Southeast Texas preps for hurricane season with emergency response exercises

Southeast Texas preps for hurricane season with emergency response exercises
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As Southeast Texas looks forward at the months-long hurricane season, NOAA forecasters and local emergency responders say the time is now to prepare for what could potentially be early and  destructive storms.

First responders across the area are performing drills to perfect evacuation efforts and disseminating information to ready local residents for a quick exit if evacuation becomes mandatory.

Hurricane season began June 1 and continues through Nov. 30. Representatives of area agencies gathered at Ford Park on June 6 to remind the public that hurricane season is here, and to tell residents to plan and prepare for the worst before it’s too late.

When Hurricane Rita hit in 2005, it was one of the most intense storms ever recorded. Following the hurricane, trees could be seen strewn across highways like twigs, uprooted from the ground by the high winds that battered Southeast Texas. Businesses were damaged. Homes were crushed. Ultimately, Rita resulted in the largest evacuation in history, during which approximately 100 people died of evacuation-related causes, such as hyperthermia due to extreme heat.

“In 2005, we had the largest airlift in history,” recalled Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office (JCSO) Captain Crystal Holmes. “People died sitting in their cars during that evacuation. Ambulances could not get through due to traffic congestion. We are working to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

“Hurricanes and other natural disasters pose a real, significant threat to the people of Texas and to those who live and work in Southeast Texas,” Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Stephanie Davis said at the event June 6. “The Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Division of Emergency Management are prepared to coordinate with other state agencies and organizations to provide state resources and manpower to our local partners before, during and following a disaster. The job of public safety organizations is to work together in our communities to protect lives, property and to ensure the safety of other first responders during a disaster.

“Hurricane season is here. Being prepared for disaster helps save lives.”

Davis said DPS and other agencies in the state were participating in a large-scale hurricane response exercise, dubbed Hurricane Charlie.

JCSO Deputy Marcus McLellan said emergency response agencies and local governments have been working hard to see a smooth evacuation if the time comes. His advice to local residents is to be ready when disaster strikes.

“We want to make you better prepared in case of a hurricane,” McLellan said. “Do not wait until the last minute. Make sure you have a plan and have everything you need.

“Make sure to secure your residence. Secure all items outside your house to make sure they don’t cause additional damage or loss. Know where to go. If you’re ordered to evacuate, … know your current evacuation route. Have a plan and know where to stay. If you need assistance during the evacuation, make sure to register with 211. Call them and give them your information.”

And when authorities tell you to evacuate, said McLellan, you would be wise to do so, not only for your safety but to avoid potential criminal and civil consequences.

Not many people know that in 2009, new state legislation signed into law references evacuation orders, he explained. “If you are given a mandatory evacuation order and you decide to refuse to evacuate, you think you’re just going to ride it out, and emergency services has to assist you, you can now be held civilly and criminally liable,” he said.

McLellan said people who stay could be arrested and forced to leave, creating a criminal case. He also indicated that people would be sued civilly for what it cost to go get them if they fail to evacuate when ordered.

“Most of all, stay informed,” said McLellan. “Pay close attention to local forecasts.”

He said watch television, go to social media, visit government and state websites to see how a disaster is progressing in the area and when you can safely return home. He said people should register with 211 and STAN to be alerted when an emergency arises. He also suggested visiting the website Ready.gov for additional information on disaster preparedness, including suggestions for a ‘go’ bag, also known as a ‘bug-out’ bag or a ‘ready’ bag. He said it is important to have a go bag with clothes, medications, personal hygiene items and other necessities.

Beaumont Police Department Officer Carol Riley agreed.

“Make sure you have everything you would need for about a week packed in a bag that you can just grab and go in case of evacuation,” she suggested. “Put your computer files on a thumb drive or onto a CD. Make copies of it – take one on a key chain and put another in your glove box.

“Talk to your kids and your neighbors. Find out if there are any shut-ins or people with children or pets in your neighborhood who may need help during an evacuation.”

Sgt. Davis also suggested purchasing a weather radio.

Texas Department of Transportation spokesperson Sarah Dupre warned that evacuation routes have changed since last year and wants everyone to have a copy of the updated 2017 route, which can be found on the TxDOT website and at www.theexaminer.com.

“The evacuation route has changed from last year,” she cautioned. “State Highway 105 is no longer part of that route. We really want to urge people to stay on the route when you are evacuating. That is where all the resources will be.

