Last Sunday morning, I blogged about my experience trying to get through southeast Kansas before floodwaters came up high enough to strand me out in the middle of nowhere. Basically, in trying to beat the Neosho River to flood stage, I ended up taking a one-hour detour to Yates Center.
Someone presented an opposing viewpoint and I took it the wrong way, which was why I dropped the blog. I was convinced that I was being insensitive to the plight of those who were actually caught in the flood, although I didn't know how extensive it was at the time. I had thought the flood/s was/were affecting a small number of communities in a small area. I had no idea that it was affecting every county from Miami County well into Oklahoma.
I also realized that when I wrote the original blog (which can't be restored, by the way, because I didn't save a back up copy because I was working on my parents' computer in Garden City), I had forgotten to write about one part of my experience which, as I thought about it, should have actually been the primary focus of the blog.
Yo, Flava,...hit me one time....
"Now I dialed 511 a long time ago/
Don't you see how late they're reactin'...."
511, for those unaware, is a number travelers in Kansas can call to find out information on road conditions. What 511 is SUPPOSED to do is give a caller the latest information on conditions, road construction and weather for the part of the state in which you're driving.
Last Saturday, the Kansas 511 system proved to be a dramatic failure in that regard. And if one of the goals of the 511 system is to guard driver safety, then in that respect, it was a disaster.
I tried using the 511 system to find out what was going on on the roads ahead of me, especially U.S. 54. Since I was driving, I tried to use it hands free by speaking the numbers when directed.
That went something like this:
Computer: "Say 2 for Kansas Highways."
Computer: "Say the highway number or use your keypad to dial the number followed by star."
Me: "Five, four."
Computer: "For conditions on Kansas state highway 34 from the Oklahoma State line..."
(Highway 34 is in *Southwest* Kansas).
Computer: "I'm sorry. I did not understand you. For conditions on Kansas state highway 34..."
Computer: (Pause) "Zero is not an option for this menu."
Me: "Help!" (I *knew* this was a command because I remember hearing it.)
Computer: (Pause) "I'm sorry. I did not understand you. Returning to the main menu..."
(I get to choose the number again. I decide to try a different way).
Computer: (Pause) "For conditions on Kansas U.S. highway 34 from the Colorado state line to..."
At that point, I gave up on the speaking menu, hung up and redialed. This time, I decided to punch in the numbers. I actually DID get U.S. 54 and THIS is what I was told:
Computer: "On Kansas U.S. highway 54 from Augusta to Kansas state highway 105, normal seasonal driving conditions."
Interesting, I thought, considering it was raining. I dialed in again to hear the conditions on the part of the highway I was on between Moran and LaHarpe.
Computer: "...normal seasonal driving conditions reported with the following exceptions (pause): No conditions reported".
The computer, I guess, is telling you that "No conditions reported" is, in fact, a "driving condition."
Now what's bothersome is: RAIN by itself makes the road wet. A wet road is NOT "normal seasonal driving conditions," unless it rains 24/7.
Then, upon reaching Iola and discovering that its junction with U.S. 169 was already flooded enough to close the on and off ramps, I became really distressed. Either this falls under "conditions not reported," which means that someone's not doing their job, or this section of road was reported as "normal seasonal driving conditions," which should get someone fired.
After hearing in a quick stop that there was flooding between Iola and Yates Center, I decided to give 511 one more try.
Why? Hell, I don't know.
Again, it told me that driving conditions were "normal."
It was then that I realized that I was on my own. Unless some sort of news was to come up on the radio, I was going to have to continue driving in one way or the other with absolutely NO idea if I was going to make it to anywhere or become stuck on an asphalt island in the middle of Wilson or Woodson counties.
Now it sounds like I'm just whining about me, but I guess I wouldn't be any kind of a journalist at all if I didn't say that you have to assume other travelers also dialed 511 with some hope that it could guide them through the floods. At the very least, all one would have needed to know is "U.S. (number) here is closed (direction) of (place name). An alternate route is suggested."
I'm thinking of the packed parking lot at the quick stop in Yates Center,all those people there without any idea where they can go or how to get there.
This is also in no way meant to blame anyone who was THERE working to keep me and others from...
A) Driving on the right side of the road at U.S. 54 and 169 in Iola; doing so could have resulted in our cars going down the creek.
B) Turning south on U.S. 75 toward Altoona and plunging into the Verdigris.
C) Turning west on K-39 toward U.S. 400 and getting stuck in perhaps three or four different places between there and Wichita.
KDOT and the KHP and other authorities were doing their jobs. But what should have been a vital part of the system did not do its job.
It wasn't just me, either. I talked to one of my friends Monday night. She said that 511 told her that U.S. 69 was still open in Linn County ("Normal seasonal driving conditions", I suppose?) even though I know from reading the Wichita Eagle and www.fstribune.com that U.S. 69 was still closed as early as Tuesday afternoon (and possibly even on Wednesday). I suppose 511 was telling everyone that Miami County, especially by Osawatomie, was okay, too?
I've had a friend try to use Colorado's 511 in a snowstorm. He ended up connected to New Mexico's 511. He was in Denver at the time.
If 511 isn't capable of adjustment in an emergency, it doesn't need to exist. I'd probably have been better off dialing 911, but that, obviously, would have been a needless distraction for the authorities.
Next time there's a dangerous weather situation on the road, I'm going to switch my radio to AM and hope I find a station that can deliver the information I need to know.
That's because 511 is a joke.