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Texas' Division of Emergency Management
prepares for crises

Ready for Anything?

Since September 11, on television screens and in the streets, Americans have watched their emergency workers--police officers, firefighters, search and rescue teams, doctors, nurses, the military and social workers--work superbly at tasks that are always difficult and often dangerous. If anything good has come from the tragedy, perhaps it's a new realization of the debt owed to these men and women.

In Texas, coordinating the emergency services' response to natural and manmade disasters is the responsibility of the Governor's Division of Emergency Management (DEM), which is directed by the Texas Department of Public Safety. DEM's 74-member staff does its job with the help of the State Emergency Management Council, a group of 30 state agencies as well as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army.

"The DEM is the state's first emergency response team, whether the emergency is manmade or nature-made," says Ray Sullivan, Gov. Rick Perry's deputy chief of staff. "If there is a tornado touching down in the middle of the night or a bridge collapse, like we saw earlier this year at Port Isabel, the DEM alerts the governor and helps coordinate the state's response."

"We try to ensure that the state's response to disasters is coordinated at the state level and make sure it's efficient so local governments get the support they need," says DEM head Tom Millwee. "We are here to augment local governments and their staffs in emergencies, but it is the local governments who are ultimately responsible for their own areas."

Disaster districts
The DEM operates through 21 "disaster districts" across Texas to give local governments quick access to state resources during disasters. Each district has its own Disaster District Committee made up of local representatives of the agencies comprising the State Emergency Management Council.

Local governments make requests for assistance through these committees. DEM responds with security and law enforcement, firefighting, communications, search and rescue, evacuation, health and medical resources, human services, environmental assessments, engineering services, air operations, crisis counseling and donations.

DEM's annual budget, made up of state and federal funds, is about $7 million. The division distributes about half to local governments to help them plan, prepare and train for emergencies, and respond and recover whenever one occurs.

Requests for assistance go to the division's Emergency Operating Center (EOC) in Austin. The EOC, which is staffed 24 hours a day, is an underground facility used to coordinate state response through local EOCs in each of the 21 Disaster Districts. Millwee told a Texas Senate committee that the state EOC has been activated about 150 times each year since 1996.

Texas weather
While terrorism is on the public's mind these days, Texans know that their weather can be frightening enough. According to the National Weather Service, Texas leads the nation in tornadoes, experiencing an average of 125 a year between 1950 and 1998. Moreover, between 1900 and 1999, Texas was second only to Florida in its number of direct hits by hurricanes, with 37 hits compared to Florida's 60.

DEM funnels federal aid to local communities struck by such disasters. From 1981 to 2000, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awarded about $174 million to Texans through its Individual and Family Grant (IFG) program, which is designed to help people who do not qualify for Small Business Administration loans. FEMA provides 75 percent of the funding, with the state responsible for the remaining 25 percent. Since the early 1990s, the program has more than doubled in size, according to Millwee.

"FEMA has so far disbursed $212 million for the damage caused by Tropical Storm Allison, which means the payments for this one storm surpasses all this program's payments [to Texas] over the previous 20 years," Millwee says.

From 1981 to 2000, DEM also distributed about $151 million in federal and state funding for public assistance and the repair and restoration of infrastructure.

In the aftermath of a presidential disaster declaration, DEM also channels assistance from the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant program. Since 1987, Texas has received about $43 million in federal funding for this program. The 75 percent/25 percent split between federal and state funds used for IFGs also applies to this program, which is intended to eliminate or reduce the impact of future disasters. Most of the program's funding has been used to buy structures located in floodplains. Damage from Allison should result in grants of about $231 million for Texas.

Future emergencies
With all its experience in handling natural disasters, is DEM prepared for a manmade disaster, such as a terrorist attack?

"I think so, but there is a difference," says Millwee, who serves on Gov. Rick Perry's Task Force on Homeland Security. "When a hurricane is brewing off the coast, we get some warning. With a terrorist attack, there is no warning.

"Regardless of the triggering event, whether it's natural or manmade, I believe we are prepared to do what is necessary. For example, if a building collapses, through faulty construction or as a result of a terrorist act, people still need to be rescued and we have people trained to do that. We have an urban search and rescue team of 70 people that we sent to New York City at their request."

DEM also has experience with Hazardous Materials Response Teams, Millwee says.

"They are ready to move in case of an attack, just as they are ready to move each day to deal with chemical spills and industrial accidents," he says. "Another example is in the area of bio-terrorism. In the case of a biological weapons attack, our own professionals in the lead health care agencies would start to detect and treat individuals exposed to a biohazard."

Dennis Perrotta, Texas' state epidemiologist, agrees, but with reservations.

"I agree we have systems in place and people who are trained to respond to events, but I remain concerned we may not have sufficient numbers of those resources to deal with a very large biological-related event," Perrotta says. "While [the Texas Department of Health] has dozens of epidemiologists on staff, we have only about six trained in the area of biological terrorism. We need more, and we've asked for additional funding to help begin to cover a state as large as Texas."

To increase the state's level of preparedness, the Comptroller's office also has recommended the Legislature create 10 highly trained regional response teams capable of responding quickly to terrorist attacks or natural disasters.

New money
According to Ray Sullivan, Millwee and DEM have been especially busy since September 11 working with state agencies and local governments to make sure Texas is prepared for any eventuality.

"The good news is DEM has been training and preparing for terrorist attacks for more than two years, so they have a head start on dealing with what has unfortunately become reality in parts of the country," Sullivan says.

In the wake of September 11, DEM will receive up to $1 million to assess the state's risks from terrorism and distribute detailed information on security and biohazards to local officials, state agencies and public utilities.

The division also will conduct additional training programs for local personnel around the state in how to respond to terrorism. DEM also created a Web site www.txdps.state.tx.us/dem/ that explains the importance of devising a "family disaster plan" and lists the items that belong in a disaster supply kit, along with information on anthrax and other potential threats.

"Ever since 1996, in the aftermath of Oklahoma City, we have been determining what the state needs and what Texas cities need to be better prepared," Millwee says. "For example, we know DEM needs more personnel in the field to help local governments identify risks and prepare for emergencies, train personnel through instruction and exercises, and respond and recover when disasters hit.

"As we prepare now for the possibility of terrorism in Texas and as funding becomes available, the state is identifying what additional personnel, equipment and training we need, but preparation isn't static. We're never going to be able to stop and say we've done it all. It's a dynamic process that is ongoing."

Pam Wagner