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After the Storm

Oct. 10, 2017: All-out effort at TCEQ to help state recover from Harvey

 

TCEQ Hurricane Harvey Response Slideshow
TCEQ Commissioner Toby Baker (left) tours Hurricane Harvey-damaged areas.
TCEQ Commissioner Toby Baker (left) tours Hurricane Harvey-damaged areas.

After the incomparable destructive force known as Hurricane Harvey slammed into this state, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality immediately got to work trying to make things right once again.

A Personal Toll

While an enormous amount has been accomplished in the weeks since the storm blew away, the TCEQ is still doing all it can to make sure human health and the environment are protected, including getting damaged drinking-water and wastewater plants back online, inspecting industrial sites, monitoring the clean up of spills, organizing debris cleanup, and much more.

Even when personal tragedy has struck because of the storm, the public servants at the TCEQ have continued to persevere and do their job to protect fellow residents.

“That’s just what we do. That’s our agency’s job,” says Kathy Sauceda, director of the TCEQ’s Beaumont region.

In Jefferson County, which the National Weather Service says received more than 60 inches of rain in places, 12 homes belonging to Beaumont regional staff members were flooded, with four receiving so much damage that they are not livable.

The owners of those four include an environmental investigator and emergency response coordinator for the region, Hope Davila, who had to be rescued from her house with her baby because of fast-rising water. Another employee, Kim McInnis, who is Sauceda’s executive assistant lost most of her belongings in her home during the flooding, including her clothes.

85 TCEQ Staffers suffered significant damage to their property, including some whose homes were destroyed by the flooding.

Both were back at work shortly after their personal disasters, one with new clothes. After the storm, Davila helped to coordinate response efforts, and McInnis worked to keep the administrative functions of the region in order.

“I just have really dedicated staff,” says Sauceda, whose own home flooded but was fortunate that the damage was not more extensive. “I can’t say enough about them.”

The scale of the storm system that ravaged the state at the end of August was beyond what can reasonably be imagined, with devastation stretching from around the Nueces River near Corpus Christi to the border with Louisiana.

“The scope of this disaster is truly staggering,” says TCEQ Commissioner Jon Niermann. “It has placed an enormous burden on communities across Southeast Texas.”

And those very communities are home to about 300 employees working in the TCEQ’s regional offices in Corpus Christi, Houston, and Beaumont and also its environmental laboratory in Sugar Land and the Galveston Bay Estuary Program.

Of those, 93 TCEQ staffers suffered significant damage to their property, including some whose homes were destroyed by the flooding.

TCEQ Commissioner Toby Baker noted on Sept. 6 that many of these employees “had to be evacuated, and yet they are still out there working response.”

These courageous state servants are not the only ones who continue to serve at personal cost. The wide-ranging response in the aftermath of such a storm, which spread over 58 counties, has required the full resources and people power of the TCEQ.

“We have hundreds and hundreds of our staff responding to this right now,” Baker said on Sept. 6. “We have teams working 24-hour days, through the weekends, through Labor Day. The hours and the effort this agency is putting forth right now, especially at the staff level, is almost superhuman.”

Hurricane Harvey was an unprecedented rain event, dropping more than 60 inches of rain in parts of Texas, a record for any storm in U.S. history, according to the National Weather Service.
Hurricane Harvey was an unprecedented rain event, dropping more than 60 inches of rain in parts of Texas, a record for any storm in U.S. history, according to the National Weather Service.

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Ready to Respond

Despite the awesome power of Hurricane Harvey, the TCEQ was ready to respond. The agency spends countless hours preparing for disasters with other governmental agencies, including conducting mock exercises.

In the two days that Harvey went from being a tropical storm to touching down as a Category 4 hurricane, the TCEQ activated its emergency plans and joined forces with other state agencies at the State Operations Center, which is coordinated by the Texas Department of Emergency Management.

Commissioner Jon Niermann represents the TCEQ at the State Operations Center in Austin during Hurricane Harvey.
Commissioner Jon Niermann represents the TCEQ at the State Operations Center in Austin during Hurricane Harvey.

