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Texas Activates Resources in Advance of Severe Storms

At the outset of what forecasters predict will be an active hurricane season, state and federal officials are working to foster public awareness – even as they tout improvements in their emergency management plans since hurricanes Katrina and Rita wreaked havoc in 2005.

Governors in at least six states in harm’s way – Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia – have declared official hurricane awareness periods to highlight the June 1 start to the Atlantic storm season; President Bush has done the same nationally.

New York and Louisiana, which felt the brunt of Katrina’s destruction, unveiled new Web sites – timed to coincide with the beginning of hurricane season – with evacuation tips, supply lists and other disaster-planning information.

In always hurricane-prone Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist (R) recently authorized his state’s third annual sales tax holiday June 1-12 on goods related to hurricane preparedness, such as flashlights and two-way radios. “We have learned from experience that prepared residents and communities are key to surviving and recovering from hurricanes or other natural disasters,” Crist said in a statement. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D) signed a similar measure into law in March, but it won't take effect until next year.

State steps to improve public awareness and preparation fit into a larger effort by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – widely criticized for its handling of Katrina – to redefine itself and oversee a coherent division of duties among local, state and federal authorities. That mission now includes a more concentrated effort to keep the public informed and prepared, according to FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison.

“The piece we’re missing right now is the personal preparedness piece,” Paulison said after a June 1 videoconference between FEMA and state and regional emergency planners.

A USA Today/Gallup poll in early May found that 41 percent of Americans don’t have reserves of food or water in case of a disaster, 27 percent don’t have extra medicine and 18 percent don’t have a first-aid kit, USA Today reported. A separate Mason-Dixon poll released May 31 surveyed residents of 18 Atlantic and Gulf Coast states and found that 53 percent do not consider themselves vulnerable to hurricanes, tornadoes or flooding, according to news reports.

At the same time, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on May 22 predicted a 75 percent chance of an “above normal” storm season, with three to five “major” hurricanes. A May 31 study by a widely cited forecasting team at Colorado State University predicted a “very active” season with five “intense hurricanes.”

State emergency management officials who briefed Paulison at the videoconference expressed confidence in their preparations, citing training exercises, development of evacuation routes and shelters and other measures. But in some cases, state preparations remain in early stages.

Florida officials this week began issuing warnings to gasoline station operators along some evacuation routes after they failed to comply with a new state law requiring access to backup power sources by June 1. According to a May 31 survey by the state Division of Emergency Management, 484 of the 1,077 targeted operators, or about 45 percent, are properly equipped. The law is designed to guarantee wider access to fuel for fleeing residents.

In South Carolina, where Gov. Mark Sanford (R) this week met with emergency planners to discuss hurricane preparations, the Legislature is funding generators to be used at shelters. But the plan is a three-year process and only about a third of those generators will be rolled out this year, according to Ron Osborne, director of the state Emergency Management Division.

In Louisiana, state officials recently finalized a contract with a Florida firm to provide 700 buses for hurricane evacuations. But the cost of that deal has more than tripled since last year, said Mark Lambert, a spokesman with the state Department of Transportation and Planning.

Despite the hitches, Paulison said that he is pleased with hurricane-prone states’ progress and that a “culture of change” at FEMA following Katrina has led to more clearly defined roles among emergency responders.

Paulison said that includes already-constant communication between FEMA and states to prevent what he deemed a “sequential failure” during Katrina – “where we wait for a local community to become overwhelmed before the state steps in, and when we wait for a state to become overwhelmed before the federal government steps in.”

“We learned in Katrina, very clearly, that was not working. We’ve got to go in there side by side, working as partners,” he said.

By John Gramlich, Stateline.org Staff Writer

Gov. Perry Activates State Resources in Advance of Severe Storms

Gov. Rick Perry today authorized the activation of search and rescue teams and equipment for deployment in advance of severe storms expected across Texas through Memorial Day weekend and into next week. Some areas in the projected path have recently received heavy rainfall from the severe weather system moving across the state. These threatening storms are expected to produce additional heavy rain in already saturated areas, posing the danger of flash flooding.

“We hope Texans will take all possible precautions during severe weather to stay out of dangerous situations,” Perry said. “However, in such unpredictable circumstances, we want to be sure we have resources readily available to assist in the event of emergencies.”

Perry activated a Texas Military Forces rescue and evacuation team consisting of 96 soldiers and 38 high profile vehicles to be deployed to the following areas: Waco, Austin and San Antonio. He also activated four Texas Army National Guard helicopters and 28 personnel which will be staged in Austin and San Antonio.

The governor has activated three helicopter rescue squads from Texas Task Force 1, which will stage with the Texas Military Forces helicopters in San Antonio and Austin. Additionally, TTF1 will support a 28-member swift water rescue team in San Antonio with equipment and personnel ready for rapid deployment.

Texas Task Force 1 is a 300-member force that is nationally recognized for its unique search and rescue capabilities. It was deployed to New York City following the terrorist attack on 9/11, to New Orleans following the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, and most recently, the full Task Force was deployed to assist in search and rescue operations in Maverick County as a result of the tragic tornado that struck that area April 24.

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