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Siren warning system will alert Haywood residents to flooding

Haywood County is adding to its early warning capabilities. Garret K. Woodward photo Haywood County is adding to its early warning capabilities. Garret K. Woodward photo

More than two years after deadly flooding killed six people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to public and private property from Bethel to Cruso to Canton to Clyde, Haywood County will purchase an early warning siren system to keep residents better informed for when — not if — it happens again. 

“This has been a long time coming,” said Travis Donaldson, Haywood County’s emergency services director. “A lot of time, thought, effort [and] research has been placed into putting a system in place to be able to warn the citizens in case of flash flood or a sudden need for them to seek safety and to protect themselves.”

Donaldson addressed commissioners on Nov. 6, explaining the particulars of the system manufactured by Baltimore-based Alertus Technologies. Alertus was founded in 2002, after a tornado killed two students at the University of Maryland.

According to the proposal submitted to Haywood County by Alertus on Sept. 8, their emergency warning systems are used by several federal departments including Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, as well as by the U.S. House of Representatives, the Federal Reserve and the FBI.

The total cost, $700,036, will be borne by the county up-front but will be fully reimbursed by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety through the Tropical Storm Fred Unmet Needs grant, ultimately resulting in no cost to Haywood taxpayers.

Unlike other systems, the speakers offer 360-degree broadcasting without having to rotate, which eliminates the possibility of sticking and improves battery life. It’s integrated with the National Weather Service and FEMA’s Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) and works with the county’s existing emergency notification system manufactured by Everbridge, called Haywood Alerts .

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Integration with Haywood Alerts was a priority for Donaldson’s agency, according to documents presented in conjunction with the Nov. 6 meeting agenda.

“We had several great qualified vendors, but we wanted to make sure we had that seamless integration with Everbridge and that’s why Alertus stood out for us when we looked at the systems,” Zack Koonce, emergency management officer, told commissioners. “It will not only meet our needs now, but it will meet our needs in the future and that’s what the other systems didn’t provide for us.”

Other system requirements were based on Haywood County’s unique topography, especially in rural, rugged areas that experienced flooding from the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021.

Reporting from The Smoky Mountain News a month after the flood shows that although plenty of warnings were issued by various agencies days before the Pigeon River slipped its banks, not everyone was able to receive them.

The NWS first warned of an enhanced risk of flash flooding over the next week shortly after 11 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 14 — more than three days before it happened. The next day, Sunday, NWS advised of the potential for heavy rainfall. Around 3 a.m. on Monday, the day before the flood, a flash flood warning was issued. Later that morning, Haywood officials advised of potential flooding and beseeched residents who had not already done so to sign up for Haywood Alerts.

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A lone farm tractor sits in the Pigeon River. Garret K. Woodward photo

On the day of the flood, a message was sent by Haywood Alerts at 10:46 a.m. reminding people of dangerous weather conditions developing. Reports of flooding started to pour in that afternoon, as creeks rose and heavy rain fell. An upgraded flash flood warning was broadcast through IPAWS at 3:12 p.m., and then again over Haywood Alerts at 3:13 p.m.

Over the next five hours, as a wall of water blasted through Cruso, flood waters began to crest, first at the East Fork gauge. Many residents in those areas have little to no internet service or cell phone coverage, even on a good day.

As heavy rain continued to fall, the Pigeon River crested in Canton around 8:15 p.m. By that time, some had already been killed or injured and many were cut off from help and from all forms of modern communication — destined to spend a cold, dark, wet night waiting for emergency crews to reach them.

“That was one of the challenges with the warning message going out,” Koonce said. “We lost the Sugarbrush tower from that side and so many folks did not get the notification because of the loss of cell phone service.”

Even residents in downriver areas like Canton found that power outages and cell service disruptions made ordinary communication next to impossible, not only in the aftermath of the flooding but also just as it was taking place.

The Alertus system fills in a dangerous gap in the county’s existing warning systems. Many residents, especially those who are elderly, don’t own cell phones.

The system, which can operate in temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit and as high as 185 degrees Fahrenheit, offers multiple levels of redundancy to ensure that the failure of communications infrastructure won’t render the sirens useless. They can be activated automatically due to heavy rains or a rise in the river depth gauge system, manually from the 911 center or, if all else fails, on the sirens themselves.

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When floodwaters receded, scenes of incredible destruction were apparent. Scott McLeod photo

The rechargeable batteries also utilize a solar backup. The system will be tested daily, and silently, to avoid undue concern. Little training is required for its use, 24/7 technical support is available, and a one-year warranty is included.

In addition to a “wailing” tone, the sirens will also feature a voice message, so those who may hear the siren will know exactly what is happening. Voice messages can be live, or pre-recorded to provide warning not only of floods but also of other natural disasters like earthquakes, tornados and wildfires. 

Commissioner Jennifer Best asked if there would be a second signal when dangerous conditions subside. Koonce said there would be.

All that will be accomplished with 18 high-power speaker arrays operating at 300 watts each. By comparison, a good-quality guitar amplifier for large venues should pump out around 100 watts.

Once the specific planning phase of the project is complete, installation is projected to begin on Jan. 2, 2024, and should be completed by March 28, per Alertus’ project timeline provided to commissioners. During that time, relevant personnel will be trained on the system.

Locations for the sirens have already been selected. Beginning in the southern part of the county near Camp Daniel Boone, four sites will be located along Little East Fork Road heading northwest towards Lake Logan.

Proceeding north from Lake Logan, three more sites will be located along the river as it proceeds nearly parallel with N.C. 215. North of N.C. 276, three more sites cover several miles up along Pisgah Drive, approaching Canton.

Over in Cruso, along N.C. 276, three more sites will cover some of the areas hardest hit by the floods. Five other sites will be located near populated areas, with two in Clyde, one northeast of Lake Junaluska and two in Waynesville.

Once the system is in place, the county will undertake a public information campaign to raise awareness of the sirens and let people know what they should do if they hear one.

Best said she hoped Koonce wouldn’t have to use the system, ever.

“I hope not too,” Koonce said.

Stay alert

Several years ago — after 2016’s devastating wildfire season but before the deadly flooding in 2021 — Haywood County purchased a state-of-the-art emergency notification system  created by Massachusetts-based Everbridge Inc. The emergency alert program, called Haywood Alerts, is a free opt-in service that allows users to receive automated notifications via phone, text or email about imminent threats to health and safety. The registration process is simple and quick, and contact information provided by users will not be shared with anyone else or used for any other purpose.

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A map provided by Alertus Technologies to Haywood County shows the future locations of 18 warning sirens. Haywood County photo

When Haywood County commissioners approved the purchase of an early warning siren system on Nov. 6, they said its integration with Everbridge’s Haywood Alerts system was one of the reasons they selected Alertus Technologies as the vendor. Sign up for Haywood Alerts by visiting .

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