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Carnation officials blast Seattle after new problem with Tolt River Dam alert system

Nov 16, 2023, 2:57 AM | Updated: 2:40 pm

carnation tolt river dam...

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

After enduring multiple false alarms warning of a breach at the Tolt River Dam, Carnation residents say they are facing a new problem with the dam’s newly installed alert system — and they blame the city of Seattle for it.

The dam, which is 16 miles upstream from Carnation, is owned and operated by the City of Seattle and supplies much of that city’s electricity. It would cause catastrophic damage to Carnation and force a city-wide evacuation if it ever were to break, according to City Manager Ana Cortez.

Cortez told KIRO Newsradio the alert system is not reliable and has broadcasted six false alarms in Carnation over the last three years. Last month, city of Seattle crews installed a new system they said was “far superior.” Sabrina Register with Seattle Public Utilities said in a statement the upgraded version “provides the same service and functionality as the system it replaced, but with more modern and reliable components.”

More on Carnation: City of Carnation declares state of emergency after latest false evacuation alarm

But Cortez claimed it has been inadequate.

“We have folks in different parts of the city who can’t hear it,” Cortez said. “We have messages that are transmitted along with the siren that are difficult to understand as well.”

In response to complaints the new siren is harder to hear and understand than it was previously, the City of Seattle posted the following update on the Tolt Dam Early Earning System project web page Oct. 24.

It’s important to note that the siren system is primarily an outdoor warning system and it may not be audible indoors depending on many conditions such as topography, wind direction, and ambient noise like running faucets or televisions,” the update read.

But Cortez said that presents a problem.

“The system is supposed to alert people who are out and about if you are in your home, we are counting on you to be near your phone to receive a notification from multiple partners, that’s that’s the logic,” she said. “But where that logic breaks down for us is that we do not trust any of the partners in this equation. King County has failed to provide leadership. The emergency response team has failed to provide leadership in this matter.”

Problems with the Tolt Dam Early Warning System siren prompted the city of Carnation to unanimously adopt a state of emergency declaration in August, due to its concerns and doubts about the city of Seattle’s ability to operate the dam.

“If you’re outside of Carnation, I think it’s very difficult for people to understand the level of trauma inflicted on this community,” Cortez said.

She stated each incident has caused more fear and mistrust among the community of more than 2,200 residents.

“We have individuals who have physical reactions on Wednesdays at noon when the alarm system goes off — and even worse reactions when the system doesn’t go off,” Cortez added.

She and other city officials want to brief the incoming Seattle City Council members, as well as other city staff, about the alert system. “Carnation will no longer be an afterthought,” she said.

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In response, Seattle Public Utilities said it is listening and acting on Carnation residents’ feedback.

“We continue to make improvements to the system’s sound volume and quality, including upgrading all speakers, speaker amplifiers and re-recording voice messages,” the department’s statement read. “We expect all three items to be completed by January 2024. There is also a Phase II to this project which expands the capabilities of the alerting system beyond the original system. These enhancements include additional indoor alerting devices, new static signs, and highway message signs, and we expect this phase to be completed by the end of 2024.”

And according to the Washington St Emergency Communications Committee, there are multiple alternative indoor warning system options as well. These include the Alert King County notification system, which residents can opt into, and the Reverse 911 system, which delivers recorded notifications to people in a certain geographic location during an emergency.
The Seattle office of the National Weather Service (NWS) is also responsible for flash flood watches and warnings throughout much of Western Washington, including dam failure scenarios such as the Tolt River Dam project. Using the NOAA Weather Radio All-Hazards network, the NWS can activate the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). Residents can get access to these alerts by purchasing a NOAA Weather Radio, which can cost between $30 -$100 dollars on average.

Cortez acknowledged that, since August, when the state of emergency was declared, there has been more attention devoted to fixing the ongoing issues. But she still wants to see more done and a stronger partnership established between the two cities.

“The problem didn’t just start in 2020. Seattle has had this dam since 1962,” she said. “So thanks for the progress. It’s a little late.”

You can read more about the Tolt River Dam project on the Seattle Public Utilities Department website.

Follow Kate Stone on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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