Exercising a Plan: Officials Practice for Upcoming Hurricane Season

Today is the second day of a nearly statewide emergency drill that's testing how cities and counties in Texas would react if a category five hurricane came ashore in Brownsville and made its way up the Gulf Coast. In parth three of a five part series on the upcoming hurricane season, Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports on what officials are testing today and how a new area coordination committee could help change Houston's response.

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The exercise covers about three-quarters of the state and is testing how different areas would handle mass evacuations. Using almost real-time simulation, emergency officials are trying out revised evacuation plans that utilize contra-flow lanes, new fuel sources and allowances for residents with special needs. Instead of each city or county practicing individually, the unified exercise is a way to test the state's plan as a whole.

"Our job now after Rita is we know what we need to do, lets work in fixing those things that we need to work on."

Harris County Emergency Management Coordinator Frank Gutierrez is at the center of the exercise at Houston Transtar, monitoring the simulated storm's movement up the coast. He says the Rita experience last year was a wake-up call for a lot of people.

"It's been a long time since we had anything like this come close to us, much less hit us. So that woke us up along with the public that we need to be better prepared in some of the things that we do, for example the evacuation process itself. We're working on that and that's what this exercise is about."

More than ever this upcoming hurricane season, local counties and cities will be tied into a broader state emergency plan, one that Governor Rick Perry and a special task force have put together in the aftermath of both Katrina and Rita. Dennis Storemski is the director of the Houston Mayor's Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security and says today's drill helps.

"We always say in this business that you don't want to shake hands with the people that you have to work with on the day of the event, so you need to know the folks you're working with and exercise your plans together."

Storemski is also the Houston representative on a new 15-member Unified Area Coordination Committee that's been formed this year to act as a traffic cop of sorts to make sure local jurisdictions on are the same page during what could be a very busy hurricane season.

"Evacuation is kind of unique in that it crosses through multiple jurisdictions and there just needs to be coordination. The purpose of this committee or group is just simply to coordinate. It's not to take any responsibility away from any elected official, it's just simply to coordinate efforts."

The Coordination Committee includes representatives from the 13-county region plus the cities of Houston and Galveston. Former Kemah Mayor Bill King is part of the Governors Task Force on Evacuation, Transporation and Logistics and oversaw the local effort to form the committee. He says it certainly isn't a magic solution to Houston's challenges.

"Will the situation be better than Rita? Yeah, I think we get this coordinating group in place, allocate resources, I think we'll do a better job next time than we did in Rita. Will it be pretty? No, it won't be. It's always going to be ugly but it's incremental progress."

Progress that's crucial with the start this year's hurricane season less than a month away. Tomorrow at this time in part four of this special series, Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports on how coastal communities are preparing for the upcoming hurricane season.

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