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]."
The locals bring special-needs evacuees to those hubs, and then they will evacuate along evacuation routes, Padilla said. "We have set up temporary fueling locations that consist of tanker trucks outfitted with dispensers," he said. "The Texas Military Forces provide the Porta Potties, refreshments, the comfort issues for special-needs folks, and then they get back on the bus and continue to their next destination."
Two years of preparation since Rita paid off as the region was more than ready for the effects of Dean. A result of the effort is increased communication between the private sector and state and local governments.
"The best thing that occurred from the Texas plan is the communication and collaboration we've had between industry and government," Padilla said. "That has been paramount. During Rita, we were doing our own thing, the state was doing their own thing, and we didn't communicate. Now we know what's happening, and we're able to provide feedback to the state and local government."
Home Field Advantage
The idea of enlisting the private sector to provide goods and services they deal with every day is proving a much better tactic than waiting for FEMA to ramp up and arrive several days after an event.
"With the private sector, you have experts in the field who can go right into a situation, and many of these organizations and companies are already situated where the disaster is happening or is going to happen," Moody said.
That gives them a distinct advantage over FEMA, she said. "FEMA isn't a grocery store, FEMA isn't a fuel tanker, they aren't medical care providers. It's not an apples-to-apples comparison."
"And really," Padilla said, "the oil and gas industry has been doing this for more than 100 years. We pull oil out of the ground, we refine it, we put it into a distribution network, we sell it at retail. We have the infrastructure, we do it on a day-to-day basis whether there's a hurricane, an earthquake or just a regular day."
Moody did emphasize that FEMA can't be counted on is inaccurate. "Our federal partners supported us a great deal in this effort and efforts of the past," she said. "This is just one more avenue for help. The reason we take this approach to emergency management is because the state has limited resources, and partnering with the private sector certainly helps fill a void - and helps fill it fast."