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State hones response

Texas knows disasters.

BY HEATHER MOYER | AUSTIN, Texas | June 23, 2004

"We try to utilize all our resources, and everyone plays an important role in this."

—Gisela Ryan-Bunger

Texas knows disasters. Between 1980 and 2003, the state is one of two that have suffered more than 16 billion-dollar weather disasters – and those are just the federally declared ones.

Floods, hurricanes, droughts and tornadoes all affect the state. And with that kind of luck, the state is making sure it has disaster response coordination down to a science.

The Texas state and local emergency management agencies rely heavily on volunteer and nonprofit organizations after disasters. Around the Texas Governor's Division of Emergency Management’s (DEM) State Operations Center (SOC) in Austin, many of the spaces are designated for just such organizations.

The SOC is a large series of rooms located in a bunker beneath the office of the Texas Department of Public Safety. It’s fortified enough to withstand the effects of the nuclear bomb. In the main room, numerous desks face a wall of monitors displaying up-to-date information about whatever disaster the center may currently be watching.

"During emergencies, we bring in 35 different agencies to this command center," said Gisela Ryan-Bunger, response section administrator for the Texas DEM.

The invited agencies include everyone from law enforcement to hazardous material teams, to the state department of transportation and groups like The Salvation Army and the American Red Cross. The state Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) chapter also has a seat.

"We try to utilize all our resources, and everyone plays an important role in this," Ryan-Bunger said, adding that many local groups – government and non-government – working onsite in disasters are their eyes and ears, helping get information to where it’s needed.

Volunteer disaster recovery organizations also rely heavily on state and local authorities to get them important information about particular disasters as well. "We’re the ones with the hammers and they’re the ones with the computers," said Tary Snyder, disaster response coordinator for Mission Presbytery in San Antonio. "The state (DEM) situation reports are very helpful to us."

Such faith-based disaster relief organizations say they’re grateful to have been included in response and recovery plans. "We’ve been recognized as having something to offer," said Don "Bogie" Jones, disaster response coordinator for the southwest Texas conference of the United Methodist Church. "They’ve done a great job getting us together."

Jones said the ties between the state and volunteer organizations have grown stronger in recent years. The Texas DEM employees agree. "The connections have been there for some time, but we’re doing our best to strengthen them," said Jeannie Madden, preparedness section planner for the Texas DEM. "We’ve invited all of them to be on our state conference calls after disasters, we give them our situation reports.

"We also offer emergency management training courses to anyone who’s interested, from local emergency managers to volunteer agencies."

Emergency officials on the county level in Texas are also looking to volunteer groups more now. In the south Texas counties of Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy, officials are seeking help in finding volunteers for disaster response. They’re looking to faith-based groups for help in getting the word out.

To cover the technological disaster possibility, the Hidalgo County Health Department is currently setting up a response network in case of a biological attack.

"If there was one reported case of smallpox anywhere in the United States, we’d have to vaccinate one million people in Hidalgo County," said Nina Worley, strategic national stockpile coordinator for the Hidalgo County Health Department. "We need volunteers that we’d train to help staff the 21 vaccine dispensing sites we’d have set up."

The Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council (LRGVDC) is holding a community disaster response training session in late July that will cover all types of disasters. "We’re looking to train the trainers, and teach teams who would then teach others how to be ready," said Rosie Ramirez, program administration for the LRGVDC. "This training covers preparedness, medical issues, light search and rescue, terrorism, and we’ll even have a small disaster simulation at the end.

"We’re trying to get volunteers from all areas, faith-based and community groups."

The possibility of technological disasters is very much a reality, although many don’t realize it, said Jones. He noted all the oil refineries up and down the coast of Texas as possible targets, adding, "Maybe this wasn’t a realistic thought years ago, but it certainly is now."

It’s these possibilities, natural or technological, that have state and local agencies feeling fortunate to have such good connections with volunteer organizations. "We couldn’t do it without them," said Madden.

"The service and information that come from voluntary agencies is invaluable."

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