The Worst Is Yet to Come

Austin's Emergency Operations Center

A horror-stricken nation has watched for the past week as Oklahoma City rescue workers pull the injured and dead from the rubble of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building. And as the grieving faces of parents and spouses invade our homes on the evening news, it has become easy to wonder, could it happen here? What would happen in Austin during a worst case scenario? Imagine it's the middle of February, a few years from now, and instead of the fair winter weather we've enjoyed this year, the elements have been pounding Austin. After weeks of heavy rain, the upper Colorado River lake levels have risen to dangerous heights, the creeks running through town are swollen, and some lowwater crossings are already flooded. Then, suddenly, over a 48-hour period, all hell breaks loose.

A torrential downpour forces the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) to start releasing water from the lakes, flooding areas along lakes Travis and Austin, as well as Town Lake, while Austin's creeks overflow their banks. The temperature drops sharply as the wind gusts up to 20-30 miles per hour, tearing power and telephone lines from their poles. The rain freezes into an ice storm, blanketing the roads and causing more utility lines to fall. A tractor trailer skids into the center median of I-35 downtown, spewing debris across the highway and closing both the north- and southbound lanes. A fire breaks out in a Southeast Austin apartment complex and spreads quickly. A train hauling toxic chemicals derails near South Lamar, threatening to spill its load.

At the worst point, nearly half the city is without power, hundreds of homes and businesses are flooded, water mains and home water pipes have burst all over town, and our streets and highways, slick with ice, are nearly impassable, with auto accidents across the city to prove the point. Two days later, when the sun comes out, the water recedes, and the mess starts getting straightened out, the news is miraculous: Not one person died in the worst weather emergency in Austin history.

The above may be an almost implausible worst-case scenario, and the non-existent fatality rate perhaps wishful thinking, but it's a good bet that the folks in Oklahoma that day weren't expecting a terrorist attack on their city either. Thanks to the city's newly opened Emergency Operation Center (EOC), the prospects of the city taking such a hit and coming through it relatively unscathed are that much greater.

Long before that fateful, fictional day in February sometime in the future, representatives from city public safety agencies (police, fire, EMS) would already have gathered with other city and Travis County agencies and officials in a large room at the rear of the second floor of city hall on Eighth Street: Austin's EOC. The Office of Emergency Management (OEM) would start feeding data to the assembled officials: creek levels, rainfall measurements, the latest weather reports. When the situation reaches crisis level, the mayor, city manager, and agency heads gather at the EOC and situate themselves around a W-shaped table along with their counterparts from Travis County. Finally, the mayor declares a disaster and assumes his role as commander-in-chief.

If this were real life, one might find Mayor Bruce Todd and County Commissioner Bill Aleshire sitting across from each other, ready to bury the political hatchet and direct a coordinated city-county effort to evacuate flooded areas, and then transport the evacuees via Capital Metro buses to shelter in a number of AISD schools. fire chief Robin Paulsgrove might confer with Public Works Director Matthew Kite to make sure there's sufficient water pressure to fight the Southeast Austin apartment fire, then turn to a team of Fire, Police,
EMS, and railroad officials to ensure that the derailment doesn't turn into a toxic spill.

Police Chief Elizabeth Watson might then tap Paulsgrove's shoulder with a request for a fire truck at the I-35 tractor trailer accident, while Travis County Sheriff Terry Keel positions units at the north and south ends of the interstate to divert any traffic from the blocked highway. Decisions are made, resources allocated, and operations coordinated. Messages come in on telephone, radio, and computer, and go out in the same fashion. In the Public Information Office next door, live feeds to TV and radio keep the citizens of Austin and Travis County informed. What could have been a far worse disaster is minimized by centralized direction, coordination of efforts, and a battery of predictive systems, information banks, and communication pathways.

An Evolving Science

In the 1981 Memorial Day floods that left 13 people dead, the City of Austin did not have the sort of emergency management resources it does now, according to W. Steve Collier, director of the OEM. "There apparently was an office but they didn't get involved in that incident, and they just weren't too active.

"In the early days of emergency management, the focus at the federal level was basically nuclear attack," he explains. "There were a lot of people who were in these jobs who were retired military. We only get maybe 35% of our funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA], but because there was this federal tie and there were federal requirements, a lot of times they didn't end up being too responsive to peacetime situations."

Things are different now. Our new half-million dollar EOC (which opened in October) is not a place where Mayor Todd and the council can hunker in the bunker during a nuclear attack, if for no other reason than the building probably wouldn't make it. "We would not be in good shape," says Collier. But imagine almost any other calamity that could befall this Central Texas region, and the OEM has probably already considered the possibility and is prepared to deal with it.

Collier lists OEM's prime emergency concerns as "flooding, tornados and windstorms, hazardous materials incidents, utility outages. There could be a whole variety of things.

"For instance, we've asked LCRA for a study and evaluation on dam safety," he notes. "One question I have is: If there's a dam failure, how high would the water get in downtown Austin and what kind of things can happen? The chances, for example, of Mansfield Dam just crumbling aren't very high, but there are some failure modes that could let loose a lot of water, probably so much that it would come up not too far from here. So those are the things you keep in the back of your mind."

