11. December 2005 · Comments Off on Thinking Outside the Box · Categories: Domestic, General, Home Front, Local

As a place likely to feature in the national news as the site of a horrible civic disaster, San Antonio is pretty far down on the list, rather a comfort for those who live here. It is not on a coast, and therefore subject to hurricanes, tsunamis or landslides. It wasn’t built on a major earthquake fault line, or on a major river: we are too far south for tornados, and too far north to collect anything but the remnants of hurricanes, there are no dormant volcanoes anywhere near. Mother Nature, a temperamental and moody bitch, tends to slam us with nothing more drastic than high winds, hail and torrential rains which, however, lead to sudden and astonishingly fast-moving floods within the metropolitan area. Local residents know where those places are— most of them are clearly marked anyway— but it is a civic embarrassment, knowing that there are places within city limits where it is possible to be innocently driving along a city street and be carried away and drowned.

The very predictability of flooding, though, has the fortunate sidelight of keeping local emergency planners on their toes. A more-than-usually heavy rain will swell Salado Creek out of it’s banks; the Olmos Basin will fill up, the downtown underpass part of I-35 will be impassible, North New Braunfels will run with about a foot of water, and there will be a couple of motorists caught by surprise and having to be rescued by the emergency services— it’s all expected, all predictable. But local disaster preparedness officials and planners have other motivations for staying on top of disaster response planning; as Lawson Magruder of University of Texas San Antonio’s Institute for the Protection of American Communities points out— San Antonio is well situated to serve as a refuge and support area for disasters occurring along the Gulf Coast and the border areas; recently 15,000 refugees from Hurricane Katrina were sheltered in San Antonio alone.

And both Magruder, and Chief Mark Trevino, assistant emergency management coordinator for the San Antonio Fire Department took pains to point out another of San Antonio’s particular and reoccurring civic emergencies: chemical or hazardous materiel spills, caused by either a truck accident or a train derailment. Three extraordinarily busy major interstates connect within the metropolitan area, not to mention several rail lines meandering across suburbs and downtown alike: an estimated 70 freight trains pass through the city daily.

It is a well-known axiom that everything has a purpose, and in some cases, the purpose is to serve as a bad example. For many of us ordinary citizens, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans served as a wake-up call, a sort of object lesson on just how badly things can go wrong when citizens are not prepared, when local civic authorities don’t have workable plans or fail to follow through on those they do have, and when the disaster is of such a magnitude that viable plans and otherwise competent organizations are overwhelmed. On the whole, we can get through our lives without ever thinking about disaster preparedness more than a couple of days out of the year… but Chief Trevino, and Lawson Magruder, who retired from the US army as a lieutenant-general just days before 9/11, have made it their business and profession to think about it every day.

Chief Trevino, of course, is deeply involved in the real-world emergencies that fall to the SAFD to cope with every day, as well as planning for those which all involved hope will never come about. In the interests of a flexible response, Chief Trevino told me that his local exercise scenarios often pile two or three different emergencies together; as an example, an airline crash… which has a terrorist amongst the passengers. He sees communication and coordination with other local, state, federal and volunteer agencies as imperative for an effective response to whatever the emergency may be, and speaks enthusiastically about two developments that will make that communication and coordination even easier; First, is the construction in the next two years of the City/County Emergency Management Headquarters on the grounds of the former Brooks AFB— now Brooks City Base— on San Antonio’s South Side. Staff from every major and minor player would in one place, everyone Bexar and Comal Counties, but also City Public Works, the Red Cross and Salvation Army, Metropolitan Health, and FEMA… everyone there able to communicate instantly with their people on-scene.

Of course, with all those disparate groups present, there is another potential block to communication— that of different terminology, nomenclature, call it what you will. According to Chief Trevino, a state directed initiative from the Governors’ Office of Emergency Management may solve some of the problems with inter-service communications. Organizations which may have to work together in a disaster response situation are encouraged to drop jargon and verbal shorthand in favor of clear and plan language, to use the same channels, and to practice constantly. An ongoing challenge, says Chief Trevino, is the fact that a large municipal organization will always have more resources at hand than a smaller, more rural unit…. But when a disaster strikes, the large community and the small are all in the way of it, as much as the ordinary citizen. All that anyone can do is do what has been planned and practiced for, and to that end a website for citizens’ emergency preparedness has been set up at http://www.readysouthtexas.gov/ , detailing what anyone can do in the way of preparing for the unforeseen.

Lawson Magruder also recommends that ordinary citizens stay informed, and keep certain items on hand— cash, batteries, water and food… and a means of washing ones’ hands clean. He sees a third potential disaster in San Antonio, besides floods, and hazardous transportation spills: that of a disaster elsewhere that brings thousands of refugees to the city… but they come, bringing an epidemic with them, adding the challenge of quarantine and medical care to the mix. Before his retirement from the Army, he served in a number of joint services assignments often tasked with responding to disasters, and he looks at disaster response with a much broader view, through the lens of the Institute for the Protection of American Communities. Coming from the technology research firm BATTELLE, where he developed their homeland security office, he saw a need for an organization that wove together many individual threads of research and interest. At IPAC, one center focuses on cyber-security, the other on biotechnology and education, but specialists are encouraged to do more than just focus on their own specialty. IPAC is working locally with a disparate assortment of medical, legal, military, municipal , and state agencies, building a security-minded research network, and intensively thinking about what are the potential disasters out there, what are the possible responses… and what are the responses that have worked in the past, and why? These are questions that have always been— or at least, we have always hoped they have been— the concern of those city, state and federal authorities who were tasked with them.

Lawson Magruder is enthusiastic, and eager to consider the unconventional; he would like to work more closely with the local Transguide system, which notifies highway drivers of accidents and delays ahead, he wants to work with local media, even blogs. He also wants to work more closely with military bases in and around San Antonio— which could provide much transport, personnel, and medical resources during a disaster response, as well as being potential targets of terrorist attack. Chief Trevino also would like to have FEMA and other federal resources more closely linked to local planning. And both men would like to see ordinary citizens more involved, and better informed, for all of us to at least know, in the back of our mind, that it can happen here. In these unsettled times, information moves at the speed of light, an infected person can travel halfway around the world in a day, and a storm, tidal-wave or earthquake… or an act of terror can deliver a knock-out blow to a city in minutes and hours. It is reassuring, at least, to know that my city, at least, other people are also looking way, way beyond the limitations of the box… and thinking about, and practicing what they have discovered.

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