Galveston County’s state-of-the-art emergency operations facility came online in October 2005 and was the first in the nation to combine a National Weather Service office with an emergency management department of local government. The 23,500-square-foot building was designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane.
As we mark the middle of the 2011 hurricane season, County Progress asks Galveston County Emergency Planning Coordinator Tracy Hughes to discuss the county’s overall role in emergency management and Galveston County’s unique facility.
CP: What are counties required to do by law in the area of emergency management?
TH: Each county is required to maintain an emergency management program or participate in an inter-jurisdictional emergency management program as defined in Section 418.102 of the Texas Government Code. Chapter 418 of the Texas Government Code is also referred to as the Texas Disaster Act of 1975. The county is selected to be the “first channel” through which municipalities request resources when their own resources have been depleted. The county forwards any resource requests beyond county capabilities to the state.
CP: What specific role does the commissioners court play in emergency management and response?
TH: The commissioners court is an integral part of the four phases of emergency management: preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation.
Year-round the commissioners and the judge actively educate their constituents on the importance of being prepared for emergencies in our jurisdiction – hurricanes, of course, being the most significant to our region. In order to spread the preparedness message to the citizens of Galveston County, they must be knowledgeable of the planning and preparedness of county business.
In the event our county is impacted by a tropical storm or hurricane, the commissioners and judge are a conduit for information from emergency management to the citizens and vice versa. Whether or not they choose to physically be located in the Emergency Operations Center, the lines of communication to our elected officials are critical for an efficient response.
During the recovery phase, which can be long term depending on the severity of the storm, commissioners work hard to help their districts get back to normal. Whether their office fields calls about the FEMA assistance process or if they’re part of a much larger plan for rebuilding a destroyed community, they do what they need to do to assist the county as a whole get back to business as usual.
When there are no storms or emergencies, the commissioners and the judge look for ways to actively lessen the severity of loss of future hurricanes. They meet with the Texas Department of Transportation to discuss road improvements. They are actively involved in seeking out ways to mitigate losses and improve community resiliency within their districts.
Editor’s Note: In Texas counties, the county judge serves as the county's emergency management director and has the authority to designate an emergency management coordinator to serve as an assistant for emergency management issues. Former Galveston County Judge James D. Yarbrough appointed John Simsen as Galveston County’s emergency management coordinator; Simsen now serves under current County Judge Mark Henry. Simsen is assisted by Hughes, the county’s emergency planning coordinator.
CP: Why did the county elect to replace your EOC, and how did you fund the project?
TH: The previous Emergency Operations Center was located in a bunker-type facility, in the basement in a surge zone area. Following the events of Sept. 11, the face of emergency management also began to evolve and expand. The county needed a facility that could continue to operate following a major catastrophic hurricane as well as house the new technologies and additional people that were necessary to operate a comprehensive emergency management program. The current EOC was funded by a $5.5 million bond issue, backed by overwhelming voter approval in 2000.
CP: Please describe the unique aspects of your EOC.
TH: The hub of the county’s emergency management activities is the state-of-the-art Emergency Management Facility in League City. This facility is the first of its kind in the United States. The 23,500-square-foot building has been designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 158 mph and gusts up to 175 mph. The entire building is concrete with reinforced steel. All walls are solid, poured concrete with embedded rebar. Operations are located on the second floor, which is 34 feet above sea level, placing it above all projected storm surges.
The windows are coated with a special product to make them impact resistant. In 2007, hurricane shutters were added to the windows to further protect the facility. There is a generator to provide backup power with enough fuel on hand to run the building around the clock for seven days. The dormitory-style bunkrooms on the third floor will sleep approximately 48 people (two shifts of 24). In addition to the Office of Emergency Management, the building houses the National Weather Service, Galveston County 9-1-1 Communications District, and members of the Texas Division of Emergency Management under one roof to better mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from all types of emergencies or disaster situations. The new facility provides a location where agencies can centralize communications, technology, logistics, and resource management for a wide variety of emergency services, and provide a secure location from which to effectively manage crisis situations. Following is some information about each of the partners:
The National Weather Service – The Houston/Galveston National Weather Service office has a long history of serving the public. The first weather office in Texas (and one of the first in the nation) was established in Galveston on April 19, 1871. As a part of a modernization and reorganization, the Houston and Galveston offices were combined. This office is responsible for issuing tornado, severe thunderstorm and flash flood warnings, and short-term forecasts for 23 counties in Southeast Texas, and also provides backup coverage for other portions of the Texas Coast as well as western Louisiana.
Galveston County 9-1-1 District – In 1985 a law was enacted by the Texas Legislature allowing the creation of emergency communications districts in counties with a population of 20,000 or more. Galveston County’s district was created in November 1987 and became operational in April 1991. The district manages the radio system that enables first responders (police, fire, EMS, etc.) to communicate, and recently completed a significant upgrade that enhances the ability of local responders to communicate with radio users throughout the Houston-Galveston area.
Texas Division of Emergency Management – TDEM is charged with carrying out a comprehensive, all-hazard emergency management program for the state and assisting cities, counties, and state agencies in implementing their own emergency management programs. The Galveston County Emergency Management Facility houses members of the Recovery Section. These specialists carry out disaster recovery programs for individual disaster victims and families (individual assistance), and aid local governments and public entities, such as school districts and hospitals (public assistance) with programs to repair or reconstruct facilities that were damaged or destroyed.
The facility provides Galveston County with a sustainable central location for the county during the emergency management cycle. Rather than operating from multiple facilities to get the job done, emergency operations and resource procurement can take place with county employees face-to-face rather than wasting time with phone calls and e-mails. Saving time during an emergency ultimately saves money.
CP: Please provide a general overview of your most recent major emergency and related response.
TH: The last major emergency “managed” from the facility was Hurricane Ike. At various times throughout the response, as many as 150 first responders and emergency management personnel could be located in the building. In addition to the four tenants of the building, agencies such as the United States Coast Guard, Texas Task Force One, the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, American Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the United Way had representatives in the facility to provide for an effective response to Hurricane Ike. Core staff of the emergency management department lived at the facility full time for about two weeks. The county judge and his staff relocated to the facility because the county courthouse was damaged in the storm; they remained at the facility for about eight weeks following the storm.
CP: What advice would you give counties that are interested in improving their facility and/or emergency response plan/program?
TH: Spend time researching the needs of your county and the needs of your emergency management program in particular even before breaking ground. Expand on your current needs to take growth into consideration. When we moved into our facility in 2005, the Office of Emergency Management had a staff of four. We now have a staff of six as well as having recovery consultants utilizing a store room in our facility for office space. Take advantage of grant programs where possible to help with technology and equipment, but be prepared to budget for equipment maintenance and replacement in the future. H