Thursday, March 21, 2019

Floods and Roads

Last week was a mess. The rapid rise in temperatures coupled with abundant snow, three inches of rain, and still-frozen ground led to widespread flash flooding over most of the upper Midwest. Iowa and Nebraska got hit hard and fast, with rivers and streams rising out of their banks and levees breaking from the pressure of the surge of water. I had a nice policeman knock on my door and tell me that I was in the area under mandatory evacuation, even though my house is higher than the 500 and 1000 year flood plains. They aren't forcing anyone out of their houses (so I'm staying put), but they are going around and shutting off water, electricity, and gas service to any house in jeopardy of being flooded.

I've been through floods here in 1993 and 2011, and those were both slow, drawn-out rises in the Missouri River that caused tributaries to back up and flood low areas. This year the water didn't have time to get to the Missouri; the tributaries couldn't couldn't handle the sudden melt/rain. After the wet fall we had last year the ground is saturated, and the exceptionally cold winter pushed the frost line down below three feet. That means that we have solid ice at least three feet deep where dirt should be, and ice doesn't absorb water like dirt does. Even when the ground thaws, it's still saturated from last year, and most new water will run off. There is still substantial snow on the ground upstream of us that has to melt, so our rivers are going to stay full for a long time.

Fatalities have been mercifully low in Iowa and Nebraska, though a handful of people have paid the price for driving around barricades or trying to drive through a river running across a road. The main issues for us range in scale from "There is water in basements that have never been wet before" to "Entire towns are underwater." Grain bins full of corn and soybeans are sitting in several feet of water, and several small cities have been turned into islands with no possibility of ground traffic in or out. The flooding is still underway, so we don't have a good accounting of the amount of livestock killed and equipment lost, but it's going to be a rough spring for area farmers.

Right now the biggest problem is the old "You can't get there from here" joke; roads are under water, bridges have been washed away, and debris is everywhere. I live on the edge of a small town that sits on the intersection of two highways, one running north/south, the other east/west. We have one additional route out of town in each direction, both of them gravel roads. By the second day, all but one of those routes were under water, and all of the routes cross rivers or large streams/creeks.

Information is vital in situations like this. The Federal Highway Administration has a website with a nice map of the states where you can click on each state and get redirected to a page that will take you to the state's page (after sending you to a page to remind you that you're leaving the federal site). I've trimmed out the extra steps and have compiled a list of each state and their road conditions, with a bit of commentary on each. Some of the links were broken, which is to be expected with internet sites constantly evolving; add to that the fact that we're talking about government sites, and I'm surprised there weren't more broken links. I can't promise that they will all work forever, but they worked when I found them.
  • An interactive map with live updates, pretty standard.
  • There may not be a lot of roads in Alaska, but here's a live map of the current conditions. It has an email alert sign-up pop up that needs to be dismissed before you get to the map.
  • Another interactive map, this one has an annoying route planner covering the left quarter of the map until you dismiss it.
  • Standard map with color-coded travel conditions.
  • CA can't be normal, so this one is a confusing mess of a map requiring you to select an area to get any information. Even the 511 information is broken up into regions.
  • Not a simple map to navigate like most states have, but rather several pages with much more information. Colorado does have some rather unique travel hazards.
  • Nice clean map of the roads and conditions.
  • The link on the FHA page was broken, so I dug around and found the DelDOT page. Nice clean map with standard features.
  • A typical interactive map with the route planner that covers part of the screen.
  • Different color scheme than most travel maps; you'll need to use the pull-downs on the left to select which data you want displayed. My first visit had some pop-up windows for email alerts.
  • No single map, but a link to the roadwork for each island. Weather related road closure doesn't seem to be an issue for some reason.
  • Full-service road conditions. You'll need to select what type or level of information you want to get to the maps.
  • Another state with plenty of options to choose from for what information you need.
  • One of two choices from IN, this one is the simpler of the two. Common road condition map, even if it does start zoomed out too far. The hazard indicators covered the entire state until I zoomed in enough to get some scale.
  • Interactive map with various options for internet speed and level of detail. Phone app available.
  • Oddly structured site with somewhat confusing layout. The link from the FHA site was broken, but I found the KS page.
  • Probably the most annoying of all the state pages with splash screens to close, pop-ups to ignore, and then finally you get to a standard interactive map. Typical of my experiences with this state.
  • Simple, basic, interactive map with the information you need.
  • Part of the “New England 511”, a regional map with Vermont and New Hampshire.
  • Redirects from the linked on the FHA site to a newer site with more information choices.
  • Standard interactive map with route planner.
  • I almost missed this one because the hyperlink was hard to see. Standard interactive map.
  • Another example of a DOT that gives you options. Pick the type of internet connection and the level of information you need to get to a decent map.
  • Choose between viewing the map or downloading the app; either will give you the road conditions.
  • A simple travelers map with plenty of information and a ticker scrolling important information along the bottom.
  • Several options available, this is the cleanest map of the bunch.
  • Choose your level of information and get to a good map. Common format among the sites for states with lots of truck traffic.
  • It took a few clicks to find the road conditions map, but it is there.
  • Part of a regional map with Maine and Vermont. Map updates very frequently.
  • A standard 511 map that shows all of the routes out of NJ.
  • Nice, clean map with road conditions.
  • A good map for the 95% of the state that isn't NYC.
  • This one took a bit of clicking around to find the map. Good map, but the alerts take up a lot of the screen.
  • Having traveled ND quite a bit in my younger days, this is one that needs to be bookmarked. There are long stretches between towns and the terrain is perfect for blizzards and floods.
  • Interactive map with the option to download their travel app.
  • All of the links I could find were broken; OK needs to upgrade their IT staff and servers. I finally found a way to their site through
  • The default settings make the map a bit busy, so uncheck the boxes for information you don't need to make it more legible.
  • Another map with an options bar on the left that takes up too much screen.
  • A landing page with options. Most of the information is segregated by region.
  • A nice landing page with options that include a map of traffic and road conditions.
  • No official state map, but a link to a commercial (?) site with the information you'll need.
  • A few clicks to get there from the FHA site, but TN does have a map of traffic and road conditions.
  • A busy map, which isn't surprising. Location pop-up before you get to the map.
  • Fair map, but with auto-playing traffic cams.
  • Part of a regional map along with Maine and New Hampshire. Basic map with constant updates.
  • Clean, simple, easy to navigate.
  • After being sent to a confusing landing page, I finally found the map. I did learn that WA is no longer printing paper highway maps.
  • Busy map until you uncheck some of the default information boxes.
  • A good, simple map once you close the panel of alerts on the left.
  • Wyoming
    A simple landing page, and the map is easy to find.
All told, the Federal Highway Administration is a fair source of information. I also ran across SafeTravelUSA and saw a lot of mentions of Waze, which is a community-driven travel app for your smart phone. Crowd-sourced information may be a good way to avoid a traffic jam in good weather, but I'm not sure how effective it would be in a serious storm or disaster. Maybe one of the more tech-savvy folks out there would like to look into Waze for us?

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