TCEQ staff coordinated with industry to ensure that they safely shut down their operations and with public utilities to make sure that they were taking appropriate measures, as well. The TCEQ’s regional operations also had to protect its own property, and it prepared by moving agency vehicles and equipment to safer areas, arranging for continuous communications, and working with local emergency-management officials.

The TCEQ also took the precautionary measure to protect its network of stationary air monitors in Corpus Christi, Houston, and Beaumont by taking them offline. All the systems in the network have since come back online, are restored and fully operational.

These measures were necessary as Harvey became grander in scale than past storms. Because of the way it lingered, it was essentially two tropical storm systems in one.

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A Different Kind of Storm

When the weak tropical wave known as Harvey cleared the Yucatán Peninsula and moved over the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, few could imagine the destructive force it would soon harness.

According to the National Weather Service, on Aug. 23, Harvey re-formed into a tropical storm. And because of ideal conditions in the Gulf of Mexico, the storm quickly gained power and was a Category 4 storm before making landfall near Rockport on Aug. 25.

The hurricane first moved to the northwest before turning back to the east as a tropical storm, circling around Victoria, going through Matagorda Bay, and then back into the Gulf of Mexico on Aug. 28. The tropical storm stayed close to the Texas coast before making landfall again to the east of Beaumont in Louisiana on Aug. 30.

Hurricane stats from story

Parts of the state received “more than 40 inches of rain in less than 48 hours,” states the National Weather Service’s report on Harvey,exit and “Cedar Bayou in Houston received a storm total of 51.88 inches of rainfall which is a new North American record.”

That record—and the record rainfall for any United States storm—was smashed after the weather service reevaluated its data. Nederland in Jefferson County recorded 64.6 inches of rain from Aug. 24 to Sept. 1.

At the storm’s peak, 61 public-water systems and 40 wastewater-treatment facilities were rendered inoperable or even destroyed. And more than 200 public-water systems had to issue boil-water notices because of problems caused by the storm.

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A Spirit of Cooperation

In dealing with the disaster, the TCEQ has worked closely with several federal agencies (such as the EPA, FEMA, and the Coast Guard), numerous local agencies, and other state agencies.

More than 500 TCEQ employees have been directly involved in the hurricane response, including agency personnel all over the state lending helping hands, such as providing phone backup for environmental complaint calls or technical assistance.

Director of TCEQ's Critical Infrastructure Division, Kelly Cook, sixth from the left, address emergency responders before they deployed to hurricane-stricken areas.
Director of TCEQ's Critical Infrastructure Division, Kelly Cook, sixth from the left, address emergency responders before they deployed to hurricane-stricken areas.

The National Guard, from Texas and other states, mobilized thousands of troops to affected areas and assisted the TCEQ in accessing flooded facilities. They also helped the TCEQ deliver needed water-treatment chemicals to public-water systems.

The EPA, which shares many of the same environmental responsibilities with the TCEQ, provided nearly 200 of its employees.

As part of the coordination, a Unified Command was established between the EPA, the TCEQ, the General Land Office, and the U.S. Coast Guard to oversee all emergency-response efforts. This Unified Command has been supported by three operational branches in Corpus Christi, Houston, and Port Arthur.

Branch personnel from the Unified Command have been working continuously to monitor water and wastewater systems, as well as assess spills or discharges that occurred as a result of the storm.

“The state of Texas and the citizens of this state have really stepped forward to help one another out,” says TCEQ Chairman Bryan W. Shaw, Ph.D., P.E. “To see this cooperation, not only among citizens, but also, among the state, federal, and local agencies, is something that Texas can be proud of.”

Shaw is also serving on Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Commission to Rebuild Texas,exit which was established to oversee the relief and rebuilding efforts in areas affected by Harvey and is being led by Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp.

Areas near where Hurricane Harvey made landfall, which was between Port Aransas and Port O'Connor, were devastated by Category 4-force winds.
Areas near where Hurricane Harvey made landfall, which was between Port Aransas and Port O'Connor, were devastated by Category 4-force winds.

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Picking Up the Pieces

As of Oct. 9, the number of inoperable public drinking-water systems is down from 61 to two, currently affecting 1,473 people, and the number of inoperable wastewater-treatment facilities is down from 40 to seven, which serve a population of 1,581 people. The number of boil-water notices is now 38, impacting about 13,160 people, and 19 wastewater facilities still have issues that are being worked on.

