Saturday, September 06, 2008

Greeting Hurricane Gustav in Texas

Last week Wednesday
"Please update your availability to deploy for Hurricane Gustav"

Thursday:
"Can you deploy for Hurricane Gustav? I'll get back to you with an assignment."

Friday 1430:
"Book the first available flight to Tyler, TX. You will be a government liaison. Call me when you have flight information."

I've been spending the past week in Tyler, TX volunteering for the Red Cross responding to Hurricane Gustav. It has been a hectic week, almost all of it spent inside a state operations center here starting from morning until late at night. I joke it is my first Red Cross deployment, it is for a hurricane, and I never got wet.

Tyler, TX is in northeast Texas, and while it did not get hit by Hurricane Gustav, its partner city, Beaumont, did. And in the first test of the Texas evacuation plan, all evacuees from Beaumont were sent to Tyler. The center I was in was responsible for state of Texas resources in 20 counties in northeast Texas, who were housing evacuees from various parts of the Texas coast around Beaumont and Galveston. It is a massive burden, as the receiving counties are not nearly as densely populated as their coastal partners. Red Cross and locally sponsored shelters had 5000+ evacuees, and every hotel and motel room in the region was booked, mostly with evacuees. And they have to be fed, medical needs met, and issues of all sorts that happen when you have this large a population over any period of time. And then, when the all clear comes, everyone that evacuated with help from the state, needs to get back.

Does it work? Like all concepts that are implemented for the first time there are kinks, but everyone here looks pleased by the end result, and much better then last time around (2005). Evacuees were around people from the same place as them, and it was easier to organize the transporation back, as people in one shelter were going to the same destination point along the coast. Still, I submitted a 5 page report with some issues, and everyone has been told to do the same, quickly, because there is another hurricane on the way.

It was a good place to work. Incident Command System (ICS) works, I had my role, and I fit into the team here pretty much seamlessly. Like all operations, there is a lot that is learned everytime you go on one in a different place. It gets hectic. Problems arise at the local level that were not anticipated (after all, this is a disaster). There are the information requests from higher up that are overly burdensome. And there are long hours trying to plan the next stage of the disaster response, which has to happen the same time you are working on issues in the here and now. And you have been doing this for N hours that day, with another M hours to go before you even think of sleep. Along with everyone else in the room who have been doing the same thing.

Deep thinking will have to wait. The last couple days were spent getting buses to people, people on buses, and buses moving south. And people arriving back home. And now, I head east, to Louisiana, where it seems like it was not so easy. Because, even though I've noticed that Hurricane Gustav is not on the news anymore (pushed off by Hurricane Hannah. We heard a reporter say "it may make a moderate category 1" and we all started laughing. A moderate category 1 can be experienced by driving on the highway with the windows open during a thunderstorm), Red Cross, police, medical, and military personnel are still helping those evacuees, feeding those who have returned to homes without electricity and gas, and helping hospitals who have their populations back, but are not operating at full themselves.
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