Monday, September 26, 2005

Hurricane Rita: Post Landfall +48, The Misery Index Rises

Houston and Galveston dodged a bullet.  The coastal oil and gas industry didn’t take much damage.  There won’t be a five dollar gas, and we can all breath a sigh of relief.  Unless you live in East Texas where things remain bad and aren’t going to get much better for several days, maybe even weeks.  

We now face a cascading impact from the storm.  The storm has disrupted interconnected systems creating ripple effects throughout the region.  Power failures lead to water failures which lead to shelter failures.  Plus, we are having a record heat wave.  The cumulative effect is misery.

The State of Texas is now in a logistical fight.  How much logistical support can we generate in a short time to sustain thousands of people in a non-permissive environment?  Or do we start evacuating people again?

Here is the current situation:

  • Heat.  Without power for air conditions and limited water supplies, people are now at risk, especially the very young and very old.

  • Transportation and Fuel.  There are still severe fuel shortages and blocked roads in East Texas.  Fuel shipments are being moved in and consumed at soon as they arrive.  Local jurisdictions are struggling to keep emergency responders on the road.  Roads are still cut by debris or water causing relief shipments to be slow.  The National Guard has flown multiple rotary wing missions into the strike zone.  But, you can only “live off the hook” for so long.  

  • Power.  Several thousand customers remain without power and will remain so for up to three weeks.  This creates the largest cascading effect knocking out sewer and water supplies.  Life is untenable in Texas without air conditioning.  There is a tremendous need throughout the state for large generators to bring critical systems back on line.

  • Life Support Systems: Beyond sewage and water, other systems are out.  Hospitals and nursing homes remain without power, and drastic change in the storm forecast left many of them stuck.  Even those special needs/critical care people who got out the strike zone are now stuck in areas without power.  Think about all the elderly people that are on oxygen.  Without power, oxygen bottles can’t be filled so full cylinders have to be pushed into the strike zone.  There are also lots of dialysis patients.

  • Shelters.  I can imagine pure misery in the shelters.  No power, sewage, or water.  Limited food.  Texas did a great job of getting people out of the surge zone, but the cumulative friction of the last week left a large segment of the population in need.   There is a huge logistical push going on right now to re-supply small towns throughout East Texas, but it will take time.

  • Communications.  There are severe disruptions because of power outage and wind damage.  Emergency communications towers for fire, police, and EMS are knocked down.  Ditto cell phone towers.  Small, rural jurisdictions that have limited communications capacity to begin with are now effectively black holes.  The State sent representatives by air to many of the smaller communities to assess the situation.  That was the only way to be sure contact was made.

  • Special Needs.  Extra capacity in the state is already maxed out from Katrina.  There is now a state-wide scramble to find extra beds.

What’s happening at my location?

We’ve spent most of the day returning people to their homes.  We received many evacuees by bus so we undertook an effort to return them by bus.  Our shelter population has dwindled from a peak of 20,000 to about a thousand.  We are going to end up sheltering people from East Texas for at least another week.  

We still have many Katrina evacuees from the initial evacuation and some that we received from Houston and other areas.  Nobody is prepared to take them back because systems are beyond capacity.  Given, what Rita did to New Orleans, I think we can now officially say that we have refugees in this country.

What happens in the next 24-48 hours?

  • The State is evaluating what to do with the special needs population, especially the nursing home patients.  They will probably be moved to more tenable locations throughout the state.

  • The State might also set up more shelters outside of the strike zone and move people to them, especially those from the areas that will be without power the longest.

  • Vector control.  Mosquitoes will become a nuisance and then a potential health hazard.  Controlling them will become a priority.

  • The logistical effort will take shape and gain momentum, but it will take time.  This will be a coordinated local, state, and federal effort.

Friction Points:

  • Power.  It all comes down to how long it will take to restore power.

  • Katrina Evacuees.  We still have them locally and spread throughout the state.  Another disaster, this region will be severely taxed, maybe to the breaking point.

My Assessment:

We need improvement in communications.  Local, State, and the Federal government have spent millions on radio interoperability, and this is a smart effort.  But, not enough money has been spent on other forms of communications.  Perhaps we should start spending money on satellite voice and data communications.  I’d like to see satellite phones and data links in every county seat in Texas, especially in the rural jurisdictions that are the most vulnerable to having their communications cut.

We also need to re-vamp our special needs evacuation plans.  I’m not satisfied with the evacuations of nursing homes.  I think we did better than Louisiana and New Orleans, but not good enough.  Some people have commented on this blog that more regulation won’t solve this problem.  I’m not so sure.


At September 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are right on Sat. phones and data links. Every Police and Fire Chief in the state should have one. So should every Hospital, Nursing home, transit authority, and National Guard Armory. The state may have to pay for them in the smaller communities.

There should be no building or rebuilding below flood levels in areas flooded. That does not mean no building or rebuilding, it means raising the height of foundations above flood levels, keeping water heaters etc. above flood levels. This is done in other hurricane prone states and just makes sense. Another option is buyouts of flooded property. This may be the most efficient way to allow people to restart their lives.

Texas has done a good job in a bad situation. But the job still needs a lot of work.

At September 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This may be a really dumb idea, but: Remember those Carnival cruise ships that the US government leased for 6 months after Katrina? What about using one of them for special needs and/or for nursing home beds? You could pair it with a Navy medical ship to provide ready access to medical personnel, hospital equipment, etc.

At October 02, 2005, Anonymous Chris_Ogle said...

I definitely think that voice/data networks would help disaster coordination teams immensely.

There's a Texas state initiative to do just that. I don't remember who's setting it up at the state level, but I've attended a meeting on it at the county/city level in Houston.

In a nutshell, it's a statewide drive to get all law enforcement/first responder elements to subscribe to a similar set of standards for radio communications on the 800 Mhz range. That means, theoretically, that at the conclusion of the project, a local PD officer in Amarillo could directly call a Texas Parks & Wildlife officer on a boat offshore in Galveston.

In crisis situations, comms always seems to be the issue. If not radio comms or NEXTELs (which seem to be the comms platform of choice for lots of local, state, and fed officials), then satellite phones on the Iridium system would be a good call. The military has already invested a LOT of money into the Iridium system...granting state OEM folks access to the system doesn't seem like it would be a big deal.

It's actually a good thing for 2 reasons:
1) The Iridium system allows for strong encryption, which is vital for homeland security coordination efforts.
2) It's a VERY expensive system to maintain-- I think the cost of calls on it is somewhere in the $7.00/minute range...if states start to pay into it, it would make it much less expensive (and thus a more ubiquitous communication method) than it might otherwise be. I'm not sure if DOD would be too excited about sharing its bandwidth with civilian authorities, but I do think that if tightly controlled enough (maybe by DHS on the national level),a small number of civilian officials on the state level could be granted access to it for emergency management purposes.

My 2 cents...
Hope everyone had a good weekend!



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