Two years after a 2017 fatal flash flood at Cummins Falls State Park, officials still have not implemented an early warning system that they announced at the time measuring water levels in nearby rivers.
Another warning system that monitors rainfall did not predict the fast rising waters Sunday that led to the evacuation of more than 60 people and the death of a 2-year-old boy.
Without a flood warning, park staff had about two minutes to evacuate dozens of people from the area, said J.R. Tinch, assistant chief ranger with Tennessee State Parks.
"As you can imagine, the water rises incredibly fast down there," he said Monday morning.
Irregular Weather Conditions
Cummins Falls, which became a state park in 2012, features stunning 75-foot cascading waterfalls. But it poses a natural safety risk: The trail to get to — or away from — the base of the waterfall is difficult, and it's vulnerable to flash flooding from rivers upstream, even if there hasn't been much rain at the park itself.
So, after two people died in 2017, park officials said they would take new safety precautions. First, they'd establish better communication with the National Weather Service. That, officials say, has happened: NWS Nashville now contacts the park with a flood warning whenever there's two inches of rainfall in the basin around Cummins Falls, or one inch if the terrain is wet.
But meteorologist Brittney Whitehead says there was a little less than an inch over the weekend, which wasn't enough to notify park officials. The National Weather Service is still trying to understand the weather conditions at Cummins Falls, she says.
"The problem is trying to figure out how much rain will cause an issue," she says. "This is only the second flooding event that we have record of at the falls, so we're still learning about that specific basin or watershed."
Tennessee Tech Collaboration
Still, there is another way park officials could have been alerted. After the 2017 fatalities, park officials also announced a collaboration with Tennessee Tech to set up an early-detection alert system.
Researchers proposed setting up gauges on the rivers and creeks that feed into the waterfall. Those would measure water levels and automatically alert officials when incoming water is too high. They could then clear out the waterfall area.
When fully established, a network of gauges could provide a warning one to two hours before a flood, according to Tennessee Tech researcher Evan Hart, who presented an analysis of the 2017 flood at this year's Tennessee Water Resources Symposium.
Researchers have presented a proposal to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, but the system has not yet been implemented, officials confirmed Monday.
"TDEC has approved the concept and is currently working to procure the equipment for the system while discussing with Tennessee Tech the operational use and monitoring needed for the system," spokeswoman Kim Schofinski said in a statement.
TDEC declined to discuss the project further Monday.
'Crack In The System'
Rain doesn't necessarily mean the basin will flood, says Ray Cutcher, who's been the park manager at Cummins Falls since it opened.
Cutcher says the park is aware of the risks of the waterfall and has made life jackets available to visitors even before the 2017 flood. But he says there are always "inherent risks" in nature.
"We do all we can to minimize those risks and to make it reasonable for people to visit those areas," he says. "Obviously, I’ve witnessed thousands and thousands of people go there without incident."
On Friday and Saturday, park staff decided to close off the trail to the base of the waterfall. But on Sunday, even with rain in the forecast, they decided to reopen it.
Cutcher says his staff made the best decision it could with the information it had.
"We were keeping a pretty good watch on it earlier that day," he says. "Obviously there was a crack in the system somewhere. Some things happened that maybe were not detectable fast enough for us to be alerted. We're still evaluating what happened."