One year after Hurricane Harvey, emergency response teams in Texas have learned valuable lessons about the importance of seamless communication and teamwork between separate rescue entities.
A major force that local Emergency Operations Centers in Texas will often need to be able to coordinate with is Texas Task Force 1 Urban Search and Rescue. TX-TF1 is comprised of trained first responders, sanctioned as one of 28 federal teams under the Federal Emergency Management Agency. More than 250 TX-TF1 personnel were deployed along the coast during Harvey, working with various federal, state and local groups.
"The best story for Texas Task Force 1 [out of Harvey] was the overall result of teamwork with other partnering agencies," said TX-TF1 Director Jeff Saunders.
Saunders noted that the task force has been operating in the areas affected by Harvey for 10 to 15 years, and responders have become familiar with many of the most frequent flood spots.
"The big snag with Harvey was that the storm didn't act like a normal hurricane," he said. "It hit about four different times and in several different places."
TX-TF1 and assisting agencies received an outstanding performance review from the federal government following Harvey, according to Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp. The given high score of 99, he said in a video from the A&M System's YouTube account, is considered the highest score ever given to a rescue operation.
"[This] bolsters our argument that Texas Task Force 1 and the folks who work with Task Force 1 are the best in the country," he said.
Duane Strange, emergency management coordinator for Burleson County, was commander of the area's Emergency Operations Center, or EOC, during Harvey. He and a small handful of county sheriff's deputies hunkered down as a group to provide local firefighters and law enforcement officers with a base of operations to consult. Though first responders acted independently with their respective departments, the EOC was available to provide them with any necessary equipment from the state, such as boats, and to offer updated storm information from Austin. The EOC also ensured individual residents of Burleson County had power, groceries and were not stranded in their homes and vehicles. County commissioners and state troopers would drive the rain-soaked roads and report back to Strange and his team.
"For us, the big deal was keeping up with areas that were flooded," Strange said. "We needed to keep those roads closed and get that closure information out to the public. We also had to get that and weather information to our first responders."
Strange said that for Burleson County, Harvey wasn't much of a challenge because the area sits far enough north that rains and winds were not particularly damaging. A few people did have to deal with vehicles stranded in flooded streets, but no homes were recorded as having any flood damage. Strange explained that first responders in the county were already well aware of pastures, creeks and streets that are known to flood. Homes are not built on those flood planes, and responders could easily identify and close off those areas.
Strange said Harvey was not without its teachable moments, however. After Harvey, Strange and his team realized that they needed to be better connected to locals who want to volunteer their assistance. The EOC is now working with area churches to prepare for the quick setup of shelters, and for hosting the American Red Cross. WildHorse Resource Development also donated a drone with camera to assist locals with visibility in water rescues.
Despite rescue efforts being executed so well, Saunders pointed out that there is room for these large agencies to grow and improve.
"One of the biggest things we learned was how to determine where volunteers and other rescuers are," he said. "How do we account for them?"
Saunders gave the example of the efforts of Louisiana Cajun Navy, a nonprofit rescue organization who rushed to help their Texas neighbors during Harvey. He said the group hadn't checked in with a Task Force 1 sanctioned group, so there was some overlap in rescue and relief work. The federal government has recently been working to unite task forces, military units, Community Emergency Response Teams [CERTs] and operations centers on a centralized online platform, he said.
In June, TX-TF1 joined forces with the Texas Military Department, National Guard, Coast Guard and Navy, Texas Department of Public Safety and state Forest Service for a mass search and rescue training event in Austin known as SAREX. About 200 people from 31 agencies with 21 helicopters practiced rescue missions in what Sharp estimated was the largest such exercise in U.S. history -- all a response to the mass effects of Harvey's wake.