County Municipal Utility Districts Get Ready for 2009 Hurricane Season – Part I

31 07 2009

During 2008, Fort Bend County was impacted by Hurricane Ike.  Not impacted like Galveston or Chambers counties, but there was damage:  20 homes destroyed; 7,000 homes damaged; and 130,000 homes lost power, many for a period of weeks; and more than 750,000 cubic yards of debris to remove.  However, a very significant issue was discovered during the after action review following the storm.

Fort Bend County is generally defined as a “pass-through” County, though some parts of the County are as close as 30 miles from the Gulf Coast.  Our hurricane plans are based on the “shelter in place” concept.  We expect our residents to hunker down; stay off the roads; prepare themselves with food and water; and stay in their homes.  But, unlike coastal counties where residents flee and there is no real demand for utility service; the opposite is true in Fort Bend County.  Since we want our residents to stay in their homes, there is demand for water and sewer service and there is pressure on utilities to deliver their service as soon as the storm has passed.

In Fort Bend County, there are over 120 Municipal Utility Districts that are responsible for providing water and sewer service.  Power outages during Ike caused a myriad of problems because of the lack of electricity, causing sewage overflows on streets and non-potable water problems.  As Fort Bend County recovered from Hurricane Ike, needs assessments and After Action Reviews demonstrated that the County needeed improved communication between emergency management personnel and utility district operators and their boards of directors.  County Judge Robert Hebert stated the situation clearly at the Winter Conference of the Association of Water Board Directors when he stated:  “Fort Bend County has a very sophisticated emergency management system that runs from the State down to the Counties to the Cities to the Hospitals to the Schools.  During Ike, it did not run down to the Municipal Utility Districts.  It will in Fort Bend County during 2009 when we get to the Hurricane Season.”

It should be noted that Judge Hebert is not just any County Judge when it comes to matters related to water and sewer operations.  No county judge in Texas -or anywhere else for that matter -understands the role of municipal utility districts better than Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert.  Such districts were his business for many years; he was the founder of ECO Resources, now Southwest Water Company, one of the leading water operating firms in Texas history. He speaks water districts. And, as noted above, he directed the Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management to develop a comprehensive plan to get districts involved in county emergency planning.

In quick order, OEM staff developed the Fort Bend County Municipal Utility District Readiness Program.  The program is voluntary, but of course strongly encouraged.  Those that complete the requirements of the voluntary program area are cited as “NIMS Compliant First Responders.” They are provided a certificate and recognized at a meeting of the Commissioners Court.  Those that earn a certificate have earned the distinction by taking actions to become an integral part of the County’s emergency management network.

The program involves a series of actions to be taken by districts to make them more prepared for the 2009 Hurricane Season; improve communication between such districts and emergency management staff at the County and municipal level; and truly begin to make districts responsible for emergency management activities at its level of government. 

In my next blog entry, I will discuss the specifics of the Fort Bend County MUD Readiness Program.

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Volunteers Trained to Assist in County’s Emergency Operations Center

29 07 2009

Following the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management recognized the need for more support personnel in the Emergency Operations Centers.  An increase in trained personnel would increase the ability to effectively manage response and recovery efforts to scale events.  A review of several “after action reviews” by Department staff identified gaps in the existing staffing and skill levels and it was determined that most gaps could be filled with trained volunteers.  Because the existing pool of volunteers were heavily involved in local response support or otherwise assigned during events, the Office developed a new volunteer program; the Citizens Support Team (CST).

Citizens Support Team volunteers are used to support the duties and responsibilities assigned to operational, logistical and planning staff working in the Emergency Operations Center.  These individuals are trained in ICS applications and begin to learn skills for operating the EOC radio, communications and software applications.  A 24 hour curriculum was developed by our Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator, Planning Coordinator and other first response professionals.  This program was presented by Danny Jan, Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator, at the Homeland Security Conference in San Antonio.

CST volunteers are recruited from existing volunteer programs such as CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams) and EMROG (Emergency Management Radio Operators Group), as well as through other local programs such as Neighborhood Watch, Citizens Police Academies and through local advertising and promotion.  Volunteers are required to complete 24 hours of training, to include: Fort Bend County Geography 101, Emergency Management 101, Emergency Operations Plan 101, EOC Operations 101 and 201, and WebEOC 101.  Additionally, volunteers are required to complete FEMA’s IS 100 (Introduction to ICS) and 700 (NIMS: An Introduction) online and attend a SkyWarn class within one year of course completion. Forty-one members from two graduating classes have completed all requirements.

