ELKO — Just over a year ago, Elko County experienced widespread flooding that resulted in extensive damage and disaster declarations.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been a year,” said Annette Kerr, emergency manager for Elko County, addressing the Elko County Board of Commissioners Feb. 21.
Corresponding with the anniversary, Elko County staff prepared a report that analyses strengths and weaknesses of emergency management before, during and after the hazard. The aim of the state-required report is for responders to be better prepared in the case of future catastrophic incidents.
Impact of flood
In a recap of events, Kerr described the conditions that led to flooding. On Feb. 1, the area had 8 inches of snow; by Feb. 17, all the snow had melted.
“Above-normal temperatures, high dew points and winds encompassed with above-freezing temperatures at night limited our freezing of our snowpack,” Kerr said, adding that moist air from the Pacific Ocean and rain also contributed to the thaw. “Basically, we were melting.”
Flooding resulted in loss of homes, school closure, evacuations, major highway and road closures, train delays, loss of livestock, a dam failure, and the isolation and displacement of citizen, the report states.
Twenty-four homes in Elko flooded plus 30 in Montello; two homes in Wells were completely destroyed. Sixty-three roads experienced damage, including the washout of State Route 233. The Winecup/Gamble Ranch 21-Mile Dam failed.
In Elko, the Humboldt River reached flood status on Feb. 9 then entered a prolonged period above flood stage Feb. 10-12 with spikes in subsequent days, the report states. The unofficial crest was 10.49 feet, which is the third highest recorded after 12.3 feet in 1962 and 12.18 feet in 1983, according to the report.
The report outlines the strengths of Elko County’s strategies and tactics before, during and after the flood.
Before the flood, issues covered by planning, training, exercises and mitigation — such as identifying areas of concern, drafting declarations and identifying resources — are cited as well-done. Also noted were 911 dispatch activities and hospital and school coordination.
During response, the list of strengths included communications, quick action to ensure safety of people and property, and availability of resources. Also included were the activation of the Emergency Response Center, resource tracking, debris removal and information sharing.
For recovery, the report noted damage assessment, trained and knowledgeable staff following state and federal procedures, along with in-stock supplies to repair infrastructure. The list also featured assisting the public, use of GIS mapping, and information management.
The report also outlines suggestions for improvements as a result of the flood.
“Of course, we didn’t do everything right,” Kerr said. “We identified areas for improvement.”
The county suggested working with the state and railroad to eliminate damming issues on State Route 233 in Montello; addressing issues on Pilot Valley Road such as pitfalls, drainage and paving; and lifting and installing drainage on Victory Boulevard in Osino.
For better response, items to consider include: placing more sandbags at strategic locations around the county, purchasing more signs and placing law enforcement at emergency sites. Another need is to have all responding organizations and volunteers report to a well-staffed and appropriately sized Emergency Operations Center for public information coordination, the report states.
Additionally, the county identified the need to better communicate with volunteers and set up monetary and other donations.
“We had a lot of people that wanted to help, which is wonderful,” Kerr said. “Elko is a wonderful community for doing that, but there’s also liability issues, concerns with overwork, people going into areas that perhaps might be contaminated — so we want to work on our communication and registration with volunteers.”
“Fake news” from private people posting incorrect statements on social media also interfered with recovery, Kerr said. To combat misinformation, the county plans to work with coordinating agencies to disseminate information through credible social media pages such as the sheriff’s, Bureau of Land Management and National Weather Service pages.
“That was one of the things that was a huge issue for us, the fake news that was going out — that another dam broke, or that people were stranded, or that people died,” Kerr said, describing the types of rumors that prevailed.
Commissioner Cliff Eklund asked if dispersal of incorrect information caused the allocation of assets where they were not needed. Kerr responded that reports from the public resulted in loss of manpower as people were dispatched to check into the issues being reported.
Kerr explained that improving strategies and tactics to handle winter storms and flooding is an ongoing process but that last year’s flood event provided valuable insights.
“The lessons learned with the declared disaster, the 2017 February Flood, will enable Elko County, its incorporated cities and towns, the citizens and businesses to be better prepared, respond with confidence and continue to improve their resiliency,” the report states.