No matter what the catastrophic event is, the end result is the same: The critical infrastructure that makes a city livable – electric power, drinking water, sewage treatment, open roads – is down for the count.
v The goal? Get the citizens back ASAP so recovery can begin.
v The problem? The city is NOT ready for re-entry.
v The answer? The Texas Public Works Response Team (PWRT).
In September 2007, recognizing the need to expedite assistance to local governments, the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) asked the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX), to organize a team to help jurisdictions restore infrastructure to communities affected by a disaster.
The concept came to fruition, and the new Public Works Response Team was activated for the 2008 hurricane season. And what a first season it was. The TDEM deployed the PWRT for four storms: Dolly, Edouard, Gustav and Ike. For Edouard and Gustav, the workload was contained to the State Operations Center (SOC) in Austin. But for Dolly – and especially Ike – the teams demonstrated their effectiveness.
How the PWRT Works
Currently, the PWRT has more than 160 members representing more than 55 jurisdictions. Those numbers do not include the hundreds of building inspectors and other resources available to the PWRT.
The PWRT responds in three separate categories, which are outlined within the Incident Command Structure:
1. Liaison Support: The liaison support is two or three people manning phones and running logistics from the SOC. The main goals are to find resources, crews, and people and then mobilize them to the damaged area quickly and efficiently.
2. Planning Support: The planning support consists of four to six public works experts who are skilled in the breadth of the public works industry. They are the first ones into the disaster area immediately after the storm. Their job is to find the local public works director, mayor, or county judge and determine what the PWRT can do to help. Planning support helps officials develop a plan by determining what is wrong with the infrastructure, and with the help of the local officials, create a plan for restoration and re-entry for the citizens.
3. Operational Support: The operational or resource support teams provide short-term technical assistance to get infrastructure operating again. They are the “boots on the ground” members of the PWRT with backhoes, trucks, shovels, pumps, and all equipment imaginable. In addition, building inspectors and code enforcement personnel, although not directly related to the public works arena, are other features of the PWRT’s operational support.
Lessons Learned: Hurricane Dolly
In late July, Hurricane Dolly made landfall as a Category 2 storm in extreme South Texas, packing sustained winds of 100 mph and dumping an estimated 16 inches of rain in isolated areas. All the rain caused massive flooding, taking numerous water and wastewater plants offline.
The PWRT sprang into action, sending pumping teams from San Antonio, Alvin and Lufkin along with Incident Management Team (IMT) resources from Lufkin, Webster, Cleveland, Alvin and Luling. In addition, 23 huge, trailer-sized generators were delivered to water and wastewater plants in Cameron and Willacy counties to help mitigate long-term power outages.
The PWRT took two major lessons out of the response to Hurricane Dolly that would later prove valuable in the response to Hurricane Ike. The first was to get to the affected area quickly after the storm had passed.
“If we had people on scene earlier, we would have provided a better response,” commented Tony Alotto, PWRT leader. “We provided a good response, but we could have provided a more focused, targeted response to the issues that came up for Dolly.”
The second was the power of teamwork. Before the response to Hurricane Dolly, a conceptual plan was in place for the PWRT to work with the Texas Forest Service’s Incident Management Teams (IMT), which would provide logistical support in the form of food, lodging and communication support. It turned out to be much more than that.
“Being able to link in with the IMT as part of the operations team enabled us to totally and completely focus on the public works issues and establish priorities with the local officials,” said Ken Olsen, PWRT Strike Team leader.
“It meant we were completely integrated into the overall response effort, from the SOC to the response teams in the field,” Alotto added. “We were an integral part of the team, rather than using the IMTs for strictly logistical support.”
After the Hurricane Dolly deployment was over, the PWRT breathed a well-deserved sigh of relief.
“Dolly was our first test,” Alotto said. “We were patting ourselves on the back on how well we had done and about how we had a year to plan for the next one. Then there was Ike.”
The Real Test: Hurricane Ike
Hurricane Ike slammed into the Southeast Texas coast as an almost-category-3 storm, with damaging winds and a devastating storm surge. Parts of Galveston County were leveled. The critical infrastructure – along with everything else – was completely wiped out.
“When we responded to Ike, we became part of what was officially known as Task Force Ike,” Alotto said. “Ken (Olsen) and his planning support crew were driving into Galveston County literally in the wake of the storm. They were tied at the hip with the IMT for logistical support, and they very quickly made contact with the public works officials in the impacted areas and provided that assistance. The public works folks in Galveston County commented that they felt as if their public works staff had tripled.”
As a result, the six-person assessment team performed assessments in Galveston, Orange and Chambers counties and created plans to help get the infrastructure functioning.
After the initial assessments, the operational and resource support teams sprang into action. About 150 personnel and equipment from Hidalgo County and San Antonio Water Systems worked tirelessly on Galveston Island as well as the cities of LaMarque, Beaumont and Orange. Five hundred portable stop signs were put into place to replace damaged and missing traffic signals and lights. Requests for generators poured in – more than 300 requests for approximately 1,300 generators. All requests were addressed. More than 20 building inspectors worked to assess which buildings were safe for citizens to return to.
Although no one wants catastrophic events to happen and affect the citizens of the State of Texas, the reality is sobering. Elected and appointed officials had the foresight to develop and implement plans for the safety and well-being of their citizens. A prime example of this proactive approach was the recent success of the Public Works Response Team.
"Overall, I thought the first year was a huge success!” said Alotto. “Many people worked really hard to help put the PWRT together and make it a valuable asset to the State of Texas. We learned a lot of lessons and – like any other response organization – will continue to learn with each deployment. We were able to help the citizens of Texas, and in the end, isn’t that the ultimate judge of success?"
Want to be Part of the Team?
If you are interested in joining the Texas Public Works Response Team, contact Tony Alotto at 800-723-3811 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the PWRT, visit www.teex.org/pwrt. H – By Guy Benson and Chuck Glenewinkel. Guy Benson is a TEEX Advertising Project Coordinator and is the Lone Star Roads editor. Chuck Glenewinkel is a former TEEX Media Relations Coordinator.