The purpose and mission of the Citizens Support Team is to aid and support the Office of Emergency Management and the Emergency Operations Center in the mission of preparing for, responding to, recovering from, or mitigating the effects of natural and technological disasters. The Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management Citizens Support Team has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to further enhance EOC capabilities in an inexpensive fashion by providing assistance to the preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery process. More specifically, volunteers were critical in our response and recover efforts to Hurricane Ike and worked in tandem with County personnel assigned to the EOC.  Some provided support services to division chiefs, while many worked in our phone bank answering calls or monitoring radio traffic.  Still others worked in technical positions, assisting with WebEOC or assisting the PIO with media requests.  As we continue to grow our response and recovery capabilities, our need for highly trained volunteers increases.  We continue to recruit and train volunteers into our Citizen Support Team and consider them as essential asset to the effective operation of our EOC. 

If you are interested in becoming a CST volunteer, please contact the Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management at 281-342-6185.  In fact, a new class should be starting in October 2009.





Missouri City Launches New Emergency Information Web Site

27 07 2009

From City of Missouri City Media Release (Released July 27, 2009):

With hurricane season underway, the City of Missouri City is continuing its emergency preparation efforts by launching a new emergency information Web site: missouricityready.com.

The new site will serve as a primary source of public information during any natural or man-made disaster affecting the City. A link to missouricityready.com is available on the City’s home page, http://www.missouricitytx.gov. In the event that the City’s main Web site is not functional during an emergency, missouricityready.com will operate as a secure source of information about the City’s response and recovery efforts.

As emergencies occur, missouricityready.com will be updated with specific information on those situations.

Missouri City is one of 30 government entities in the Houston metropolitan region that were each awarded grant funds to host their own emergency information sites – which are PIER, or Public Information Emergency Response, Web sites.

A Houston Urban Area Security Initiative grant has funded the City’s PIER site. The grant funds are coordinated through the Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management. The cost to the City to support missouricityready.com is $100 per month for hosting and technical services.

Residents and businesses can now utilize missouricityready.com to prepare for emergency situations. The site offers: tips and strategies for preparing homes, businesses and families for emergencies, including hurricanes; links to Web sites of other emergency management agencies; weather, traffic and other emergency alerts; information on handling special care needs or pets during disasters; and more.

The new Web site also allows visitors to sign up to receive via e-mail news releases and notifications of emergency situations affecting Missouri City. The City is working to offer subscribers an option to receive emergency notifications as text messages.

Check out the new site by going directly to missourcityready.com or visiting http://www.missouricitytx.gov and clicking on “Missouri City Ready” under “Quick Links” on the right-hand side of the home page. For more information, call 281-403-8500.





Using New Technology to Get the Message Out

26 07 2009

Along with others in the Houston Metropolitan Region, the Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management is initiating the use of state-of-the-art technology to manage emergency public information

The PIER System is a crisis communications system that conforms to the Homeland Security Department’s National Incident Management System/Incident Command System standard established in March 2004. The Public Information Emergency Response (PIER) System is a Web-based virtual communications center meant to foster emergency communications regardless of circumstance. Acting as a control center the PIER System speeds internal and external communications by centralizing all functions, including drafting and distributing public information. As such, the PIER System is a quicker, smarter, and more efficient use of technology to provide essential coordinated communication such as:

  • Log-in from anywhere with Internet access.
  • Communicate/collaborate with each other by e-mail and live “conference room” chat.
  • Write, vet, and approve joint news releases and other JIC documents using PIER’s built-in workflow processes.
  • Post JIC documents, photos, and video to JIC and agency websites.
  • Send JIC documents to pre-populated, internal and external stakeholder contact lists via e-mail, fax, or text-to-voice telephone notification.
  • Allow authorized Internal personnel to log-in and view detailed Situation Reports.
  • RSS/XML interoperability with other systems such as RIMS or WebEOC.
  • Allow media, public, and other stakeholders to submit Inquiries by e-mail, phone, or website.
  • Track and manage every Inquiry from submission to response and closure.
  • Provide full documentation and reporting of JIC activities for each Operational Period.

During Hurricane Ike, Fort Bend County deployed four PIER Sites in varying degrees of completion including Judges, Health & Human Services, Office of Emergency Management and Sheriff’s Office. PIER was able to pool together these sites to employ working parts of each site in order to provide quick Hurricane Response. Furthermore, the lack of power for an extended period of time contributed to a number of callers asking for a significant amount of information in a very short period of time soon after regaining power. PIER was able to deliver timely, storm-related information in the midst of Ike to Fort Bend County’s half a million residents. The system received over 600,000 hits and the EOC sent over fifty news releases and advisories.

