CROTON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Emergency Management officials in Newaygo had some explaining to do after sending out an alert that the Hardy Dam had burst, and the rushing waters were headed right for a whole bunch of people in the area.
It was all a test. But you might not know that by reading the version of the alert sent to local television screens.
“It was beep beep beep beep … and then it come across the TV that everybody had to evacuate,” said John VanDyke.
He and his wife Lori live above the Hardy Dam and weren’t worried, but plenty of others were.
“Yeah … everybody was freaked out. Everybody’s calling me … I don’t know how many phone calls I got from people,” said VanDyke.
If instead of grabbing your loved ones and heading towards the hills, you read the crawl about 18 seconds in, you might have seen that this was only a test. But most people missed that brief mention in the screen crawl.
The message continued that the Hardy Dam had burst and that the water was moving at a speed outside survivability conditions.
All of this happened after heavy rain overnight caused a flash flood watch for most of the area.
“We ended up getting about 135 phone calls into our 911, our central dispatch … inquiring on this and trying to get additional information,” said Newaygo County Board Chair Bryan Kolk.
About that same time, text alerts went out starting with the word ‘test.’
“Unfortunately, my understanding is some of the people that read that … instead of reading ‘test’ read ‘text,'” said Kolk.
Newaygo County Emergency Services said the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission require that hydroelectric dams have systems in place to warn people in the event of an emergency. Similar tests of that system are conducted twice each year in August and December.
The message sent to TV screens is generated by the Emergency Alert Systems, which basically allows Emergency Management officials to flick a switch and send a message out over the airways.
TV Stations have no control over those messages. The Michigan Association of Broadcasters said the message should not have been sent out the way it was.
Kolk sees the whole thing as a glass-half-full situation.
“That’s one of the reasons that we run these tests, is so that next time we know that that’s something that we’ve got to pay a little more attention to,” said Kolk.
“The good news is that we got 135 phone calls in, and that means the message did go out. And that means people did get the message and we know at least that part of our system is working,” he added.
But John VanDyke has another message for county officials: next time, do better.
“You don’t freak people out. I don’t care if it was a test or not … just don’t freak people out,” said VanDyke.