by Jay Townsend
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Southwestern Division hosted a hurricane training event in Galveston, Texas that brought multiple federal, state and local government organizations together to prepare for the next disaster and to rehearse how the unified response would play out.
“Our objective here is to build and strengthen relationships among all the agencies through planning, training and exercises that allow transparency of our actions in the response and recovery stages of a hurricane event,” said Tony Semento, Chief, Readiness and Contingency Operations, Southwestern Division. “Disaster preparedness is one of the critical ways the Corps reduces risk to lives and property.”
EXERCISE, EXERCISE, EXERCISE
Eight years ago Hurricane Ike slammed into the Texas Coast with sustained winds of 110 mph causing approximately $29.5 billion in damages. Ike caused severe flooding and damage from Galveston to Missouri.
In 2015, parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas experienced the wettest May on record. It rained so much the Corps of Engineers Southwestern Division had 51 reservoirs in flood pool and 23 in surcharge pool. Eight new pools of record were set.
Now imagine those two storms happening simultaneously.
“It’s the perfect storm,” Semento said. “If a storm like Ike would have hit during the 2015 floods, SWD’s hurricane protection structures and reservoirs could have been pushed beyond their capabilities.”
Semento went on to say a scenario where almost all of the flood risk reduction reservoirs in the region are full or recovering from spring flooding followed by a hurricane could become a reality if the conditions are right in the future.
The two-day exercise started with a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter staff and media aerial tour. The tour was set up to show exercise participants the path of Hurricane Ike, Corps protection structures, flood risk reduction reservoirs, temporary housing and debris staging areas, key terrain, critical facilities, and also to get an idea of how the island and inland areas have recovered since the storm.
Media outlets were given a chance during the tour to discuss the exercise with Corps leadership as well as other agencies that participated.
Following the tour was a Hurricane Ike “lessons learned” round table. The round table gave agencies and individuals the chance to recap what it was like during the response and recovery period following Ike.
Many of the comments from the round table were about the limited living accommodations for disaster relief workers after the hurricane, the amount of debris that had to be removed from the islands and shipping channels, and how residents refused to leave their homes and belongings before and after the storm.
As the exercise continued and the simulated floods and storm worsened, each agency began to discuss their challenges and plans. This is when the information flow and interagency collaboration really got started.
For the next several hours each agency updated one another on their capabilities as the virtual hurricane hit land and moved inward. Multiple discussions popped up around the room about who was the lead agency in different situations and who was responsible for what.
These discussions were the type of “relationship building” conversations the event planners were trying to stimulate.
The scenario didn’t end after the storm hit. The virtual simulation continued on for several months. Mostly because the Corps and other agencies have cleanup responsibilities that will take years to finish.
At the end of the day SWD Commander Brig. Gen. Hill gave the “ALL CLEAR” and ended the exercise. Several folks were then recognized for planning the event and getting everything set up.