November 7, 2007 By Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor
They're fast, efficient and already in the area - and FEMA is not.
Retailers and grocery chains, such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot and H-E-B, are prepared to transform themselves into disaster relief entities whenever disaster strikes Texas.
Rather than wait three to seven days for FEMA to arrive, Texas officials from the Governor's Division of Emergency Management and the Department of Homeland Security have welcomed local businesses and nonprofit organizations to help in times of need.
Private companies demonstrated their worth during Katrina - and more recently Hurricane Dean, and have since become part of the emergency management team, taking part in exercises and brainstorming sessions to lend their expertise and experience.
The companies were convened by Gov. Rick Perry to form a task force after a disorganized response to Hurricane Rita in 2005. The groups train alongside emergency management personnel, and each has a defined role should an emergency occur. During the first 72 hours, retailers donate supplies, such as water, to the response effort. Once the disaster moves into long-term recovery phase and federal dollars are available, the state can enter into a contract with those retailers on recovering the cost of the supplies. Nothing is promised to the retailers beforehand. However, Shell Oil has a contract to provide fuel along evacuation routes during emergencies.
During Katrina, Wal-Mart delivered food and goods to first responders almost immediately, and during a recent flood, police, firefighters and paramedics gathered in a Wal-Mart parking lot and were given gift cards for groceries. During the same flood, H-E-B Emergency Management Coordinator Justen Noakes showed up with bottled water and sandwiches for first responders.
"The partnership isn't anything new," said Krista Moody, Perry's deputy press secretary. "It's not a new concept because we've worked with the private sector in the past, we have the contact information and whether it's them calling us or us calling them - it happens interchangeably. It's a relationship like any state agency where they know there is a possibility of them being activated and playing a role."
Preparation Paid Off
As Hurricane Dean, a Category 5 storm, bore down on Mexico and threatened parts of Texas, officials were ready, having learned from the chaos that ensued after Hurricane Rita.
A week before Dean arrived, more than 1,300 buses showed up in San Antonio, then Brownsville and McAllen. An additional 1,600 buses were on standby around the state waiting to evacuate "special-needs" residents, who either didn't have a vehicle or were unable to travel on their own because of medical or other reasons.
The buses took preidentified routes, along which Shell Oil Co. had positioned 11 fueling stations to ensure the buses were well fueled. It was part of a plan put in place after Rita, involving local governments and private businesses like Shell.
Since then, Shell has taken a lead role in planning the efforts of the private sector and state and local governments to assure a swift and organized response to the next event.
Shell's involvement, along with efforts to organize all parties, consists of assuring the state's fuel needs are met and that vehicles for the estimated 133,000 special-needs citizens who need evacuation are fueled and ready to go. Shell also helps after an event on mass care and providing fuel where it's needed.
"We work on a day-to-day basis," said Martin Padilla, fuel coordinator and regional manager for Shell Oil in Texas. "Probably the largest effort goes toward the special-needs evacuations due to the size of the special-needs populations in certain parts of the state. They are individuals who just can't evacuate on their own, whether they just don't have a car or whether they're [medically in need]."
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