LEAGUE CITY — An angry red storm dominated the many HD monitors Wednesday at Galveston County’s Emergency Operations Center, just west of Wal-Mart, on FM 646 in League City.
The broad red circle perched 100 miles off Galveston threatened the entire upper Texas Coast with dangerous storm surge and pounding winds. The purely digital storm, named Gaviota, Spanish for “seagull,” glared down from the cascade of displays at a large crowd of county officials, emergency managers, volunteers and media gathered for the annual area hurricane drill.
“What have we learned since Ike?” County Judge Mark Henry asked. “Don’t take anything for granted or have a party attitude. Some who didn’t listen to the authorities, especially on Bolivar, lost their lives during Ike.”
Henry said that new technology, including the ability to group text “every cellphone in the county” in case of emergencies had made the county safer this storm season.
He also addressed the fear many residents have had since Hurricane Rita in 2005 — that evacuating might be more hazardous than the hurricane itself.
“We now coordinate with Harris County so they give our residents 24 hours to evacuate before they (in Houston) do,” he said. “We need everyone to follow our instructions in a timely fashion.”
He said that those who wait “just one more day” to see how a storm builds up could end up trapped in traffic just to the north.
David Popoff, the emergency management coordinator for Galveston County, led the practice Gaviota exercise. He said that more than $3 million had been invested into emergency infrastructure locally, including the construction of two 400-foot radio towers with multiagency capability and battery backup.
“We’re testing everything today,” he said. “I challenged everyone today to go one day without using their cellphone. Can you communicate with your extended family without a cellphone? You need a plan to make connections in time of disaster.”
Popoff insisted that focusing on the Saffir-Simpson category of any given storm would seriously mislead the public.
“Get rid of those numbers,” he said. “My message is that hurricanes are dangerous, major or catastrophic. When folks waited an extra day to evacuate, it led to one of the largest air rescues in history. That’s what it did in Ike. I want to avoid that.”
Lance Wood, science operations officer with the National Weather Service, said that storm surge is generally the most deadly part of the storm, so a number of new weather products will be available to the public this year.
“During an active storm, you’ll be able to access an inundation graphic up to 48 hours ahead of the flood threat itself,” he said. “It will be color coded to show the amount of water you can expect over any part of the county.”
Bill Read, former Hurricane Center head, was also once the leader of the local weather service office. Admiring Wednesday’s efforts as a member of a team from Houston’s KPRC-TV, he said that preparedness had come a long way since he arrived in 1992.
“We didn’t have Doppler or Internet, and there was only one part-time coordinator and a secretary for emergency planning then,” he said. “Now, the changes have really proven themselves with Rita and Ike. We have a trained cadre of people who can help the rest of us survive and recover from a storm.”