Coastal Texas Officials Question State’s Ability to Help in Hurricane

May 11, 2007

Texas emergency officials are struggling to assure their local counterparts that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan won’t damage the state’s ability to respond to a major hurricane striking the Gulf Coast.

Local emergency coordinators at the State Hurricane Conference in Galveston questioned whether the state’s National Guard still has the troops and equipment necessary to help evacuate, protect and shelter hundreds of thousands of Texans fleeing a major hurricane.

Thousands of Guard troops have either been deployed to war zones overseas or to assist the Border Patrol in watching for illegal immigrants.

Climatologists and forecasters agreed that the Texas Gulf Coast appears twice as likely as usual to face a major hurricane strike during the 2007 hurricane season, which begins June 1.

Mike Montgomery, the emergency management coordinator for Harris County, which includes Houston, said he had been told privately that the county should not rely on Guard forces to help an evacuation before a hurricane. Montgomery said he had been told many of those troops would probably be diverted to the Rio Grande Valley because of the limited resources available there.

“The Valley takes precedence,” Montgomery said he was told.

Earlier, authorities said they will likely have to evacuate about 120,000 residents of the Rio Grande Valley alone should a major hurricane hit the lower Texas Gulf Coast this season.

But officials with the state Division of Emergency Management and the adjutant general’s office of the Texas Military Forces assured Montgomery that the state had the troops and equipment necessary to cope with a major evacuation and hurricane strike.

Col. Jack Taliaferro acknowledged that oversees deployments and transfers had left the state with only about 14,000 of the 20,000 troops normally available. But Taliaferro said those troops “will do anything this state needs within our capability.”

And Jack Colley, the chief of the state’s Division of Emergency Management, said 14,000 troops was “more than enough” to handle a crisis. Colley said Texas had contracts with other states and with private companies to provide enough manpower and equipment to overcome any shortage.

“I will assure you this,” Colley said. “Every risk we have is covered with the resources we need to respond to it.”

But officials in Houston and Harris County appeared unconvinced.

“I’ve been here since 8:00 this morning, and I’ve gotten three different stories” on what kinds of medical evacuation help will be available from the state, Sharon Nalls of the Houston health department said at the conference. “I’m confused … Be consistent with the message you give us.”

Local officials said they will need 500 to 1,000 Guard troops to help them drive school buses during an evacuation.

If a hurricane threatens the lower Gulf Coast, officials plan to set up hubs in Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties. As many as 1,000 school buses and motor coaches have been lined up for use in an evacuation, McCurry said. The buses would be sent to the “state staging area” at Dodge Arena, just south of McAllen. From there, McCurry said, the buses would be dispatched up to four days before a hurricane’s landfall to transportation hubs throughout the region. There the buses would be loaded with supplies, fuel and passengers for transportation inland toward San Antonio. Evacuations would continue until just before tropical force strength winds began coming ashore.

One of the fears expressed came from George Lucio, a safety auditor with the U.S. Department of Transportation, who questioned whether local officials were being too optimistic in relying on as many as 500 school district or private bus drivers. Lucio said the majority of those bus drivers have told him and his colleagues that they would not show up to drive the evacuation buses until they were certain their own families were safe.

McCurry said the bus drivers would be allowed to bring their families aboard the buses to ensure they show up to drive and that an additional 500 drivers had been recruited from National Guard units around the state. Several transportation and emergency management officials from around the Valley said they would publicize that information to area bus drivers.

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