Last summer, for instance, the EOC was keeping its sensors peeled for grass and wildland fires like those that have plagued California in recent years. "Conditions were really ripe for that kind of fire," Collier explains.

During the 1980s, the city's still-nascent EOC was in the Brown Building on Eighth Street across from City Hall, but it finally had to relocate when the building was closed because it lacked the external fire escape required by code. (Ironic, considering that EOC is currently a division of the fire department.) By 1991, the facility was operating out of Fire Headquarters on Festival Beach Road when it dealt with its largest disaster to date: the flooding in December of that year.

"We had a lot of hazardous material incidents," explains Collier. "Town Lake came up, a barge broke loose and was floating downriver and we thought it was going to hit the dam. The airport had fuel tanks floating up out of the ground threatening to spill. We had water rescues, utility outages, and sheltering operations going on."

With all that happening, the EOC's cramped quarters at Fire Headquarters "obviously weren't big enough to handle what was going on," Collier recalls. When the city's Computer Center was moved from the second floor of City Hall, OEM took over the space and renovated it into the current EOC.

Sim City 1995

R. Scott Swearengin, Assistant Director of OEM, shows me the SoftRisk computer program that helps his team quickly gather and disperse information about an area of the city where an incident may occur. He asks me where I live: Travis Heights. "Okay, let's say a 747 decided to land in your backyard out there." He takes the mouse and - boom! - wipes out the blocks surrounding my home. "It might be a tornado, flooding, or other hazard that takes over this area. And we want to know more about what the hazards are in that area."

SoftRisk displays the nearest fire station, as well as such critical public facilities as schools, day care centers, and nursing homes that might need evacuation. With a click of the mouse button, the information about the incident is faxed to the commander in the field and to any other appropriate party. During all this, the computer image is projected onto a screen in front of the command table for everyone to see. It's much like the computer game Sim City, except it's our city, for real.

In addition to the SoftRisk program, they will soon be hooking up with a NEXRAD system - "the next generation in Doppler radar," explains Collier - out of New Braunfels, to monitor weather patterns. A large mounted map on the west side of the room monitors computerized rainfall, and stream level measurement systems operated by Stormwater Management and Public Works. Green lights denote rain sensors, red ones stream levels. When they start to flash, it's time to boogie.

"We have rapidly reacting watersheds," Collier notes. "You need to keep track of rain data, because by the time the creeks come up, there's already enough water going into those creeks that it's almost too late to get out there." In the last 15 years or so, Collier estimates, some 100 people in the Central Texas area have died after getting stuck in flooded, low-water crossings, making it a primary local hazard.

Each place at the command table has a special direct phone line to a division's operations center. As well, there are fax and modem lines, radio equipment, and another computer that will hook up with the city's 911 Computer Aided Dispatch system at Police Headquarters. A bank of carrels at the east end of the room provides work space for city and county department assistants, and outside agencies like the Red Cross and the National Guard. A small room at one end of the center can serve as a 16-operator hot-line phone bank, while another warren at the other end allows amateur radio operators (HAMs) to come in, hook up with external antennae, and offer their assistance in an emergency. TV monitors enable everyone present to view news reports and live feeds from an incident, and the Center boasts a collection of maps and aerial photos to aid them in their work. If power goes out, a 250-kilowatt diesel-fired generator kicks in. At any time, the center can fit up to 50 people working on an incident.

"People will come in here and think it's Star Wars when they look at stuff on projectors," Swearengin says. "But when you come down to it, it's some technology, it's some phones, computers, and a projector. There's nothing mysterious about it. It's just a place where we can all get together and work on things."

To Protect and Serve

"So often, Emergency Management is confused with the crazy people in the basement waiting for something weird to happen," chuckles Swearengin, "when in reality there is a lot of day-to-day coordination among the safety forces, maybe not the big one we all plan for, but those major events that come along from time to time that we all need to coordinate better on." Even when there are no emergencies, OEM holds its own drills and works with other city agencies on their emergency procedures.

"Emergency Operation Centers are very common. Most major communities have EOCs, sometimes several of them," Collier says. Austin's OEM employs five staffers: two planners and a secretary, in addition to Collier and Swearengin. Both men have backgrounds in EMS work (Swearengin is also a longtime HAM operator), helping the Austin OEM follow the national trend of being "customer oriented," as opposed to the more military approach of the Cold War years. Collier says his department runs on an annual $300,000-plus budget (not including personnel costs), and has included Travis County in the center "for a pretty modest cost," allowing for greater regional coordination.

Austin's new EOC, says Collier, is "fairly advanced, at this point. I think we've been behind the curve, but we're getting close to state of the art. Others have more support capabilities: showers, bunkrooms, multiple-day food supplies. Right now if we're going
to be here for 24 hours or more, we dial out
for pizza."

Although the EOC is something the city has but probably hopes it never has to fully use, it does stay busy. Generally, Collier notes, there's at least one major incident a year (although the new EOC has yet to be used for one) and some 20 or so smaller activations as well. In recent months, the EOC has been involved in coordinating such basic tasks as road closures by helping to disseminate information to the media.

"It's a very important function of the government that you only hear about a couple of times per year, but it still has to be there," concludes Swearengin. Or, as Collier sums it up, "It's low probability, high risk."

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