Before Hurricane Florence, officials at the Durham City/County Emergency Management Agency had a simple goal: to alert people in low-lying areas when floodwaters were coming.
The agency made hundreds of automated calls and sent scores of text messages that said, “Your business or residence has been identified as one that has previously flooded or may be at risk for flooding due to precipitation from Hurricane Florence. Please make evacuation plans for yourself and pets just in case the flood waters rise rapidly.”
But the messages failed to reach many people in the targeted areas.
After an inquiry from The 9th Street Journal, the agency acknowledged the calls and text messages didn’t reach as many people as officials hoped. They said many residents didn’t sign up for the Alert Durham service, had unlisted phone numbers or simply hung up when they received the automated calls.
Emergency Management Director Jim Groves said his department would work to improve the notification system.
“If we can’t reach the public or deliver the right message or get them to take the right protection action that we’re recommending, we’re not doing a very good job,” he said.
The 9th Street Journal asked about the plan after hearing from residents of flood-prone areas that they weren’t notified.
That included two people who live on Drew Street in East Durham, Jamila Verbal and Kermit Smith. Neither had registered for Alert Durham, nor had they apparently been included in the database of publicly listed phone numbers provided by a vendor that the agency also uses to find residents.
Groves said it would work with its vendor, Everbridge, to upload a more “robust” set of resident data. The agency will also continue to advertise its Alert Durham service to get people to opt in on their own.
Groves said one limiting factor is that his department does not have access to the same database as 911 due to “regulation restrictions.”
“If we had access to the same database as 911, we’d be able to reach everyone,” Groves said.
Randy Beeman, emergency communications center director, said that the agency could not share its database due to confidentiality regulations. North Carolina law states that 911 database information is “confidential and not a public record” and can only be shared on a “call-by-call basis only for the purpose of handling emergency calls or for training.”
“It’s not a public record that can be shared or requested,” said Kimberly Rehberg, senior city attorney.
With the limited database, the county’s efforts failed to reach many residents. In one area identified as flood-prone for an alert sent Sept. 12, just eight people confirmed the message, while contact information for 39 was incorrect and 101 people hung up, Groves said.
“It’s really a tough, hard deal to get people prepared to receive emergency information and take information based on what that message says,” Groves said.
The area around Drew Street was flooded by the Sept. 17 torrential downpour. Water flowed like a river through neighboring Drew/Granby Park. A parked truck on Drew Street was nearly halfway submerged.
Drew Street resident Jamila Verbal, who leases one of the residences on the street, said she did not sign up for Alert Durham and was not listed in the database on Drew Street. Verbal was faced with flooding on Drew St. starting at 5 a.m. on Sept. 17.
“They should alert us, and they have a responsibility to fix it too, especially when we’ve got kids,” Verbal’s boyfriend, Tevin Wimbush, said.
Verbal and Wimbush said the residence is prone to flooding, even during normal storms.
“This ain’t nothing compared to what we’ve seen before,” Wimbush said.
Verbal’s neighbor on Drew Street, Kermit Smith, also said that he had not received any notification regarding flood risk. Smith was not listed at Drew Street in the database and said he did not sign up for Alert Durham.
Groves noted that it is more difficult to reach impoverished communities—which often are in flood hazard areas—with emergency messages because people often do not have the technology to receive such messages. Nearly 40 percent of residents on Drew Street and in closely surrounding areas live below the poverty line, with a median household income of $23,281, according to City-Data.com.
Even when the messages do reach these communities, it can be more difficult to convince people to take protective action, Groves said.
“Sometimes, you might have a very strong personality that says no, we’re not going anywhere. That puts the family at risk,” Groves said.
Groves urged people to sign up for Alert Durham.
“That’s how we can make sure we can notify them if they need to evacuate, instead of relying on the Whitepages data,” Groves said.
Those who do not feel comfortable registering with address information can text their zip code to 888777 to register for Alert Durham notifications for their zip code, he said.