Likewise, the County’s PIER System proved to be of significant value during the H1N1 Pandemic beginning in April 2009. The County utilized this technology to improve information provided to responders and citizens, receiving 1,000 hits per day from community members. PIER allowed for the creation of an information portal and was updated with case counts daily. The information page was monitored regularly and consisted of continuous updates from Central Disease Control, World Health Organization, and Health & Human Services.

Not only was PIER able to reach out specifically to the community, but also to a controlled and private population. Specifically for H1N1, a password protected section was created for Emergency Managers, Hospital personnel, and Mayors. This password protected site on PIER held County Conference calls and posted that such information. Relevant sections from the Emergency Operations Plan, full copies of Situation Reports, key contacts and phone numbers were all posted in this password protection site to provide vital information to a selective group of people. Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management continues to maintain these specific pages as there is still a demand for information.

Although this project is relatively new in its implementation it has proved to be a successful work in progress. The Office of Emergency Management has been working diligently to make improvements based on lessons learned.  The County hopes to be even better prepared to get critical information out to the public and first  responders during the 2009 Hurricane season and, also, if the H1N1 Flu Event flares back up this fall as it is expected to do.





Fort Bend County Facing “Exceptional” Drought

17 07 2009

Article published by FortBendNow.com, written by Bob Dunn, July 17, 2009

Withering after six weeks of dry weather reaching into at least the high 90s, more than half of Fort Bend County now is experiencing “exceptional” drought, and the rest faces “extreme” drought.  The National Weather Service predicts a 40% chance of precipitation over the weekend, but even a day’s hard rain is too little and too late to reverse the ruinous effects the heat wave has had on many local farmers’ crops.

Unfortunately, this year’s searing summer may be just the first of many more to come. A Texas A&M University climate expert believes summers such as this one will become more the norm than the exception.  Dr. Gerald North, a distinguished professor of atmospheric sciences and oceanography, told the university’s AgriLife News service that climate models show “the tropical climates will expand northward.”

Annual storm belts that have made June the wettest month of the year in Fort Bend and other Texas counties will begin flowing across counties to the north, North indicated. Counties below that storm belt will be left dry.”It could be just a fluke that persists for a decade,” North told AgriLife’s Robert Burns. “But my guess is that it’s here to stay, but with fluctuations up and down.”

More than 40 south and southeastern Texas counties, including Fort Bend, now are in “exceptional” drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.  Local farmers have begun harvesting field corn and sorghum with “marginal” yields, according to Texas A&M crop reports. Some of those fields were so burned out by the weather that farmers have begun baling the corn for hay.

Local pasture conditions now are rated “extremely poor,” and ranchers have been liquidating their herds as a result.  “Texas farmers and ranchers are some of the most resilient people I have ever known,” Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Stables said in a statement. “Our producers have been hit hard with a triple threat, starting with Hurricane Ike, then with our nation’s current economic calamity, and now one of the worst droughts our state has seen in years.  “We hope God will bless us with moisture to relieve some of the pressure facing our producers.”

Farmers looking for financial help in recovering from the drought my consider a low-interest emergency loan program offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency. Loans now at about 3.75% can be used for restoring or replacing property, family living expenses, production costs associated with the drought, reorganizing a farming operation and refinancing some debts.  Information on the program can be obtained by emailing Brenda Carlson, a public affairs specialist for the USDA.





Missouri City Seeking Funds for Construction of New Fire Stations

11 07 2009

As reported by Diane Tezeno, Fort Bend Sun newspaper, July 10, 2009:

Missouri City will be among cities across the nation applying for federal stimulus dollars to construct new fire stations.  Council members voted unanimously at the July 7 regular city council meeting to approve submission of an grant application under the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program.  The grant, funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, provides for construction or remodeling of fire stations to increase fire fighter and public safety.City manager Frank Simpson described the application as “a competitive grant.”  If approved, the city proposes to construct two new fire stations.

Two hundred and ten million dollars is available to area cities under the grant. 

“There is not a cost-sharing requirement to this grant, but an application is being submitted with a proposal of a 15 percent local match, said a city staff member.  One of the proposed stations will be located in the unincorporated portion of the city in Sienna Plantation and the second will be located in Teal Run, City Manager Frank Simpson said.  According to city background information, each jurisdiction is allowed to submit one grant not to exceed $15 million or $5 million per project.

If federal funds are awarded, they will cover the cost for construction of the station only.  The community will be responsible for the cost of furnishings, personnel, and equipment, including fire trucks.  Neither of the proposed facilities is expected to exceed $5 million, according to staff.

Awards are expected to be announced between Oct. 15 and Dec. 31, 2009.