Eye of the Storm: Local Officials Practice Their Plans

Hurricane Eunice is on its way to Houston, a category five storm that could wipe-out coastal communities and inflict major damage farther inland. Thankfully for residents and emergency officials, Eunice is only a make-believe hurricane, a simulated storm that's part of a state-wide emergency exercise today. In part three of a five part series on the upcoming hurricane season, Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams spent part of the day with local emergency officals as they put Houston's plan to the test.

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Inside a giant room at Houston Transtar, a room that looks a lot like Mission Control at Johnson Space Center, workers are staring at glowing monitors, updating roadway conditions, getting reports on accidents and coordinating response, part of an exercise that's meant to simulate what might happen if a huge storm does come toward Houston.

"What is most important in this exercise is we learn to work together."

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels is the man in charge at this exercise, coordinating reponse and evacuation plans for the greater Houston area.

"No matter what the plan is, something happens that is not in the plan. There was never a plan to use the Astrodome as a shelter, but because we work together we were able to activate the Astrodome and accomodate 65,000 people that processed through that stadium. This is more about working together to solve problems than it is the actual problems that are solved."

Upstairs at Transtar, a smaller room is packed with representatives from nearly every government organization in the area, each work-station buzzing with activity as officials sort through how the local plan is working. This is also the first chance to mobilize a new Unified Area Coordinating Committee that's been formed to make sure things go smoother next time. Harris County Fire Marshal Mike Montgomery is one of 15 representatives on the committee.

"One of the things we're looking at is the communication across the region and across the state, both within the evacuation zones and within the receiving zones. So it's very important to have that communication. We've already talked about the contraflow issues and the fuel issues from last time and those are being addressed, not only in the drill but more importantly in the state plan for the real event."

In front of a laptop with a two-way radio nearby, Harris County Health Director Dr. Herminia Palacio is monitoring how the simulated evacuation is going.

"We've actually tweaked our plans quite considerably based on our last hurricanes experience. Both from our Katrina experience at Reliant Center on the receiving end but also from our Hurricane Rita experience here at TranStar. For instance, we've updated our severe weather plan, we've updated our animal disaster plan. Those are the types of things that we're here testing specifically today, is to test some of those improvements."

Even though it seems real, officials know it's not, a factor that Harris County Emergency Management Coordinator Frank Gutierrez says can both hurt and help.

"Because in the real thing, you're under the gun, you're under pressure. In an exercise you have a little more time to relax and be able to kind of work things out one way or the other. Maybe I didn't do it the right way the first time. This is a good time to try this to make sure we get the right message out."

A message that officials hope will hit home with residents as they prepare for a hurricane season that is now 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 getting ready for the 2006 hurricane season.

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