Polk County Enterprise - Local News
Stories Added - September 2008
Copyright 2008 - Polk County Publishing Company
What happens inside the county EOC?
Polk County Enterprise - September 2008
by James Baugh
LIVINGSTON – With the winds of Hurricane Ike long gone and cleanup efforts well under way a lot of people are still wondering, “What exactly does the Offi ce of Emergency Management do during a disaster?” To answer these questions one has to look at the leadership of the Polk County Offi ce of Emergency Management. The person at the helm of the county’s emergency operations is County Judge John Thompson who works as Director of Emergency Management. It is Thompson’s responsibility to make certain that the county has made adequate preparations in the event of a disaster. Thompson is the only county offi cial authorized to declare a disaster, to request federal or state assets for the county and works with Emergency Management Coordinator Kenneth Hambrick to have essential personnel staged and ready prior to a disaster.
“For better or worse, though, I’m more of a hands on person,” said Thompson. “If I’m going to be involved I want it all the way. I’m changing toilet paper rolls and doing whatever else needs to be done.” Thompson described the process from beginning to end as pre-event, event, search and rescue and then receovery. “It’s my job to be asking, ‘What is the next thing on our constituents’ minds?’ and to be one step ahead of that. The game changes rapidly and is always throwing you curves. We didn’t completely drop the ball on anything. Maybe a stutter step or two.” Public Information Offi cer Marcia Cook expands on the details of the judge’s responsibility, reminding that he is not only responsible for Polk County but is also the head of the 12-county DETCOG Multi- Agency Coordination Center (MACC) which is run from the local EOC.
“He is working on behalf of Polk County to a huge extent but he does the same type of work in the MACC. When we work together as a 12-county region we get heard by the state.” “We are here for the residents of Polk County,” said Cook. “In a previous issue The Enterprise quoted me as saying, ‘residents need to network with their neighbors and fend for themselves,’ but that is not accurate. I didn’t say that and the county will always be here to fend for its citizens. Yes, people need to be prepared for the fi rst 72 hours but the reason we have search and rescue and emergency response teams is for those people who are unable to help themselves.” The fl ow of information was a sticking point in the minds of many Polk Countians and it was one area where Cook and Thompson both conceded more could have been done to inform the public of what was being done and when. “We need to have someone specifi cally dedicated to public service announcements,” said Cook.
The need for continually updated emergency contact numbers was an issue raised during Ike and one that will receive attention in the coming after-action meetings. Another area of weakness was the confusion over point of distribution (POD) locations for FEMA commodities and Cook felt like they would be pre-determined next time. “In the beginning we didn’t get the fl ow we needed to supply our 12-plus PODs and sometimes things have to be changed as you go – one of our sites was fl ooded,” said Thompson. “Polk County had more POD sites than the other 11 DETCOG counties combined,” said Thompson. “In fact, we have over 12 sites in Polk County compared to 20 for all of Harris County. That was because of a concerted effort on our part. The state would have sent one to be set up in Livingston but we balked at that, so they were going to set up three – one in Livingston, one in Onalaska and one in Corrigan.
That wasn’t acceptable; that’s not how we operate. Our volunteer fi re departments want to take care of their own and in every case where we can we do.” That level of dedication is what amazed Thompson and Cook the most. Those sentiments were echoed by everyone interviewed for this story. With 330 county employees, 240 had some level of damage to home or property and 3 have no home left. Of those three, Thompson said, two are department heads or team leaders and never left their assigned post at the EOC. “They never missed a shift. It’s hard to keep your mind on other people’s business when you’ve got business of your own, but these folks did,” he said.
Essential personnel representing every area of city, county, regional, state, law enforcement, medical and emergency response, game wardens, forestry service and more were staged overnight at the Emergency Operations Center. HAM radio operators were at the ready to provide communications when the inevitable power outage occurred and took phone and cell service with it. The center had two generators to power the operation – one more than during Hurricane Rita – and one of the generators crashed and the entire building was run by the remaining one. The kitchen that normally provides about 400 meals per day to the Department of Aging Services was ramped up to provide 1,700 meals to the first responders – firefighers, police, highway patrol, game wardens, National Guard troops, Red Cross and Salvation Army workers, county employees staffing the EOC and state and federal representatives on the scene.
