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Ref: Texas officials planned on NIMS for Dean response

Houston Chronicle

To read the original article, please click the link below:

TX readies for hurricane, will use NIMS for evacuation

Houston Chronicle (August 18, 2007) **NB** Though the original article appeared in the Houston Chronicle, the Internet archive exists on the Fire Engineering site accessed by the link.**

Aug. 18--With the chaotic and deadly evacuation before Hurricane Rita still in mind, a state task force last year recommended -- and Gov. Rick Perry ordered -- the naming of a sole regional commander to make decisions during future disasters.

Now, as the first storm of the hurricane season threatens the Texas coast, regional officials say they are taking a more communal approach.

Should Hurricane Dean, now a Category 4 storm churning through the Caribbean en route to the Gulf of Mexico, turn toward the Texas coast, officials will react according to the National Incident Management System.

It calls for a multiagency committee to coordinate the actions of regional jurisdictions. Here, that's a committee of 15 people, including 13 county judges and the mayors of Houston and Galveston. The committee will not usurp local control, but, rather, will coordinate decisions that have regional implications.

"In the event that we do have to do evacuations, the timing will be coordinated so that everybody is synchronized," said Dennis Storemski, director of Houston Mayor Bill White's public safety and homeland security office. "They'll also be coordinating the need for resources."

The group already is meeting and taking action, readying coastal areas and telling the public during a news conference Friday to prepare for a storm but not to evacuate.

State officials also moved Friday to cancel ongoing road construction and dispatch fuel trucks to the region. They said "dynamic message signs" were activated on highways along the coast, warning drivers that a hurricane was on its way and to keep fuel tanks full.

The region's group approach is far from what Perry, who declared the storm an "imminent threat" on Friday, wanted in the spring of 2006, when he asked officials here to name a single regional commander to make key decisions.

"I do not see the wisdom in having 15 people being brought together on a conference call when 1.2 million people's lives are on the line," he said then. "I think it makes abundant good sense in those grand, large situations like that to have one individual being able to make a decision on the evacuation of an entire region."

But local officials, wary of losing the power over decisions that affect their residents, immediately resisted the idea. Some were even skeptical of ceding their authority to a committee.

Now, there is a consensus on the latter idea, and the committee periodically has performed exercises in the year since its inception. The first meeting on Hurricane Dean, which took place at the Houston Emergency Center by conference call, came Friday morning, with another in the afternoon.

The group is planning twice daily meetings until the storm, which could strike anywhere from Mexico to the Mississippi River according to early computer models, is no longer a threat.

The committee includes representatives from Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Matagorda, Montgomery, Walker, Waller and Wharton counties, as well as both Galveston and Houston.

The most intense planning, so far, is focused on coastal areas. John Simsen, Galveston County's emergency management coordinator, said buses are being pre-positioned to ensure that evacuation transportation is available for some 6,000 special-needs residents. He said anyone who needs transportation help should call 2-1-1.

Galveston officials also are gearing up their emergency centers and notifying employees that the centers could be staffed around the clock this weekend to make sure preparations are completed, he said.

Simsen said plans call for Galveston to be evacuated first, followed in sequence by other cities, the closest to the coast being evacuated first. Mayors will be urging residents to wait their turn in order to avoid a massive traffic jam like the one that ensued during the Hurricane Rita evacuation.

A regional communication system is in place that will allow Galveston County to inform Houston officials on the pace of any exodus so the city can time its evacuation and keep traffic to a minimum.

"We've been working on this nonstop since Rita," Simsen said. "You will see a lot of things being done differently as a result of these meetings."

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Friday that the committee approach will work better than a single commander.

"We don't need that kind of coordinating," he said, adding that these county agencies are in constant communication with one another.

Mayor Bill White agreed, and his staff said a combination of factors should make for a more effective evacuation, should one be needed, specifically new plans for contra-flow lanes and fuel dispersal along evacuation routes.

The collective approach is the norm in hurricane-prone Florida, although the state has stronger building codes and a geography that precludes the need for mass inland evacuations.

"It is a group consensus," said Mike Stone, a spokesman with the Florida Division of Emergency Management, referring to conference calls in which county officials lay out their concerns and group decisions are made with all in mind. "Everyone understands that a coordinated effort works."

Reporters Mark Babinek in Houston and Gary Scharrer in the Austin Bureau contributed to this story.;;


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