On the Front Lines of Disaster Response
· Proven under fire in extremely austere conditions
· Reclaimed territory conquered by an implacable foe
· Assisted victims of devastating carnage
Sounds like an excerpt from the resume of a battle-hardened Marine. What it is, however, is the hallmark of the Texas Public Works Response Team (PWRT).
The PWRT is a state asset that supports local jurisdictions in their response to a catastrophic incident by providing public works technical assistance to facilitate quick recovery of a community’s critical infrastructure. The operationally ready response teams are recruited from local jurisdictions and coordinate with other state agencies within Texas. The teams are composed of public works disciplines which function under the Texas Statewide Mutual Aid System and are deployed by the State Operations Center (SOC) under the direction of the chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM).
The PWRT was forged utilizing public works resources from local government and the private sector throughout the State of Texas in the aftermath of 2005’s devastating Gulf Coast Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. This state-controlled asset provides an “all-hazards” response, a concept applicable in any state. Whether it’s hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, forest fires, ice storms, or tornadoes, the PWRT model works well.
However, in order to understand the PWRT’s impact and value, it is necessary to first understand what Texas statewide public works emergency response was like before the PWRT.
“It wasn’t organized beyond the local level and with very limited resources,” explained Pilar Rodriguez, P.E., McAllen assistant city manager/deputy emergency management coordinator and Hidalgo County PWRT leader. “There was really no formal way to request any (public works) assistance beyond the local jurisdiction or municipality unless you had established some relationship with another agency or jurisdiction.”
The late Chief Jack Colley1, then chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM), summarized it this way: “While our state had people and teams to address…disaster management, the initial damage assessment and restoration of basic infrastructure for re-entry operations presented a challenge.”
Chief Colley knew where to turn for help.
“In late 2007, I contacted the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX) with the concept of developing a Public Works Response Team that would provide public works resource support to jurisdictions overwhelmed by a catastrophic event,” he commented.
Earning Their Stripes
When the new PWRT activated for the 2008 hurricane season, its inaugural year was literally a trial by storm. The TDEM deployed the PWRT for four storms: Dolly, Edouard, Gustav, and the devastating “graduation exercise,” Ike. After the rollercoaster ride of its “raw recruit” season, the PWRT experienced a well-earned break in 2009. Then it went back into battle in 2010, responding to flooding in the Rio Grande Valley after Hurricane Alex. Along the way, PWRT members have learned many valuable lessons.
“Our first big tweak was splitting out a unique role for assessment and realizing the importance of that role,” said Tony Alotto, Texas PWRT statewide director. The TDEM realized they needed to get an assessment team member or two into the affected area even earlier than they had before – preferably before the storm, but at a worst case immediately after the event.
“Within hours rather than days,” he emphasized. “In fact, it’s being built into the overall state plan. It’s called a Forward Coordinating Element or FCE.
“The second big tweak was documentation,” he continued. “We learned that we couldn’t just send in an assessor to talk with the locals and then move on. We formalized the assessment documentation…and left an assessor in place so they can link up with the (public works resource) team that comes in later.”
Ken Olson, PWRT Strike Team leader, dovetailed into Alotto’s comments. Olson is the coordinator of all the assessment and resource teams deployed into an affected area. He stressed the importance of getting the FCE in before the event when possible.
“It provides you with an opportunity to gain situational awareness: familiarity of the area, familiarity of the infrastructure,” Olson said. “Then you can sort out and prioritize the resource needs in conjunction with the local public works director or whoever you are working with based on their experiences of where the trouble spots will be. After the event, there is NO time because local resources have evacuated.”
Another lesson learned revolved around PWRT’s leadership role in an affected area. Ivan Langford is the Little Elm city manager and a PWRT leader whose team responded after Hurricane Ike to Galveston, Beaumont and Orange County. Langford said that the leadership in every community they encountered had been battling the hurricane for a minimum of 72 hours straight and were completely exhausted by the time the PWRT arrived.
“You get a lot of ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ looks and blank stares,” he explained sympathetically. “(The leaders) needed rest. They needed to take care of themselves.
“The biggest thing we brought to the table was being able to get things in motion while the leadership of the community was a bit dazed,” Langford continued. “They could step back and let us step in and assess the damage and get things in motion. If you get in there fast and get things moving for them, then after they’ve had some rest they’ll pick up the ball and move with it.”
Having been both a receiver and provider of PWRT support, Pilar Rodriguez echoed Langford’s comments.
“It was an absolute relief to be able to know that resources were on the way at a moment when you’re overwhelmed and you’ve been taxed beyond your local capabilities,” he recounted.
Rodriguez’s coworker, Wendy Smith, McAllen assistant city manager/assistant emergency manager, addressed how that shapes your approach when providing support.
“On the flip side, when we go somewhere else we strive for self-sufficiency, because we know they’re taxed enough just dealing with the disaster,” Smith explained.
Langford also homed in on another valuable lesson learned – the public works bond. He underscored the importance of the public works leadership in the affected community being able to identify with public works leadership from elsewhere in the state arriving to help them as part of PWRT.
“When you say, ‘I’m the public works director from Arlington’…you immediately have that bond,” he said.
