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Training and Cooperation Key to Successful Hurricane Response

April 23, 2018 - Natural Disaster Operational Workgroup conducts exercise

 

At 82 degrees and sunny, the weather at the beach couldn’t have been nicer. There, three young adults make their way from their pickup truck across the sun-kissed sand to… take photos of a plastic bucket.

Andrea Gustavson, TCEQ team lead, and National Guardsman Jorje Hernandez enter information about a simulated hazmat container into the Response Manager database as part of the hurricane response exercise organized by the Natural Disaster Operational Workgroup.
Andrea Gustavson, TCEQ team lead, and National Guardsman Jorje Hernandez enter information about a simulated hazmat container into the Response Manager database as part of the hurricane response exercise organized by the Natural Disaster Operational Workgroup.
A recon team made up of Gustavson (center),  TCEQ environmental investigator Nicole Foster, and  Hernandez, enter information about a simulated hazmat container into the Response Manager database.
A recon team made up of Gustavson (center), TCEQ environmental investigator Nicole Foster, and Hernandez, enter information about a simulated hazmat container into the Response Manager database.
The recon team  tags a bucket, which simulates a hazmat container, with relevant data.
The recon team tags a bucket, which simulates a hazmat container, with relevant data.

The group is participating in a hurricane response exercise organized by the Natural Disaster Operational Workgroup, a group created to improve coordination among federal and state agencies who respond to natural and man-made disasters. Though teams participating in the exercise include personnel from a variety of state and federal agencies, this particular team is made up of two Texas Commission on Environmental Quality employees and a member of the Texas Army National Guard.

The buckets serve as stand-ins for environmental hazards like orphan containers, which are drums or other containers that have washed up on land, and could contain hazardous materials. The team’s mission is reconnaissance: to locate these simulated containers wherever they’ve been placed by exercise organizers, conduct an initial analysis of their contents, tag the item and use a tablet to enter information into a database called “Response Manager.”

“We’re identifying orphan containers and we’re tagging them for recovery later,” explains Andrea Gustavson, a team leader in the TCEQ’s Houston region. She says, during the initial analysis, “we are assessing whether it’s hazardous material and assigning a priority level to the item.”

This priority level will be uploaded into the Response Manager database along with a photo, location information, and other data. In a real-world event, this information helps hazardous material response teams know exactly what kind of container they’re looking for, what material it might contain, and where it is.

Response Manager was created by the EPA after Hurricane Ike. It serves as a comprehensive repository for all things related to hurricane response. The data on the tablets carried by teams around Galveston Island are loaded into the database and synchronized with data from other teams and other state and federal agencies.

This means everyone is on the same page, so to speak, with regard to how best to respond to individual threats that arise as a result of a devastating storm.

The Response Manager database is also useful for responding to damaged and inundated water systems. Immediately after a flood event, staff in the Austin office calls facilities in the affected area. They update the database to reflect the conditions and possible needs of each facility.

The TCEQ’s field staff uses the information in the database to determine what help to send and where to send it. For example, if a facility needs a backup generator, TCEQ staff updates the database with that information. That way, crews will know to bring that equipment when they respond.

One real-world example from the Harvey response is when the mayor of a town hit by the storm expressed concern about erosion beneath a local water facility. Crews in the field were able to document this erosion using the database and quickly provide the relevant description, photos, and location so personnel back in Austin could work to contact the appropriate experts to address and mitigate the erosion.

“It allows us to have almost real-time data on how the facilities are faring,” adds Westin Massey, a water section team leader in the Houston region.

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Learning from Harvey

Previous exercises have usually taken the form of table-top exercises with more hypothetical scenarios at the forefront.

And then there was Harvey.

The TCEQ’s Emergency Management Coordinator, Anthony Buck says the agencies performed well during Hurricane Harvey, despite the storm’s historic rainfall.

“A lot of hurricane response is tracking the data, and ensuring that you’re getting good data coming in from the field teams,” Buck says. “And that’s where the NDOW processes and standard operating procedures came about, and that’s why (the response to) Harvey was so successful.”

Buck explains that after Hurricane Harvey, the agencies conducted an after action review and defined lessons learned from the experience.

While the Hurricane Harvey response is considered successful, real-world disasters have a way of showing responders which aspects of their preparedness plans are strong, and which ones need adjustments. That’s why this year the workgroup sent teams out across Galveston Island.

“We put some fixes in there. One of our big reasons for this exercise this week is to ensure that those fixes are what we need to be doing,” Buck continues.

According to the AAR, one area in the Harvey response that showed room for improvement is the need for more trained staff to conduct assessments in the field. That’s where Gustavson’s team comes in. Like other recon teams, none of them had ever been part of a hurricane response before. But after the NDOW exercise, they feel better prepared to take part in the response process of future storms.

“I didn’t help with Harvey,” she reveals. “None of us got to. But we get to learn from Harvey. They wanted to get more of us trained, so this is our first time, and I feel better prepared.”

Back in the Emergency Response trailer, the water team shares the sentiment.

“It’s different from what we do in the office as a regulatory agency. Out here, it’s more tangible. It’s pretty awesome to be out here making a difference, and providing support in real time,” Timm explains.

(Left) TCEQ mobile command post emergency response trailer, set up and operational during the hurricane response exercise. (Right) Westin Massey works in the mobile command post emergency response trailer and enters data into the Response Manager database. Massey is a team leader in the TCEQ Houston region.
(Left) TCEQ mobile command post emergency response trailer, set up and operational during the hurricane response exercise. (Right) Westin Massey works in the mobile command post emergency response trailer and enters data into the Response Manager database. Massey is a team leader in the TCEQ Houston region.

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Interagency Cooperation

In September 2008, Hurricane Ike hit the Gulf Coast, destroying homes and businesses and knocking out infrastructure. Emergency Response Coordinator for the Tyler region Tom Erny explains that even though the TCEQ had previously interacted with other agencies in responding to disasters, it was actually Ike’s widespread devastation that really “solidified the need for cooperation of the various agencies.”

Just nine years later when Hurricane Harvey came along, this cooperation among agencies proved crucial and effective. It worked so well, in fact, that organizers continue to develop relationships through exercises like these.

Along with the TCEQ, personnel from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, the Texas General Land Office, Texas Division of Emergency Management, the Texas Army National Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Coast Guard all took part in both the real-world Harvey response and the NDOW exercise.

Sgt. 1st Class Jorje Hernandez in the Texas Army National Guard, was assigned to Gustavson’s team because of his unit’s ongoing hazmat response role throughout the state. “The best part is working with different agencies, seeing how they work and how they operate,” he says.

Dates and locations for next year’s exercise are still in the works, but the skills learned during this year’s training will undoubtedly leave all personnel better equipped for whatever the 2018 hurricane season brings. The ongoing training, along with constant re-evaluation and improvement of disaster response processes, makes Texas more prepared for large-scale storms than ever before.

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All photos TCEQ.