Hurricane preparations underway

Mauricio Julian Cuellar Jr., Jim Wells County Correspondent

Plans are in the works to hold hurricane emergency exercises before the start of the 2008 season on June 1.

County officials, along with representatives from the Department of Public Safety and the Texas National Guard, met at the Jim Wells County Fairgrounds Thursday afternoon for their first organizational meeting of the year.

For the last two years, refueling operations have taken place on north U.S. Highway 281, 13 miles from Alice, to prepare for the event of a mass evacuation of residents from the Rio Grande Valley area.

The operations occur in conjunction with the Texas National Guard, Department of Public Safety, Jim Wells County Emergency Management staff, Jim Wells County Sheriff's Department and Alice Fire Department.

During the meeting, state officials discussed fueling concerns, security concerns and fuel spill issues with county staff, including County Judge L. Arnoldo Saenz, JWC Sheriff Oscar Lopez, Commissioner Oswald Alanis and Alice Fire Chief Dean Van Nest.

"There isn't another refueling exercise scheduled for this year, but the meeting is in preparation for the start of hurricane season June 1," Saenz said. "Whenever we have an operation ongoing, there will be a unified command system set up, with a county representative from our emergency management team going in to make decisions and help make our operation a success."

Saenz said that sooner or later, based on recent strange weather occurrences, he believes the area is due for another hurricane or tropical storm in the future, and the county is actively taking steps to prepare for such an event.

Danielle Hale, the Regional Liaison Officer with the Governor's Division of Emergency Management, said after the operations during Hurricane Dean, the state noticed areas that are in need of improvements, and now conducts these meetings with local government officials to address these issues.

"During Hurricane Dean, everything was put into place with buses and refueling points, and state officials noticed some areas that could have been better," Hale said. "These meetings were an opportunity to review the situation to make it better."

For the third year, Texas will hold a statewide hurricane exercise this spring, in preparation for the 2008 hurricane season. The Governor's Division of Emergency Management funds the operation and this year it will be carried on a little differently, with regional areas conducting their exercises at different times.

During the last two years, the exercise happened across the state at the same time. This year, the Valley area will have its own exercise, and there will also be a separate Coastal Bend exercise and a Houston/Galveston exercise, all occurring at different times, with local government entities and state offices communicating as if it were a real emergency.

Hale said in February, a table-top exercise will take place with 200 representatives from the local region, and then the group will come back in the beginning of May for two full days of a functional exercise, where they activate the emergency operations centers, with phone calls and conference calls between the different entities involved, as it would take place in the event of an impending hurricane. Alanis said an important job of the Emergency Management Coordinator is to have good, open communication with the local RLO, to ensure that agencies at the county level are adequately prepared, not only for emergency exercises, but for an actual hurricane in the event one comes to this area.

"We're just glad to have the opportunity to host our meeting here," Alanis said.