Evacuation Alerts Were Never Sent To Cell Phones

Posted at 6:51 PM, Dec 05, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-05 20:13:23-05

For days officials in Sevier County have insisted that evacuation alerts were sent to cell phones in the Gatlinburg area as deadly wildfires tore through the iconic mountain town last week but now state officials say those alerts were never sent.

Records show that the National Weather Service sent out two evacuation alerts to the Gatlinburg area on Monday night, the first was sent at 9:03pm EST and the second was sent at 11:47pm EST. But because wildfires are not a weather related emergency the message to evacuate that the National Weather Service sent out only went to TV's, radios and weather radios not mobile phones.

"It didn't meet the criteria of a weather alert to go to people's cell phones," says Anthony Cavalluci, a Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service based out of Morristown.

Cavalucci went on to explain that the National Weather Service can only send out mobile push alerts for: tornados, flash floods, tsunamis, typhoons, hurricanes, dust storms and excessive wind warnings.

As fire approached downtown Gatlinburg, the burden of sending out evacuation alerts to mobile devices in Sevier County then fell on the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. They are the only agency in Tennessee who can send customized mobile alerts to every cell phone in a specific area, such as downtown Gatlinburg.

But officials from TEMA say a perfect storm of variables prevented them from getting the evacuation order from Sevier County.

In a statement TEMA said: 

"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 ... EAS message or as a text message to mobile devices."

Cell phone service, which is typically spotty in the Smoky Mountains was made worse after at least one cell tower was damaged by the fast moving fire, only further complicating the chaos of trying coordinate evacuations.

"This was an unprecedented storm a lot of things had to happen in the wrong way for this to happen," Governor Bill Haslam said Monday.