Fort Bend County Emergency Drill

There's still more than a month before the start of the 2006 hurricane season, but officials in Fort Bend County are taking their emergency plans on a test drive with the hope that practice makes perfect when it comes to responding to a big storm. Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports from the Fort Bend County emergency operations center in Richmond.

As the incident commander for the exercise gets an update on the aftermath of a simulated category two hurricane that's passed through the county, about 30 emergency officials sit behind banks of computers and high tech gadgets, with two large projection screens at the front of a room that serves as the emergency nerve center for the county. The exercise has taken on new meaning this year, with the memory of Katrina and Rita still fresh.

"You don't get good because of talent. You get good because you have talented people and you practice."

Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert says even though the county has upgraded it's emergency operations center to the tune of $800,000 since last year, that won't matter unless people know how to use the equipment under pressure.

"The screens look fancy and the phones are great and the computers are nice, but unless you try to solve a problem with them, you don't know how well they work and you don't have time an any one drill, even dedicating full days or two days to a given drill, you can't go through all the problems, so this year we're doing something, we're working a certain set of problems. Next year we'll come in a throw a different set of problems at them."

Since Katrina and Rita, the county's emergency plans have changed a bit to include allowances for traffic jams and fuel shortages. Emergency Management Coordinator Jeff Braun says a dress rehearsal that simulates a real storm is the first step toward perfecting a plan.

"A plan is only as good as being something that will actually work in practice. The exercise is actually designed to make sure that our plan works. Following Rita and Katrina, the important part was, we learned some lessons from them. Fortunately Fort Bend County wasn't hit as hard as our neighbors in southeast Texas, but we learned things and we're trying to apply those things today to be better for the June 1st deadline."

Jean Galloways is the director of Fort Bend County's Department of Health and Human Services and says it's difficult to predict how people will react in an emergency.

"It takes the actual rehearsal and the interaction of all of the different agencies and all of the different players to just get a feel for what you would do under certain circumstances. It really helps to work the bugs out because you find out that what you put on paper really doesn't work in real life."

Officials here in Fort Bend County say they'll continue to drill in advance of the upcoming hurricane season, a season that some forcasters say will be more active than last year.

Reporting from Richmond in Fort Bend County, Jack Williams, Houston Public Radio News.

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