, chemical spills or major accidents can also be pushed out through the system.

The team strived to include key items in the bid to ensure the county got what it needed, Koonce said, ultimately selecting the AlertUs system.

Koonce estimated the new system would be installed and ready for use by next summer.

The commissioners praised the emergency management team for its research and recommendation.

"It sounds like you've thought through everything," said Commission Chairman Kevin Ensley.

To sign up for the existing Haywood Alerts system, which provides phone push notifications in emergencies tailored by geographic location within the county, visit bit.ly/haywoodalerts.