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511 is a Joke (Or: Somehow, I Survived the Flood, Take 2)

Posted Thursday, July 5, 2007, at 6:29 PM

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."

Me: "Two!"

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).

Me: "Back!"

Computer: "I'm sorry. I did not understand you. For conditions on Kansas state highway 34..."

Me: "Menu!"

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).

Me: "Fifty-four!"

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.

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Now, just imagine how crazy it must have been down in "Nawlins" during hurricane Katrina!

This lack of communication was a microcosm of what happened there!

-- Posted by like2b_onree on Tue, Jul 10, 2007, at 12:46 PM

I want to add this, it was a great informational resource for me last winter!

-- Posted by like2b_onree on Tue, Jul 10, 2007, at 8:19 AM

They probably never anticipated using this for severe weather other than the obvious winter conditions we experience.

Utilizing it more efficiently for all weather conditions could eliminate fielding the multitude of phone calls their dispatchers must have received during this flood.

Those poor dispatchers are usually taxed to the limit of anyones abilities at times with the number of calls they get.

My guess is that it will be improved in the future because of it's potential value, if they have the funding to do it, or can get additional funding to improve it.

-- Posted by like2b_onree on Tue, Jul 10, 2007, at 8:18 AM
Scott Nuzum's response:
The fact that dispatchers had to be overwhelmed was the main reason I didn't think calling the local sheriff or police would be the thing to do. They already had enough to handle. I stopped in the quick mart to allow my brakes to dry out after going through the water going into Iola. That's when I heard it wouldn't be a good idea to try to keep going west and over the Neosho River out of town. Sometimes, nothing's better than word of mouth.

Now that is an excellent blog, something I am very used to reading from you. You made me become part of the story. It was like I was on the road with you. I completely understand your frustration. I have had my own issues using the cell in emergencies and getting nowhere, so I totally know where you were coming from. I am just glad to know that, despite any help from 511, that you made it to your destination safely. Very well written!!!!

-- Posted by teach_me_something on Mon, Jul 9, 2007, at 11:37 PM

We do not live in the Sahara Desert. "Normal seasonal conditions" in July could mean rain or shine, but not ice, snow,etc. I'm sure the 511 system is updated as fast as they could do it. I believe there was obviously an overwhelming amount of roads flooded and could be delayed in getting the info into the system. Do you think there is some sort of digital readout or such for when a road has x amount of water standing and then relayed to the 511 phone system via satellite? Fine piece of journalism!


-- Posted by jackspratt on Sat, Jul 7, 2007, at 11:48 AM
Scott Nuzum's response:
It's hard to tell from your response exactly what your tone is. But, to go over each point:

1) The 511 system is meant to relay *road* conditions. This is not the Sahara Desert but much of the state was once called the "Great American Desert" for good reason. The system was reporting "normal seasonal driving conditions" on roads that were closed or about to be closed.

2) If the 511 system was still not updated Sunday, as my friend trying to return on U.S. 69 from Kansas City told me, then it was not updated with any speed at all. All that is needed to update the system is a report from the Kansas Highway Patrol or the Kansas Department of Transportation. If this can't be done somehow, 511 is no good in emergencies and people need to know that. As it turned out, the best advice came via word of mouth in Iola.

3) A blog isn't meant to be "journalism." It's meant to be an expression of thought, like a diary. Also, journalism is, 99 percent of the time, never first person (no "I" and "me" allowed).

I will start off by saying I actually enjoyed the first post! This is a potentially dangerous error in the 511 system. I understand it could take awhile to update the listings, but people only call in the time of need. That need warrants accurate information.

-- Posted by staceya on Fri, Jul 6, 2007, at 6:53 AM

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