Eyeing the storm: City, county officials to start hurricane preparedness training, public education

City and county officials are already making preparations for hurricane season, which begins June 1 and runs through Nov. 30.

City and county officials are already making preparations for hurricane season, which begins June 1 and runs through Nov. 30.

evacuation routes Source: Brazoria County Emergency ManagementCommunity Impact Newspaper[/caption]

As Pearland and Friendswood pour millions of dollars into infrastructure improvements, such as  roads, buildings, water and sewer upgrades, and parks, to meet development demand,
officials are also looking closer at hurricane preparedness.

Pearland hired its first full-time emergency management coordinator, Allen Portman in an effort to balance population growth and development with the growing need for improved public safety.

Hurricane Ike, the third costliest hurricane in U.S. history, hit Galveston as a Category 2 hurricane in 2008, wreaking $29.5 billion worth of damage on the Gulf Coast with its high storm surge and sustained winds, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Ike may be in the rearview mirror, but cities and counties are planning around the fact that thousands of new residents from out of state may have no experience with emergency evacuations and hurricane preparedness.

“It is never too early [to prepare],” said Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, who is also the county’s top disaster official. “We think everyone regardless of where you are should pay attention.”

Preparing for a storm

Pearland has quickly grown from a small town with strong agricultural roots to a bustling urban center. In the next five years alone, the city plans to spend more than $545 million on capital improvements, according to Pearland’s 2017-2021 Capital Improvement Plan, to keep up with a growing population.

“The city is growing very fast,” Portman said. “A lot of people can tell you how to deal with an earthquake, ice storm or snow 10-feet deep because of where they transferred from. But they really have no knowledge or understanding of tropical systems. That is a big part when it comes to public education.”

chasing the storm Source: National Oceania and Atmospheric Administration/Community Impact Newspaper[/caption]

In Brazoria County alone, more than 4,000 residents moved in from another state and an additional 1,200 moved in from another country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010-14 county migration flows. Many of those residents have been drawn to new developments in northern Brazoria County, including Pearland.

And in Galveston County, nearly 7,000 residents moved in from out of state or abroad between 2010 and 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Portman is a retired Texas City fire captain and, most recently, a master continuity practitioner for the city of Houston’s Office of Emergency Management. Prior to Portman’s hire, the city fire marshal was also the acting emergency manager for the three-county Pearland area.

Coming into a newly created position, Portman’s priorities include boosting public awareness, increasing resident registration for emergency notifications, identifying key employees and functions for continuity of government, formalizing emergency management policies departmentwide, continued training and exercises for key city employees and emergency medical personnel, and potential technology upgrades to the city’s emergency operations center.

“A major focus for us is public education and making sure the public is tied to us … where they can make decisions for their families and pets,” Portman said.

Planning Source: Brazoria County Emergency Management, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Community Impact Newspaper[/caption]

In addition to city preparedness, residents should prepare disaster kits for themselves, their children and any pets, he said.

Evacuation plans

Every community in Brazoria and Galveston counties is in one of four hurricane evacuation ZIP Zones. The zones list ZIP codes from those most vulnerable—called ZIP Zone Coastal—to high winds and storm surge brought on by a hurricane to those less vulnerable but still at risk.

While most of Pearland is in the last evacuation zone—ZIP Zone C—Friendswood residents are in ZIP Zone B, which is the third evacuation tier.

“Our hazards are a little different from Galveston and Houston … We’re concerned about surge and heavy amounts of rainfall,” said Steve Simmons, deputy fire marshal in Friendswood.

To prepare for a widespread evacuation scenario, area counties and cities are participating in a weeklong state-sponsored exercise in June when hurricane season starts, officials said.

As part of the exercise, Galveston and Brazoria counties activate emergency transportation hubs, which transport volunteers and pets to shelters across the state. Officials also practice computer tracking for each individual throughout the process.

“If there’s a concerned family member in Nebraska that’s wondering where mom and dad in Brazoria County went with this big storm coming, there’s ways that they can figure out that mom and dad are safe,” said Glenn LaMont, deputy emergency management coordinator at Brazoria County.

The Pearland Recreation Center and Natatorium is one of two evacuation hubs in Brazoria County. Friendswood residents would be sent to hubs in either Texas City or Pasadena.

Any evacuation will be announced by ZIP Zone with coastal residents given evacuation priority.

“Those not in the ZIP codes called for, we’re asking you to stay put, let the storm pass and evaluate whether you can stay put or not,” Henry said. “Our most vulnerable, and therefore our greatest concern, are our coastal residents.”

The messy evacuation and widespread anxiety during Hurricane Rita caused most of the fatalities, with at least 55 reported evacuation-related deaths and only seven deaths from the storm itself, according to the NOAA.

Future mitigation

Officials from Brazoria and Galveston counties joined a six-county coalition called the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District in 2010 to develop a storm surge
protection system for future storm mitigation.

“Ike is now eight years in our rearview mirror even though we’re still dealing with it. We’d like to be more proactive in dealing with the next one,” said Henry, who is the chairman of the district.

The Texas General Land Office administered a $3.9 million grant to the district in 2013 for a storm surge suppression study, which was completed last June. A fourth phase of the study to determine the indirect economic impact of a hurricane will be complete in late March.

The recovery district recommended an $11.6 billion levee system covering 277 miles of coast in what has been dubbed the “coastal spine.” In total, the system would protect 6 million coastal residents as well as industrial assets and sea ports.

Henry said he hopes to press lawmakers for funding to begin preliminary engineering design for a 2035 completion date. The project is estimated to preserve more than $700 million annually of gross domestic product between 2035 and 2085 if implemented. But until funding is secure, the plans will remain on the back burner.

“This is a very expensive insurance policy that would be paid off with one storm. And we know there will be another storm; we just don’t know when it will be,” Henry said.

Informing the public