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Officials: No text alerts sent during Gatlinburg evacuations

Evacuees of the Gatlinburg wildfires never received a text alert about the mandatory evacuations. (WZTV/CNN)

People involved in the Gatlinburg wildfires didn’t receive text alerts about the mandatory evacuation, according to officials.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said no text alerts were sent in the Gatlinburg fires due to communications between agencies being disrupted.

Video provided to Fox Nashville from Darlene Dodd Payne shows the terrifying scene as people were evacuating:

Alerts were sent through TV, radio, social media and beginning at 10 a.m. Monday, before the mandatory evacuation. Officials also went door-to-door beginning at noon to alert people.

Here’s a statement from TEMA on how communications between agencies were disrupted:

“At approximately 8:30 p.m., the command post contacted the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA) requesting an Emergency Alert System (EAS) evacuation message to be sent to the Gatlinburg area through the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), a system which has the capability of sending text messages to mobile devices. However, communications between the agencies was interrupted due to disabled phone, internet, and electrical services. Due to this interruption, the emergency notification was not delivered as planned through IPAWS as an EAS message or as a text message to mobile devices.”

More video provided to Fox Nashville of people evacuating Gatlinburg as flames ravaged the area:

At the same time, TEMA said the National Weather Service was unable to reach the local command post.

NWS also did not send an alert, per its WEA system. A NWS spokeswoman sent FOX 17 this statement regarding the situation:

“The NWS does not push WEA alerts for wildfire evacuations, as that is out of our purview. We are one of dozens of agencies authorized to push public health and safety messages through this system, which is run by FEMA. The local emergency management agency would be the most likely source of the issuance of any future WEAs for wildfire evacuations.”

The NWS in Morristown also shed light on the alert system:

“For non-weather emergencies sent via NWS, WEA (text alerts) are not activated. As mentioned in the FAQs from the link above, WEA (text alerts) are activated via NWS products for tornado warnings, flash flood warnings, tsunami warnings, dust storm warnings, hurricane/typhoon warning, and extreme high wind warnings. No other products issued by NWS will activate the WEA system.”

Here are Frequently Asked Questions about NWS' alert system.

The mandatory evacuation alert was able to be sent through radio and television in collaboration with the Sevier County Dispatch.

Later in the evening was TEMA said communications were reestablished, the agency was able to send out a mobile message via IPAWS asking residents to stay off mobile devices except for emergency use.

“Despite the catastrophic events that created barriers to communication, officials utilized all resources available to them at the time to warn the public of the impending threat. The multi-agency response of firefighters, police, and emergency responders continues to work efficiently as they enter the recovery phase,” TEMA said.

As of Monday, officials said 14 people died as a result of the fires that ravaged Sevier County.

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