What’s it take to be storm ready?
Practice, practice and more practice.
While not every scenario that could come with another major hurricane striking Galveston County can be drilled, having the infrastructure and communications plan in place are key to be prepared for whatever comes this way.
That includes a system that gets information early and the ability to communicate to the public what needs to be done and how quickly.
David Popoff, the emergency management coordinator for Galveston County, said that a multi-facetted early warning system is now in place making the county certified “storm ready.”
“From tornadoes to tsunamis, floods to winter storms, and wildfires to hurricanes, our county will be better prepared knowing they have the best possible chance of being warned before a weather disaster strikes,” Popoff said.
Last year, the county was given StormReady certification by the National Weather Service, in large part because of a weather threats matrix inclusion in the county’s comprehensive emergency management plan.
Better communications too were part of a redesign of the county’s emergency operations center. The area’s emergency management officials got to put the new set up through its paces during a mock hurricane briefing in April.
The county also established a better network for video conferencing for those briefings so that the latest information about an approaching hurricane can be better shared with emergency management coordinators across the county.
The 10-year-old emergency operations center was also transformed to be better designed to handle any type of disaster incident command.
“We took an all hazards approach to make the operations center is more flexible and scalable now,” Popoff said. “We got rid of the old (NASA) Mission Control set up of rows of computer monitors lined up and now we adjust the setup for what we are reacting to.”
Popoff also converted an office area into what he calls the 98 percent room.
“Ninety-eight percent of all the incidents we respond to, the ones on a daily basis, don’t need a big room,” he said. “So we have that command room where we can handle most of the disasters.
That would include the recent hailstorms that struck Hitchcock and Santa Fe as well as severe weather or industrial disaster incidents.
The EOC also converted the upstairs training room into a multi-use room so that state deployed incident teams can set up for their work.
“We’ve installed extra data ports and phone connections so that room is ready to go for any incident,” Popoff said.
The EOC also has a new media set up that will allow for press conferences and easier access to television station’s live trucks in the downstairs area of the center, Popoff said.
Improving the way cities communicate with residents is key across the board.
In Santa Fe, City Manager Joe Dickson said the city set up the Blackboard Connect alert system, something that was not in place during Hurricane Ike in 2008.
The system, used by the county and most of the other cities in Galveston County, is set up to send phone messages, emails and texts to residents and business owners.
The system allows for a resident to enroll their mobile numbers and emails so that even if they have to evacuate the can still get vital information about what is happening back home.
The system is also used to alert residents as to when its safe to come home after a storm hits.
Texas City used its system to update resident on the progress of electrical power restoration after Hurricane Ike. Kemah was able to use its system to keep residents abreast of the initial recovery process.
Evacuations are always a hot topic when it comes to approaching hurricanes. Many residents recall the frustration met when millions in the Houston-Galveston region evacuated ahead of Hurricane Rita, which did little to this area when it made landfall near the Golden Triangle area of the state.
Still, emergency management officials stress that residents should heed an evacuation call.
“ Evacuation orders are not decisions made lightly,” Popoff said. “Elected officials consider all the factors and make the decision based on the best science, historical data, zones, time and scope. Failure to follow evacuation orders could lead to fatal consequences.”
And that’s no matter the size of the storm. All too often, officials said, residents hear that a storm is a Category 1 and consider it not much a threat.
“(We’re) stressing to folks that all hurricanes are dangerous regardless of category,” League City emergency management coordinator Dena Mahan said.
Not everyone can make it out of town on their own. That’s why there is a system to bus residents to shelters in Austin in the case a major storm should set its sites on the county.
That’s why the 211-phone system was set up. Anyone who has special needs or the inability to evacuate on their own is encouraged to call 211, Popoff said.