Emergency management in Galveston County is excellent, very professional; in Galveston it is precarious, at best.
This is a review of emergency management in the City of Galveston for the past quarter century.
Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas has received national acclaim for her recognition that no provision had been made to evacuate people with special needs, and her actions to correct the lack. She managed a successful evacuation, on short notice, for Hurricane Rita. The evacuation from Galveston was successful, despite the roadblock caused by the evacuation of Houston.
Otherwise Galveston's emergency management during the Rita crisis appeared to be frantic. When the scare began, Thomas and the city's public information spokesperson were unavailable. Guidry News Service was answering requests for media interviews from Canada and Europe, because they could not connect with a person at City Hall who would talk to them.
It was not until members of the local media confronted Thomas in the hall as she moved from one behind-the-scenes meeting to another, that a positive change occurred. Thomas seemed shocked at our consternation and decided to begin having daily news briefings.
Thereafter, Thomas became a media superstar, in the very best sense of the word. She represented Galveston well on the national and international stage and deserves the accolades.
The Galveston Fire Department and other emergency responders also came off as international heroes.
However, the response could have been much better. Standard operating procedures that had been in place for years were being revised on the spot, with firefighters stationed at the San Luis Hotel on the Seawall and told to remove their gear because they would not go out again until the storm passed. When the decision was made to reverse that policy to save Postoffice Street from becoming a conflagration, a decision was also made to change shifts; and the new firefighters manning the trucks had to step over the previous shift's boots and gear.
Also, the city had moved its emergency operations center into the San Luis. The hotel has windows that are designed to collapse in hurricane force winds. The building lost power during the night the storm moved in.
That's why I spent Rita in the Galveston County Emergency Operations Center in League City, a new building designed to withstand a category 5 hurricane, with excellent backup power and broadband.
"We had a lot of people after Rita bragging about how much better we did than New Orleans," said former Kemah mayor, and probable candidate for Houston mayor, Bill King, in a speech to the Texas City-La Marque Chamber of Commerce on May 4, 2007. "Let me tell you what, the only difference between us and New Orleans is they got hit and we didn't."
Well, it happened again. The only difference between us and Port Arthur is that they got hit and we didn't.
But we did get brushed! At 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, September 12, I emailed Jim O'Donnel at the Jamaica Beach Weather Observatory (who provided excellent reports throughout the emergency) to add my laptop to his email distribution list, as I was concerned that we were about to lose power due to tropical storm force winds. I have been through a few storms and I was sure that this was a major blow about to hit.
However, within minutes the high winds subsided. The storm had begun its move up the Texas Gulf Coast to make landfall at High Island, in Galveston County, with full category 1 hurricane force winds.
Guidry News Service followed the storm through Port Arthur, where my brother Carl's home and his Guidry News Service office were in the direct path of the eye of the storm.
This storm surprised everyone, in a variety of ways. It grew from nothing to a hurricane in record time. It also maintained its full force as a hurricane after landfall and as it moved through Southeast Texas to Southwest Louisiana. Because it was "tightly knit", its 30-mile hurricane force area caused damage that some thought was caused by tornadoes.
Until it made its move eastward, Humberto festered just 40 miles offshore from Galveston. Had the storm done as expected and moved into the Galveston and Houston area with (unexpected) hurricane force winds, we now would be picking up the pieces and comparing notes on when our electricity had been or would be restored.
City of Galveston officials would be answering questions about why the emergency operations center was not activated.
Galveston County activated its EOC and was available around the clock to answer questions from the public and news media.
Galveston has a history of indecision concerning hurricane preparedness and response.
After the 1980 evacuation in anticipation of category 5 Hurricane Allen left thousands of motorists stranded in traffic where they would have had little protection if the storm had followed them, many said that a call for a mass evacuation would not be heeded again.
Then came Alicia in 1983, when city officials downplayed the threat and did not recommend evacuation. The city lost power and a backup generator failed; and communication with the public and with the news media was poor. A bright spot was KGBC Radio. Vandy Anderson, who stayed on the air and provided information throughout the storm, also dispatched ambulances over the station's airwaves.
