Upgraded disaster command center flexes full strength


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and chief photojournalist SCOTT GUEST

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Posted on December 18, 2013 at 6:24 PM

Updated Wednesday, Dec 18 at 6:41 PM

AUSTIN -- Cars stranded on ice-covered overpasses and pushed through the snow, traffic stopped and flights grounded; they're images already seen by millions of Texans just weeks ago, but few have seen the inside of the Texas Division of Emergency Management's (TDEM) newly renovated State Operations Center (SOC) working at full strength.

With a potential this weekend for severe storms in parts of East Texas and more freezing weather in the panhandle, the full Emergency Management Council (EMC) gathered inside the former Cold War bomb shelter for a disaster response exercise.

"We've got a couple of big things going on, and we're making the phone calls to our districts now, letting them know, 'Hey we need to get ready,'" said Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) Emergency Management Coordinator Gilbert Jordan. "The crews out there will be prepping up their winter storm teams, the de-icing trucks, the anti-icing vehicles that we use for treating our overpasses and then of course our snowplows and spreaders."

More than 100 workers from dozens of agencies manned their battle stations Wednesday. The exercise was part training, part preparation for the weekend weather and part deconstructing recent events such as the ice storms that paralyzed portions of Texas earlier this month. In the event the weather turns disastrous again, the same workers will be called back to the SOC to coordinate state resources and relief efforts.

"We all work together very closely and determine what needs need to be met and who can fill in each of those positions," said Bristel Bowen with the American Red Cross of Central Texas. If another deep freeze hits the state, representatives from the Red Cross and other mass aid organizations will work at the same table to ensure as few as possible are left out in the cold.

"The first priority in that situation is shelter," said Bowen. "We want to make sure that people have a warm place to go where they are safe, and then we're coordinating really closely with agencies such as 2-1-1 to make sure that that information is getting out to the public."

"Statistically there are really not more disasters than there have been, but there's more attention to disasters now," said Texas emergency management Chief Nim Kidd. The state's top disaster official says whether it's for a hurricane or a terrorist attack, preparation at the state level is much the same.

"There will be common needs out there," explained Kidd. "People are always going to need food, water, ice and medicine. So how do we make sure that those resources are available in the right place at the right time regardless of the circumstances that caused the shortage or loss?"

As Texans enjoy the holiday season, Kidd warns not to tune out the news. He says maintaining an awareness of developing weather patterns and major events will make everyone better prepared to tackle whatever unexpected emergencies arise.

Go here for an exclusive tour of the renovated SOC's features and functions.