A final critically important lesson learned was the connectivity between the Strike Teams on the ground and the Liaison Officer (Tony Alotto) in the SOC.
“If you don’t get the right resource to the right place at the right time, then we’ll have resources waiting or resources that get bogged down in traffic or they’ll wind up somewhere without the gas they need,” said Homer Emery, a San Antonio Water Systems (SAWS) environmental scientist involved in emergency response planning. He said it was the PWRT that made it possible for SAWS to provide people and equipment at the right place and time for Dolly, Ike, and the Rio Grande flooding.
Once the teams on the ground have assessed what is needed, requests start flowing up the chain from the local Incident Commander (IC) through the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), Multi-Agency Coordination Center (MACC), and the District Disaster Committee (DDC), to the SOC, Alotto said.
“And each level up has more resources, a bigger tool kit,” he concluded.
After three years and many activations, the PWRT is no longer a group of raw recruits with local leadership and first responders alike asking, “Who are you guys and what are you doing here?” Now PWRT members are the seasoned veterans who have earned the respect of both those they help and those with whom they work.
Rodriguez put it into perspective. “Texas Task Force 1 (a premier Urban Search and Rescue team) and PWRT have actually partnered together and tackled some issues during the Rio Grande flooding, for example, after Hurricane Alex. In the response arena, there’s probably no greater satisfaction than having members from Texas Task Force 1 come up to you and say, ‘Hey, let’s coordinate, let’s work together and let’s make this happen.’ ”
Olson said it this way: “Because of our experiences and what we have been able to accomplish, we have generated a lot of integrity. We are now seeing that law enforcement, for example, won’t even talk about having FCEs without including public works.”
Olson noted that the PWRT gets some of the same response with local authorities because they realized that the PWRT was there sincerely trying to help them. He punctuated that comment by adding from first-hand experiences that there is “…nothing more valuable to an emergency management coordinator than dealing with someone you know has integrity.”
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Mike Howe lends additional external support to PWRT’s expanding reputation. Howe is director of the Texas Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (TXWARN), a partnership of all the major water/wastewater associations in Texas. One of 47 WARNs nationwide, TXWARN provides mutual aid response to all-hazard events.
“We used the Public Works Response Team model with a lot of utilities who say, ‘Well, I can’t send a whole bunch of people,’ ” Howe explained. “What we tell them is, ‘But you can send one or two.’ Then your WARN program can start assembling a team from those groups of one or two people.
“It kind of gets over that hurdle of people saying, ‘Well, I have nothing to offer.’ So, the model Tony (Alotto) has used we have been trying to replicate in other states to use in their WARN programs,” he added.
Another critical rite of passage PWRT passed is the bottom line for any municipality or county…money. From a PWRT paradigm, that comprises two key elements:
1. Business impact of a disaster on affected municipalities and counties.
2. Reimbursement of expenses to supporting municipalities and counties.
“There’s the obvious impact where your tax base may be jeopardized,” said Smith, as she explained the business aspect. “I think there is no finer example of that than Galveston (after Ike) from a residential and commercial property tax standpoint, from an appraised value perspective, from a sales tax perspective.
“When your Walmart® is flooded out, what do you do?” Smith continued. “You cease to collect the (sales tax) money you rely on to operate your city, and that money is supposed to be used to pay the people who bring your city back online. It’s a vicious cycle.”
PWRT mitigates that loss of revenue by reducing the time it takes for infrastructure to become operational again. Rodriguez put it this way: “I can’t tell you exactly how much,” he explained, “but I can tell you it was hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue (per day) that my jurisdiction was losing when the city was shut down. PWRT took our initial recovery estimates of weeks and turned them into days. So, that’s the kind of impact that PWRT has.”
Activating the PWRT is very costly to the jurisdictions that provide resources. For the PWRT concept to be successful, the reimbursement process has to be nailed down.
Keith Wright, Lufkin assistant city manager and leader of a PWRT team that responded during Hurricane Dolly, spoke decisively about the issue.
“No city is going to participate or send their people and their equipment unless they can get reimbursed their expenses,” Wright said. “For us to be able to do it again, (reimbursement) was a vital part of that to sell to our council to be part of these teams. We didn’t have any issues.”
Looking for a Few Good Men and Women
The Texas PWRT comprises 180 members formed into 50 response teams from 55 jurisdictions. The assets behind all those numbers represent thousands of people and resources ready to help when disaster strikes.
“If a state is not looking at trying to utilize the resources of their cities and counties, they’re making a big mistake,” Wright maintained. “If they have any kind of event, whether it’s manmade or natural, and they’re looking at some type of response, they’re going to need all the resources they can get.”
So, like the U.S. Marine Corps, a state PWRT needs a few good men and women with a public works background and experience who can deploy at a moment’s notice, walk into the midst of chaos, and create a foothold for victory. Are you up to the challenge?
To learn more about the PWRT, contact Tony Alotto at 800-723-3811 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.teex.org/pwrt. H – By Guy Benson, Infrastructure Training and Safety Institute/TEEX, College Station, 979- 845-6568 or email@example.com.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the January 2011 issue of APWA Reporter. Reprinted with permission.
1Jack Colley passed away May 16, 2010.