The EOC coordinated out-oftown state troopers, National Guard and game wardens who came to work alongside local crews. The facility housed the National Guard troops who were on site to help with POD setup and commoditiy distribution. Red Cross workers were tucked into every nook and cranny on cots and a portable shower facility was set up so that everyone could keep fresh and the area didn’t have to be declared a biohazard. While workers sat in waiting at the EOC, hundreds more were stationed around the county in city offices, volunteer fire departments, ambulance stations and shelters. The volunteer fire departments were part of the search and rescue effort that traversed every street and road, paved or not, in the county, assessing and recording damage and providing triage to victims of the storm.
They returned detailed reports to the EOC so that volunteer chainsaw crews lead by local pastor Larry Shine could be dispatched to remove trees from homes and patch roofs with tarps provided by FEMA. Texas Forest Service officials ran the PODs along with inmates, National Guard, fire department and other volunteers. As soon as communications were restored conference calls between the county EOC and outlying areas began, with precinct commissioners, city mayors and representatives, emergency workers and other essential personnel all linked in from around the county so that no one had to leave critical stations to meet.
All of this is a vast improvement over the initial response to Hurricane Rita when the area was plagued by an influx of some 15,000 evacuees, no pre-established lines of communication between local, county, state and federal representatives, and the near nonexistence of fuel. “We are all better trained, “ said Thompson. The judge, along with dozens of county and city employees have spent countless hours at training sessions across the state and around the nation, preparing for just the sort of disaster Hurricane Ike became. “One of my instructors from Texas A&M was on site during much of the last week, observing to see if what he is teaching is actually viable in the real world. Having that instant feedback and wealth of information and contacts at our disposal was invaluable. I feel like I’ve gained another month’s worth of training in the last week.” Jay Burks, Director of Maintenance and Engineering for the county said the biggest improvement he’s seen is in organization and learning from Rita.
“Before we didn’t understand what the government wanted, what forms had to be completed or in what order and that was hard to learn while doing. This time we knew what the proper channels were and what forms to fill out for who and when to make sure the county is reimbursed.” The newly equipped Emergency Operations facility provided an oxygen exchange system and worked with Emergency Medical Services to supply residents in need. This alone was a huge change from Rita when the hospital was unable to provide tanks after their initial supplies ran out and highways were too clogged for delivery trucks to get into the area.
The county also had a better fuel supply than during Rita with more storage capacity and more reliable supply lines. At one point the county was down to a 24-hour supply of diesel but through the extensive network of contacts the judge, commisioners and other emergency workers have established since Rita, the fuel arrived in time and operations continued without a hitch. The logistical center worked well also, according to Cook and Thompson. “The questions range all over the place – from the very simple to the complex – but they are all important,” said Thompson. The Emergency Operations Center is still open until the emergency declaration has ended and power has been restored to all areas. Beginning Sept. 19 the office is only staffed from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. but Polk County residents can still call 936-327-6826 and receive assistance with Ike-related questions and concerns.”
Sheriff Kenneth Hammack said the EOC is “organized chaos, but things are handled logically with tasks being routed to appropriate people and questions from the EOC passed down to the sheriff’s office.” Not everything went as well as planned and Thompson places the blame on a huge breakdown at the state level. The Regional Staging Area in Lufkin initially received five trucks to supply all 12 counties in the DETCOG but that was eventually ramped up and on Wednesday the county received 15 semi-trailer loads of commodities, Thursday they recceived 22 truck loads and by early next week the trucks should be able to be diverted to Liberty County where residents have been looking to the South Polk County, Big Thicket Lake Estates and Goodrich PODs for assistance. As far as things Thompson would like to see implemented prior to any future disasters are generators for every water system in the county, the hospital – which operated on emergency generators procurred by Thompson through the MACC – and nursing homes. “I think public-private partnerships are where people should look.
The private sector with some government oversight could solve some of these supply line issues. Brookshire Bros and Polk Oil were at the fuel desk at the State Operations Center and that worked great. Taco Bell and Sonic brought us everything they had before it spoiled – we ate tater tots until we were nearly sick of them,” he laughs. “But it was everyone working together. Ike was twice as bad as Rita as far as damage sustained but we had no fatalities. The cool weather helped also, helped keep tempers cool. When you’re working in that close proximity around the clock for days on end, things can get, well – it’s good we had the cool weather.”
When asked why folks in Polk County are better off this time around with the EOC in place, Thompson responded, “We are there to try and figure out how to provide as many of the services under disaster conditions as are there normally. And when we can’t - how do we come up with the best approximation. Keep things as close to normal as possible – things we take for granted. When those things are gone our job is to figure out the next best option.”