“TxDOT’s No. 1 goal is safety. So in a hurricane situation, our role is to support local law enforcement, city and county officials to help evacuate our residents safely.”

Capt. Holmes said evacuation generally starts about 12-16 hours before it is announced, with emergency personnel assisting people with medical needs and residents of medical facilities in evacuating in advance of the mandatory order.

“We don’t just react when a hurricane gets here,” she said. “We try to plan in advance for every foreseeable circumstance.

“Everyone needs a plan. Where are you going? How are you going to get there?”

Holmes said people who think they want to ride out the storm at home rather than obeying a mandatory evacuation order could be in for unpleasant surprises that create unsafe situations.

“People don’t realize everything that would be impacted in the event of a disaster,” she asserted. “Power outages means no oxygen for people on breathing tanks that require electricity to operate. There would be no running water. There are a lot of things to consider.

“People need to leave when they are instructed because there comes a time during a disaster when response is impossible.”

It is a harrowing time for first responders, said Officer Riley.

“I remember when Orange County had to evacuate due to flooding,” Riley recalled. “There were people calling Beaumont begging for help. Some people were stuck in their attic with snakes in the rising waters with them. We could see fires burning. There was nothing we could do about it. It’s a first responder’s worst nightmare to know people need help and to not be able to reach them because it is not safe to respond.”

When the time comes to evacuate, only essential personnel will be allowed to stay, and those people know who they are, said Riley.

“It costs billions of dollars for multiple refineries to shut down for a disaster,” Riley said, emphasizing the potential impact of an evacuation. “With major highways running through Southeast Texas and the refineries we have here, a disaster would impact not just Beaumont, but all of Texas. We don’t take that lightly.”

Beaumont Fire-Rescue Captain Brad Penisson said West Brook High School would be an evacuation center for people with transportation needs, and the Civic Center in Beaumont would be a triage center set up for people with medical problems in the event of an actual hurricane. Volunteers participating in the emergency drills June 7 were assigned a variety of medical conditions as part of the exercise so that first responders could get an idea of what it would be like to help evacuate people with real medical problems.

Marvis Martin, 83, was one of the volunteers who assisted emergency personnel with the disaster drill by playing the part of the fictional Edna Washington, an 88-year-old woman with medical problems who uses a wheelchair and has a prescription of morphine.

“It’s close enough for government work,” Martin joked regarding the age difference between herself and her character. She said she believes the drill helps prepare emergency staff to streamline operations during an evacuation.

“You learn from experience,” she said.

Martin was at the Civic Center waiting to be loaded onto a stretcher bus as part of the exercise.

Brenda Bean, another volunteer and Beaumont resident who was recruited through the Tri-Agency Citizens Police Academy Alumni Association, was already loaded onto an evacuation bus staged outside the Civic Center.

“I think this helps,” she said of the drill. “It makes me feel safer.”

Regina Hileman was on the bus with Bean. She said emergency drills like these save lives, a fact she learned when she worked at a local hospital.

“I worked at St. Elizabeth hospital when Rita hit,” said Hileman, recalling the destructive and deadly 2005 hurricane. “We learned so much from Rita. It was devastating. I think these drills are very helpful. I’ve been there. We were caught in the hospital with 119 patients and no electricity.”

Hileman said when Ike arrived in 2007, St. Elizabeth staff was ready. They had performed their own disaster preparedness drills since Rita.

“It was seamless,” she asserted. “These exercises are so helpful.”

Penisson agreed that the drills are useful and necessary. He estimates it would take between 24 to 36 hours to evacuate the Golden Triangle area and said emergency responders have to be ready well in advance.

“Tropical storm winds are sometimes the real problem. We need to get everybody out before the wind hits,” Penisson asserted. “We have to look at evacuation ahead of the storm. For example, Gustav was projected to make landfall here. We evacuated. At the last minute, it swerved off and headed toward Louisiana, but we were ready.”

Penisson said new tracking systems and software are making it easier for emergency responders to know where people are and connect families during and after a disaster.

“During Rita, we weren’t sure where people went,” he remembered. “We have a better handle on what we are doing now.”

Lastly, he wants to again remind everyone, “When a mandatory evacuation is called, it is just that. It is mandatory.”

Have a plan. Get out while you can.

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