Mauricio Julian Cuellar Jr., Jim Wells County Correspondent
City and county officials put their disaster plan to the test Tuesday, as Hurricane Brett, a Category 5 storm, approached the Gulf Coast during a mock exercise by the Texas Engineering Extension Service (TEEX).
For the exercise, officials set up the Emergency Operations Command (EOC) at Alice City Hall, and started the scenario under the plan that Hurricane Brett, a Category 1 storm was churning up the waters near the gulf and headed in the direction of the Texas coast.
The question posed to city and county leaders was whether they were prepared to make the decisions necessary for an impending hurricane strike. It was a question of voluntary or mandatory evacuation.
At H-72, which means 72 hours before expected landfall, Alice Mayor Grace Saenz Lopez and County Judge L. Arnoldo Saenz decided to declare mandatory evacuation of all special needs individuals, who made their locations known through the 211 program.
Also on hand were County Emergency Management Coordinator Wally Alanis and Orange Grove City Administrator Rick Lopez.
Alice Police Chief Daniel Bueno helped to coordinate efforts downstairs, when it came to transportation and logistics, while county commissioners and city officials maintained the EOC upstairs in city council chambers.
Logistical operations and transportation groups studied the needs of the city and county, which together expect anywhere from 800 to 1,200 special needs evacuees should a hurricane hit. By 9:51 a.m., all plans were finalized, and by 1 p.m. on Tuesday, special needs residents were to gather at seven different locations throughout the city, as well as three other county designated pick up locations in Ben Bolt, Orange Grove and Premont.
Counties surrounding Jim Wells, including Kleberg, Nueces and Aransas, made similar moves, calling for the mandatory evacuation of their special needs residents.
The group also received traffic reports on transportation travelling up from the Rio Grande Valley toward San Antonio, through Highway 281, as well as reports from the Corpus Christi DPS office.
During the drill, TEEX observers presented difficulties to the EOC in the form of public responses, such as complaints concerning special needs residents who refused to be evacuated, and what to do with pets.
The observers also called on officials to present updates on evacuation logistics, transportation and also emergency preparations for those city and county employees who must remain during the storm and who will need protection.
Alanis took a strong stance against those unwilling to evacuate.
"You can't beg them to, if they don't show up, you can't make them," he said.
Alanis felt giving them until H-60 to comply with the evacuation was enough.
Mayor Lopez stressed that Public Service Announcements will be very important during this time, to get the message out to the public.
"We have to utilize the PSAs in this situation. We don't know if there will be radio stations as of tomorrow due to the storm," she said.
Area officials took great strides to keep the exercise as realistic as possible.
TEEX observers also posed questions concerning power outages after a hurricane, how long it would take to have electricity reestablished, and when the EOC believed it would be safe for evacuees to return in the event of a Category 5 Hurricane. By H-48, Corpus Christi DPS reported there was a voluntary evacuation in place and that no evacuation lanes were open.
By H-24 in the exercise, Jim Wells County and the City of Alice had declared a mandatory evacuation of all residents, along with the cities of Premont and Orange Grove.
At that point, Hurricane Brett had made its way across the Gulf, and was coming upon the Coastal Bend area with sustained winds in excess of 145 miles per hour.
The decision was also made to transfer the EOC to the Alice Police Department, which possesses its own generators and is tested to handle sustained winds. All other essential personnel were then taken to Laviana Plaza, or the National Guard Armory, for their protection during the storm.
The exercise ended at that point, and both city and county workers involved met together with EOC officials to discuss what was accomplished and what they needed to work on during a private staff meeting.