Former Galveston city manager Doug Matthews, who was assigned the job of emergency management coordinator after Alicia by former mayor Jan Coggeshall, has related many problems with pre-Alicia hurricane planning in speeches he has given. He took a professional approach to his new assignment and developed procedures to "manage the storm".
Using funds donated by citizens and businesses, Matthews built a state-of-the-art emergency operations center. He brought in critics of the previous emergency management operation to help him develop new standard operating procedures.
His procedures were posted on the wall of the EOC. At the top of the list was activation of the EOC, at least with a minimal crew, whenever a tropical storm is in the Gulf of Mexico.
Matthews knew the importance of being available to answer questions from the public and the media. Matthews also was unique in that he recognized the importance of the local media, and was careful to avoid telling more to the national media in those Seawall interviews than he had already shared with the local media and the local residents.
Following Matthews, the emergency management office has lacked intensity and dedication.
When Tropical Storm Frances moved ashore in 1998 and devastated West End beaches, the emergency operations center was not manned. In fact, the emergency management coordinator had held a graduation ceremony for police and EOC dispatchers the day before, away from City Hall; and complained that a Houston television station wanted to interview him about the tropical storm.
That was the first time I could recall that a call to the EOC was answered by a recording during a tropical storm. It has been more likely than not since then.
During the early morning hours as Frances moved ashore Guidry News Service received an email from Mike Mulvilhil, manager of Sea Isle on West Galveston Island, pleading for help. The tides had risen with the tropical storm so that all residents of the West End were trapped in their stilted homes. Not only had West End residents not been advised that they might want to spend the night behind the Seawall, as Matthews would have done, the telephone at the EOC was not answered while trapped residents called for help.
The emergency management coordinator was offended by criticism of his handling of the emergency, replying that Frances was only a tropical storm, not a hurricane.
That man is gone, but he has been followed by some losers. One emergency management coordinator took a scheduled vacation during August, and missed a storm event. Another time, the city's public information officer took advantage of reduced cruise fees (reduced because of the threat of a hurricane) and was on a cruise during the storm.
I have not named the officials I criticize. They are all good people who thought they were doing adequate work.
I will name the person who has done the most to make Galveston County a safer place: County Judge Jim Yarbrough.
Filling the vacuum left when Matthews moved out of City Hall, Yarbrough created a well-trained team of emergency management professionals and provided them with 21st Century equipment and facilities; and united all of the cities in the county in a cooperative program.
Prior to Yarbrough's initiative, the county emergency operations office was very weak and was not allowed to participate with the City of Galveston program. Yarbrough established a system that brings "decision makers" from each of the 13 cities in the county to the table, either in person or through conference calls.
Galveston's participation has been reluctant at times, but the city did agree to assign then mayor pro tem Joe Jaworski to the county EOC during Rita, in case Mayor Thomas was unavailable, and he was able to correct the national news media that was reporting the fire on Postoffice Street as being on The Strand. The city's EOC at the San Luis was without power at the time. The lights at the county's EOC never flickered. Thus, the backup proved very valuable.
Guidry News Service was at the commissioners court meeting last Wednesday when Yarbrough learned that a tropical depression had formed offshore. The county and Guidry News Service immediately moved into action.
The county activated its EOC; but the City of Galveston did not. The county emergency management team stayed on the job around the clock, moving immediately on Thursday morning to assist residents on the Bolivar Peninsula who did not escape the hurricane. The City of Galveston picked up palm fronds and forgot about the storm.
At the city council meeting following Humberto, just 17 hours after the winds on Galveston Island subsided when the storm moved to the east, there was hardly any mention of the hurricane. Only Dianna Puccetti, a seasoned and dedicated public servant, expressed gratitude for being spared and offered her best wishes for our neighbors in Southeast Texas who weathered the brunt of the storm.
This essay is critical by its very intent, and it is not the first time I have been critical of Galveston's emergency management. It is my hope that my concerns will contribute to a positive improvement.
At the very least, I hope that the City of Galveston agrees to activate its emergency operations center whenever there is a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico.