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After Action Report - Hurricane Dolly

With Hurricane Dolly bearing down on the Texas coast last Wednesday, thoughts raced back to Katrina and Rita and then to last year’s near-miss from Dean. No doubt that regional preparedness for natural disaster is a sensitive subject. One of the remaining questions in many peoples’ minds though is if we’ve actually learned anything about disaster response.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Dolly, a storm that “only” briefly reached a Category 2 level of intensity and then quickly dissipated to a Category One as it came ashore, local officials are trying to look at the performance of the various elements of the region’s response. This one assessment in the San Antonio Express-News attempts to present a balanced look.

According to the Governor, the biggest issue was restoration of electric power to the more than 200,000 people who lost it. That a tourist destination was directly affected I suspect created the sense of urgency to get the lights back on, however.

The governor was quick to credit a coordinated, proactive — and thoroughly planned and drilled — local, state and federal response as a key reason lives were spared in Texas. “The government has come a long way in the past three years,” agreed David McIntyre, an expert on disaster strategies who directs the Integrative Center on Homeland Security at Texas A&M University.

Generally, Dolly dumped less rain than had been expected, and the fragile levees holding back the Rio Grande river held. But no evacuation was ordered, so more than 10,000 people remained on South Padre Island and rode out the storm. Since no evacuation was ordered, the more than 200 buses that had been staged in San Antonio, never began the almost 400 mile trip down to the coast. Some people wondered why, without knowing how the storm would affect the area, that the buses weren’t closer. One answer I heard was that the drivers needed to sleep before making the trip. Perhaps one of the reasons was that in the Hurricane Dean ramp-up, some criticism was launched at local politicians who prepped the buses, only to find them not needed, and costing the tax payers thousands of dollars.

Lessons learned being drawn by Texas officials?

● determine which school districts are ready to house evacuees

● provide back-up generators to schools, a gasoline stations

● address the lack of staffing at shelters (apparently the Red Cross policy is that they don’t “man” shelters fearing liability if shelters flooded and volunteers or evacuees got hurt).

The Rio Grande Valley is one of the poorest areas of the country. Many people do not own cars. Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos (South Padre Island is located in Cameron County) commented that he saw alot of complacency because Hurricane Dolly was “only” a Category One storm.

The “after-action” report on Hurricane Dolly can easily sugar coat the deficiencies in a regional response to a natural disaster event. Hurricanes are unpredictable in nature. In fact, Mother Nature is unpredictable. So while the costs of action are high, whether to act or not to act remains a very real question. It would seem that a tiered approach to such natural events would be more appropriate. If, as in the Rio Grande Valley, you have 100,000 residents who are either disabled, frail or without vehicles, and there are only two major highways exist to get people out quickly, maybe the appropriate response is to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable no matter what. Call that a Level One evacuation. When there is a threat more violent weather and more tragic consequences, go to a higher level of response, but do it sternly and without delay. As with many cases in life, I suspect that it is easier to answer the quesiton of why action was taken in anticipation of a Katrina/Rita or Hurricane Dean natural event, then to answer the questions of inaction, after-the-fact. Therefore, another question that should be asked is “what will it take before it is realized that all of the drills and exercises mean nothing if plans are not executed, or if the plans in place aren’t flexible enough to allow for local officials to act.”

On a return flight from another business trip, my flight to Denver was delayed by weather. My concern was not getting to Denver, but getting home since my flight wasn’t due in until 11pm local. I figured that any delay in leaving Denver could easily have me flying straight into the storm as it barrelled up into South Central Texas. Clearly, my concerns were dwarfed by those of the people living in the direct path of the storm as it slammed into Brownsville and South Padre Island.