Hurricane season 2021: Texas prepares for a busier than average hurricane season
Forecasters expect up to 20 tropical storms with strength sufficient to earn names this year.
AUSTIN — Hurricane season officially starts Tuesday, but the first warning shot has already been fired and forecasters are predicting higher than normal activity in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico this year.
The silver lining to that ominous storm cloud is that experts expect this year to be not quite as busy as last year. And the message for Texas leaders is, don't take any unnecessary chances.
"Now is the time to make a plan to protect yourself and your property in the event of a hurricane," Gov. Greg Abbott said in a public service announcement shared on social media.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this month said that 13 to 20 storms with strengths sufficient to warrant official names can be expected this season. If that forecast holds true, it would be the sixth straight year.
This year's first storm, Ana, made its appearance a full week before the arbitrary June 1 kickoff of the season. It was headed toward Bermuda but never mounted an actual threat to anyone on land before fizzling out in the Atlantic on May 23.
State Rep. Todd Hunter, a Corpus Christi Republican whose Coastal Bend district was locked in the crosshairs of Hurricane Harvey in 2017, said many residents and businesses along the Gulf have still not fully recovered. But, he expressed confidence the state will have the resources needed to respond to any weather emergencies this year.
"Texas is ready. I think our communities are ready," Hunter said. "I mean, the great thing about the Coastal Bend, is they've been on the hurricane battlefield."
State Rep. Armando Martinez of Weslaco, who lives about an hour's drive from South Padre Island, worries that many communities in the Lower Rio Grande Valley are not fully prepared for the flooding that often occurs when hurricanes and tropical storms move inland.
"We're not ready. We're never ready," Martinez said. "I think we can plan as much as we want. I think when it comes to response, as far as first responders and making sure that, you know, people are saved, yes. But when it comes to money and drainage issues, and we're not there."
"It's important that we all plan together and work together year-round so we're not meeting each other for the first time on game day," he said.
Jeff Saunders, director of the statewide emergency-response group, Texas Task Force 1, agreed.
The task force is based out of Texas A&M University in College Station. But the emergency response command center is headquartered in Austin where technicians and decision-makers from nearly every state agency huddle in a sprawling room outfitted with scores of computer screens and TV monitors for a 360-degree view of the unfolding events.
In past hurricanes, as well as in other emergencies, Abbott has been something of an omnipresent figure receiving real-time reports from both the operations center and from the field. It is not unusual for the governor to remain in close contact with federal authorities in an effort to minimize duplication and excessive bureaucracy.
"We actually build our entire training schedule around June 1," Saunders said. "By starting training in, in June and ending it at the end of May, it means that the most people that we have on the team are completely qualified and deployable."
Training over the past 15 months has been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in-person, close-quarter drills, Saunders said. But, he said, the readiness level for the 250 people who are part of the task force that specializes in search-and-rescue operations remains high.
Teams are outfitted with state-of-the-art watercraft and helicopters. Teams also work with trained dogs to find people trapped among rubble, or who have died in the storm, Saunders said.
"We, we are considered to be leaders in our craft," said Saunders, who leads one of the 28 federal teams under the purview of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's national urban search and rescue system.
"The last thing to say is even with COVID and, and the fact that we have curtailed training, we deployed over 20 times last year," Saunders said. "And those 20 deployments were real-world scenarios within the state of Texas, and the United States. And those people that were deployed last year will be the same ones deployed this year."
As well-trained and capable as his teams are, Saunders said, they still need the public's help whenever weather emergencies strike.
"Pay attention to the local government announcements, he said. "And if there's any announcement for an evacuation, please follow it."
John C. Moritz covers Texas government and politics for the USA Today Network in Austin. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @JohnnieMo.