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How did the National Weather Service botch a report that Wilmore Dam had broken, causing panic?

… result was a social media firestorm

Editor’s note: It was previously reported that the Wilmore Dam broke according to the National Weather Service (NWS). NWS has since corrected and reported the dam is over spilling, but it is not broken as of 3 p.m.

WTAE-TV, September 1, 2021

How can a government agency tasked with informing the public about what is transpiring in an emergency situation completely botch that effort?

The National Weather Service in State College gave a case management exercise in futility and incompetence in the age of social media on Wednesday when the Wilmore Dam in central Cambria County ran over its breast.

Somehow, the agency reported that the reservoir had experienced a “dam break,” which threw fear into the people in the area who have weathered horrible floods in the past.

How did this take place?

Tribune-Democrat explained the terrible error

First, the general background was straightforward,

The powerful remnants of Hurricane Ida posed a serious threat to the southern Mainline area Wednesday, swelling Wilmore Dam's waters to a height that convinced county emergency responders to order a six-hour "precautionary" evacuation for parts of Wilmore, South Fork and Summerhill.

The Little Conemaugh River overflowed its banks in lower areas of Wilmore, a borough of 140 residents, filling basements with more than four feet of water in some areas.

David Hurst, “A powerful storm, a false alarm, and social media fire,”

Tribune-Democrat, September 3, 2021

Then the agency tasked with reporting the truth entered fear-mongering territory,

But across the region, communities also had to navigate a widespread wave of misinformation.

Social media panic driven by reports that the dam "breached" — shared on local residents' pages and Facebook "weather sites" — were further ignited at 1:09 p.m. by a National Weather Service "Flash Flood Emergency" alert that referenced a "dam break" on the Little Conemaugh.

"SEEK HIGHER GROUND NOW!" it warned residents of Wilmore.

National Weather Service officials explained the move Thursday, saying the warning was based on the "clearest possible" understanding of the situation that their State College office had at that moment.

"There was a lot of uncertainty happening," meteorologist Charles Ross said. "But based on the information we were getting in the moment from county emergency management officials ... we were dealing with a real situation."

David Hurst, Tribune-Democrat, September 3, 2021

Fortunately, Cambria County officials also use social media

Real situation?

They acknowledged that they had not communicated with county emergency management officials who had people on the scene. The county was clear about what had happened.

A tweet from the Cambria County Emergency Management Agency early in the hours leading up to this was clear what was happening and gave the people advice about what to do,

With the impending weather from tropical storm Ida the Cambria County Emergency Management Agency is asking all of our residents to maintain a high level of situational awareness. Please stay tuned to your television, radio and social media for updates. Please avoid unnecessary travel. Be aware of flooding, pooling and swift water. Do not attempt to drive through standing water. If you are experiencing an emergency please dial 911. If you do not have an emergency please refrain from calling 911 for things like information updates etc.


No fear mongering there. Just good, solid advice.

NWS admitted to never talking to county officials

County officials made clear that if there had been a break, it would have required a large-scale effort that was not necessary in this instance.

Not so much the NWS,

Ross acknowledged that county officials did not communicate to his office that the dam broke — and that it could be easy for someone outside the Wilmore area to misinterpret the danger zone to be even more widespread.

But given the rising water concerns the weather service was receiving — with levels 18 inches below the top of the dam at one point — the format letter-style "flood emergency" alert the office issued was the most appropriate available in a hectic situation where danger was potentially imminent, Ross said.

"The letter's wording could have been different," he said. "But you can't get time back once it looks like a dam will fail. You have to make a decision. In a situation that could impact a lot of people, the top concern is that everyone has a chance to be prepared."

He said: "Thankfully, the rain slowed. The dam held and the worst-case situation never happened."

David Hurst, Tribune-Democrat, September 3, 2021

In short, a government agency created fear-mongering on a larger scale than necessary. They certainly had to alert the people to the danger.

However, they had to communicate with the people on the ground in that area, and the county EMA was the first place to start, not reading social media posts.

This was certainly a black eye for the agency.

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