Pictured: The 386th Engineering Batallion led the refueling site Tuesday just north of Alice. Spec. Orlando Benavides spent the day leading long rows of buses to refueling points along Hwy 281. During five hours, the 386th refueled nearly 300 buses en route to the Valley. Photo by MAURICIO JULIAN CUELLAR JR.

Will evacuate Valley in case of flooding from Dean

Mauricio Julian Cuellar Jr. and Ofelia Garcia Hunter, Alice Echo-News Journal

Officials with the Army National Guard, under the Texas Joint Task Force, took over a section of Highway 281 Monday morning as part of the state's plan to handle the influx of evacuees from the Rio Grande Valley should Hurricane Dean change its direction into Texas.

Capt. Matthew Kimmel, with the 386th Engineering Battalion out of Corpus Christi is leading the joint operation this week. The Texas Joint Taskforce is a joint effort by the Army National Guard, the Texas State Guard and the Texas Air National Guard, under the control of the Governor's office.

Kimmel said nearly 5,000 troops have been deployed to the South Texas area to prepare for a possible evacuation of the Valley.

It may not happen, Kimmel said, but his men and women will work to keep the buses moving south unless ordered to do otherwise.

"We're prepared to handle the situation if it arises and continue the mission as long as needed," Kimmel said.

"The state is coordinating this effort with the school buses to help should an evacuation be called in the Valley…These buses would be used to evacuate those folks with special needs, the elderly and those who have no other way out, along with their pets."

The station is set up 15 miles north on Highway 281, past Tecolote. Within less than 12 hours, the guard had set up 240 portable toilets, several Sun Coast refueling tanker trucks, living quarters for the soldiers and a communications operation complete with radio antennas and satellite connection.

Kimmel said in the event of a hurricane, the facilities in place would only be used to provide for those evacuating on the buses.

Restroom facilities, water and fueling points would only be provided to the buses to allow them to travel to staging points in San Antonio. The Alamodome is currently being used as a staging area for the buses headed to the Valley, Kimmel said.

Gov. Rick Perry ordered about 3,000 school buses along with their drivers to the Rio Grande Valley; with many making a stop in the outskirts of Alice at the Whataburger. About 30 school and charter bus drivers took a short break off Highway 281 to get a bite to eat.

"We are on our way to McAllen to the convention center and once we get there they will give us more information," said Mario Leal with the Seguin ISD maintenance department.

Leal said his caravan of 10 buses left the Alamodome about 10 a.m. Monday morning.

Seguin is about 30 miles east of San Antonio.

Anna Melton, a bus driver with North East ISD from San Antonio, said she was privileged to help in any way.

"We are honored to do anything to help," Melton said. "Could you imagine if I had family here?"

Melton said she left a 10-year-old granddaughter, Dallas Hart, whom she is raising back in San Antonio to help others in need in the Valley.

"She told me, 'mom I'm going to pray for you,'" she said.

In the middle of town, Army National Guardsmen were preparing to leave to Weslaco in Humvees and five-ton trucks Monday afternoon with water tanks and tow trucks to be used for rescue operations.

"I think right now we are going to mainly stand by and watch to see what kind of flooding is going to happen," said Chief Warrant Officer David Galindo, a native of Kingsville who resides in Austin.

Many of the soldiers were from units in Kileen, San Antonio, Austin and Gatesville.

Michaela Guerra, from Camp Mabry out of Austin, was one of a few of the women heading to Weslaco to help in the possible evacuation efforts.

"Our mission will probably consist of high water rescues and evacuations more likely in case of flooding," 30-year-old Guerra said.

Sgt. Albert Cerda sat in the driver's seat in a Humvee as the convoy of about a dozen trucks made their way to Weslaco.

"We'll be ready," he said.

Specialist Brian Kinard agreed.

"The governor just wants us to get there and prepare so that what happened in Louisiana doesn't happen (again)," Kinard said.

Law enforcement agencies such as the Jim Wells County Sheriff's Department assisted with traffic and helped monitor the buses coming through the county.

"The local law enforcement agencies play an important role during an evacuation, since the area is civilian run, the officers will be here to ensure that the laws are kept and for the safety of the evacuees," Kimmel said.

During the Monday afternoon heat, staying hydrated was a concern for both the soldiers and the bus drivers working on Highway 281.

"You've got to keep cool," Kimmel said to Staff Sgt. Frank Newell, also a member of the 386th battalion. Newell had just taken a break for lunch under the shade of the Salvation Army truck, eating and trying to stay hydrated. "Pour some water on the vein behind your ear. It's a shock, but a lot of blood goes through there, it will help cool you down," Kimmel said.

Newell is used to the heat, living in Corpus Christi, but the experience is intensified when you spend several hours working on the road, with no shade, and the South Texas sun beating down on you, he said.

"This is the first time I've done something like this," Newell said. "But it feels good to provide a service to the community."

His job is to supervise and make sure the traffic flows smoothly.

"Of course safety is an issue. I have to make sure the guys don't fall over from the heat," Newell said. "The drivers are appreciative. They're excited to have a place to refuel and relieve themselves during the long drive."

Newell said he has some experience with hurricanes and boarded up his home before he left Corpus Christi. He experienced a hurricane as a child and said it was a lot like camping out. The last one was Hurricane Brett in 1999, which he said had a lot of wind and rain, but that was all.

"As far as sitting through the eye of a storm, no," Newell said.