The TCEQ continues to work with its partners, including the Texas State Guard Engineering Group, to help get these systems fully operational as soon as feasible.

“Of paramount concern was the restoration of water and wastewater services,” Shaw says. “We continue to have assistance teams in the field to work with operators to get their systems back online.”

TCEQ Chairman Bryan W. Shaw, Ph.D., P.E., addresses the media during a tour of Superfund sites following the hurricane with EPA Region 6 acting Administrator Sam Coleman (left).
TCEQ Chairman Bryan W. Shaw, Ph.D., P.E., addresses the media during a tour of Superfund sites following the hurricane with EPA Region 6 acting Administrator Sam Coleman (left).

Beyond these very important utilities, a big part of the hurricane response has been assessing damage to figure out what needs to be done. For instance, the TCEQ is responsible for 17 Superfund sites in areas affected by Harvey. TCEQ workers have evaluated those sites to check for damage. There were no major issues noted for the state Superfund sites.

Along with its partners, TCEQ staff has helped collect 1,088 orphan containers, which include drums and tanks, from within or near waterways. These containers and their contents are being processed for proper disposal.

The TCEQ is evaluating other industrial sites for any impacts to the environment and coordinating cleanups, where needed. Along with its partners, the agency also responded to the emergency at the flooded Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, which had several fires after the hurricane. The incident at this plant and others are currently under investigation.

The TCEQ has been committed to ensuring that air quality is safe for all Texans. In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the TCEQ diligently worked to reactivate its stationary monitoring network.

As data became available, the TCEQ took the extra step of providing the public with daily air quality reports for the three affected coastal regions. These reports provide an evaluation of all available real-time ambient air monitoring data for volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers or less, and ozone.

At the same time, investigators in these affected areas almost immediately began collecting air quality data with handheld screening tools, such as optical gas imaging cameras, toxic vapor analyzers, air-collection canisters, and portable multi-gas monitors. These data are vital in the investigation and rapid detection of potential emission sources.

The EPA also provided technical assistance in assessing air quality. They deployed two advanced mobile air-monitoring units: the Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology (ASPECT) planeexit and the Trace Atmospheric Gas Analyzer (TAGA) busexit. Both are capable of sampling air in real time and measuring a wide array of pollutants. The EPA has made the data from these deploymentsexit publicly available.

The TCEQ continues to evaluate air quality data and investigate specific air-emissions events. In general, available air-quality data indicates that peak hourly VOC concentrations measured since the TCEQ’s monitors resumed operation have remained far below levels of short-term health concern and have not affected long-term average concentrations or the risk of long-term health effects.

Concentrations of sulfur dioxide, ozone, and particulate matter of 2.5 micrometers or less have also been consistent with concentrations typically measured in these areas at this time of year.

Also of immediate concern to residents in affected areas has been the mountains of debris still lingering on neighborhood streets. The TCEQ has been working with local governments and FEMA to process the debris, first at temporary sites, where items are being sorted before being recycled or properly disposed of.

“We’ll be dealing with debris issues through the end of the year,” says Sauceda, the Beaumont regional director. “We’ll be doing investigations of the temporary debris sites until they close.”

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Going Forward

Sauceda's staff and staff stationed at the TCEQ’s other offices who were hit by Harvey will be balancing their dedication to their work with their need to put their personal lives back together. She is grateful to her coworkers throughout TCEQ for the help they have provided to staff affected by the storm.

“The assistance received throughout the agency has been tremendous and only goes to show that we are a family and not in this alone,” she says.

In the weeks and months ahead, the TCEQ will continue to use all of the resources available to it to help the state recover from this devastating storm.

“As horrible as the rain and wind and flooding are, I’ve been reassured to see firsthand Texas’ disaster-response efforts, both at the State Operations Center and in the field,” Niermann says. “The preparedness and practice are evident; the efforts are highly organized, well-coordinated, and effective.”

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Hurricane Harvey image courtesy of NASA/NOAA GOES Project. All other photos TCEQ.