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.