Texas leads the nation in flash-flood deaths, with more than 75 percent of those deaths occurring at low-water crossings. Now, a part of the state known as “flash flood alley” is turning to technology to help.
City workers in Austin are visiting creeks at low-water crossings to install cameras that will make images of flooding available to the public in real-time.
Think of them like traffic cameras for floods. Matt Porcher with the City of Austin’s Flood Early Warning Team says the city has used them for years to provide “visual and situational awareness” to emergency responders. The city’s revamped flood monitoring site, ATXfloods.com, has made those images accessible to the general public.
“You’ll see the same imagery that we see at the Austin Travis County Emergency Operations Center,” Porcher said at a recent installation on Joe Tanner Road and U.S. Highway 290.
It’s the brainchild of Joel Aud, a former DPS employee who now works for Beholder Technology, the company the city contracted for the project. Aud says he came up with the concept to use wildlife cameras to monitor flooding events after a woman from his church lost a grandson to a 2007 flash flood in Marble Falls.
The state was already using them to monitor border activity and interdictions, he said.
“It was a natural leap to say, ‘All right, if we can do interdictions, we should also be able to monitor flood levels.’”
Traditionally, ATXfloods featured a red dot to indicate whether a crossing is unpassable. Now, a separate tab in the interactive map shows camera views at a handful of locations. Porcher says the cameras should communicate the risk even better, reducing the number of people who make the spur-of-the-moment decision to drive through a flooded road.
“You can see water over the road and you know, ‘All right, this road is flooded, and I am going to stay off the road today,” Porcher said.
Beholder Technology’s CEO Sean Richardson also hopes the cameras reduce the need to send first responders out to check on crossings.
One good example of the power of flood images? During a recent storm, Richardson said, a camera took pictures as the water rose to submerge it; then it suddenly began taking images of the sky and trees as it was swept away.
“If you show an image, you can be like, ‘Wow, that water is really rising!’” Richardson said. “It’s hard to understand that if you haven’t seen it firsthand.”
Other features of the new website include: different shapes to indicate whether a crossing’s status is closed, open or unknown, to help people who are colorblind. There’s also a new symbol to tell users if a crossing’s status has not been updated for several days.
In the future, Richardson hopes to create a map like ATXfloods.com to cover the entire state of Texas and integrate it with navigation platforms like Waze and Google Maps.
“How powerful would it be if not only did your navigation software tell you, ‘Hey, there’s congestion,’ but it goes, ‘Hey, actually, this water crossing is closed?’”
The city hopes to install dozens of these cameras this year, eventually adding more and more crossings to the online map.