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TCEQ responds to Hurricane Laura amid COVID 19

Dec. 4, 2020 - Power outages, rain among challenges faced

By Tiffany Young, TCEQ External Relations

TCEQ's Emergency Management Support Team and the 6th Civil Support Team prepare to leave Austin to provide support to the agency's Beaumont Region..
TCEQ's Emergency Management Support Team and the 6th Civil Support Team prepare to leave Austin to provide support to the agency's Beaumont Region.

A dark start

Following the landfall of Hurricane Laura, a Category 4 hurricane, TCEQ’s Region 10-Beaumont office was literally in the dark. The office—much like the rest of the area—had no power.

“Our office didn’t have power when we came back, but we knew we needed to do a rapid needs assessment,” said Beaumont Regional Director Kathryn Sauceda.

In preparation of the storm, the team had charged and packed up the air monitoring equipment on Monday for its protection. The office was shut down for the storm on Tuesday, so by Thursday afternoon when it was safe for the team to respond to the storm damage, most of the equipment had already lost its charge.  

The air monitoring equipment was under tarps on top of the file carriages, so Sarah Kirksey, Region 10 Air section manager, organized several people to get the equipment from the dark, hot filing room.

TCEQ’s Office of Water had already begun making calls to wastewater systems—checking that they were still online and hadn’t incurred issues—so Region 10 knew that air monitoring would be its focus.

Because the regional office was without power, Kirksey and Pratima Singh, Air section team leader, took the equipment to their homes (which had power) to charge them for use the next day for air monitoring activities.

Region 10’s Water section manager Ronnie Hebert immediately went out to survey the damage created by Hurricane Laura, in both the industrial areas and surrounding neighborhoods. And since Hurricane Laura did not hit the Texas coast as hard as anticipated, air monitoring vans were able to leave from Austin a day earlier than anticipated, setting out for Jefferson County and Orange County where the storm hit Texas the hardest.

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Monitoring by van and by hand

Online, monitoring van readings are shown on a map and appear like a caterpillar along the van's route. On this map, a yellow or green trail shows findings below action levels.
Online, monitoring van readings are shown on a map and appear like a caterpillar along the van's route. On this map, a yellow or green trail shows findings below action levels.
Parked in front of TCEQ's Region 10-Beaumont office, which served as headquarters for TCEQ staff who were responding to Hurricane Laura, this new air monitoring van was used in the field for the first time following the storm.
Parked in front of TCEQ's Region 10-Beaumont office, which served as headquarters for TCEQ staff who were responding to Hurricane Laura, this new air monitoring van was used in the field for the first time following the storm.

TCEQ’s new air monitoring vans can monitor the air while in motion, allowing the vans to move around the perimeter of refineries and surrounding neighborhoods while staff observe the findings in real time on a map online. (See photo of map on this webpage.)

“Our air monitoring instruments [both handheld and the vans] won’t work in the rain, because they need large volumes of air to be drawn in through the sample inlet,” Tom Randolph, of TCEQ’s Monitoring Division, said.

Since it was still raining off and on, this meant that the air monitoring team would take cover periodically, waiting for clouds to pass to continue monitoring.

The team got daily reports indicating which refineries would be coming back online, allowing them to plan where they would go to monitor air quality.

In addition to the three air monitoring vans, TCEQ staff used handheld air monitors to check the air quality following Hurricane Laura.
In addition to the three air monitoring vans, TCEQ staff used handheld air monitors to check the air quality following Hurricane Laura.

“We need to be downwind, so we pick a route ahead of time. What we’re hoping to find is nothing any time,” said Randolph, who has 25 years of experience in the field. “During an emergency response, you’re hoping no one is having a problem. We’ll check the fence lines of refineries and nearby neighborhoods, even if they’re a little further away from the fence lines, because there’s more potential for exposure where people live and spend more time.”

In other words, the air monitors are checking that the air is not at harmful levels to humans at the ground level.

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Working the plan together

Monitoring makes for long days, especially for staff traveling from out of town. TCEQ’s Emergency Management Support Team, contractors, and the 6th Civil Support Team supported Region 10 in monitoring, splitting the night and day shifts.

“Even when people come to help us, they’re staying an hour away. The only available hotels are in Houston, since area hotels are filled with evacuees from neighboring areas hit hard by the storm,” Saucedo said. “It’s a coordinated effort throughout the agency. The region doesn’t just work these kinds of things in a vacuum. We are a well-oiled machine and I have a great staff that jumps in and asks, ‘What do you need?’”

TCEQ’s EMST left Austin first thing Friday morning. As soon as the team arrived at the regional office, they began setting up a generator to get power back online.

In addition to these challenges, responding to a natural disaster during a pandemic added a new dimension to planning.

Soon after COVID-19 lockdowns began in the spring, TCEQ’s EMST began working with its counterparts via Natural Disaster Operational Workgroupon a safety plan, realizing hurricane season was just around the corner. On May 15, they finalized that plan and were able to exercise it virtually. With a plan approved, it just came down to implementation.

Part of that plan included each of the EMSTstaff driving to the Texas coast in separate vehicles. A team of medics from the 6th Civil Support Team were also added to the response team.

Sauceda said many supplies from EMST arrived before they even asked for it, such as hand sanitizer.

Responders also communicated while wearing masks and social distancing, which sometimes made understanding one another difficult.

Typically following a large hurricane an Incident Command Post is set up, but because the event was smaller than anticipated, TCEQ’s regional office was home base.

“We were prepared to show up with 100 people, including two National Guard Civil Support Teams. Luckily, it didn’t hit as bad as expected, so we had about 30 to 35 people,” TCEQ’s Emergency Management Coordinator Anthony Buck said.

Since the building’s capacity could not exceed 25 percent, only 16 people could occupy the office at a time, calling for a lot of coordination and for some of the work to be done inside their vehicles.

Air monitoring continued for three and a half weeks—long enough for the cities to regain power and for industry to come back online.

The agency was prepared for the worst. Luckily, this time, the storm didn’t hit the Texas coast as hard as anticipated. No matter the threat though, TCEQ will continue to be diligent in its preparedness.

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All images TCEQ.