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Harris County Precinct Runs Drill for Hurricane Season

Last month's derecho reminded Houston that severe storms can spring up without much warning. The derecho cast a bright light on the area's preparedness since officials had little lead time to activate emergency operations.

Houston Harvey natural disaster
Just 15 percent of Houston homeowners had federal flood insurance before Hurricane Harvey hit.
(AP Photo/David Goldman)
(TNS) - When Harris County staffers and local first responders assembled at Felix L. Baldree Community Center for a disaster drill on Wednesday, they braced themselves for Tropical Storm Debjanian — an imaginary weather event — in an exercise familiar to anyone who grew up playing the computer game "Oregon Trail."

But rather than navigating a wagon across rivers and dodging dysentery, Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia's team practiced making optimal decisions in response to power outages, changing flood conditions and medical emergencies in the east Harris County areas they represent. With forecasters projecting an "extremely active" 2024 hurricane season, the annual drill had even higher stakes than usual.

Tropical Storm Debjanian bore down on the Houston area as group members talked through their preparations with Pernell Davis, Harris County Precinct 2's deputy chief of public safety and organization development.

Their plans to set up a shelter at Baldree Community Center — where, in a real disaster, the precinct stands up a shelter, as well as their Office of Emergency Management operations — were quickly thwarted by storm damage.

"Baldree is down," Davis announced gravely. "This can no longer be our shelter."

The group ran through the list of community centers operated by Precinct 2 to select a backup location for the shelter and emergency operations.

"Why not Hardy (Community Center)?" Davis prompted.

"It floods," he continued. "I'm thinking of access in and access out. Where do we have generators?"

They made the switch to Leonel J. Castillo Community Center.

The precinct's purchasing department was called on to prepare everyone for making disaster purchases on the fly. Human resources staff reported that they would be communicating with employees to keep track of where they are, whether they've been impacted and if they need shelter.

The finance team was tasked with determining whether the inventory of food, water and supplies was sufficient. The IT team needed to move equipment to Castillo Community Center.

With Tropical Storm Debjanian passing through Harris County, the precinct's road and bridge team members were staying at county facilities, including Genoa Camp and Wade Camp, and working in day and night shifts to clear damage, inspect roads and barricade them if they were deemed unsafe.

The obstacles continued to pile up during the storm, much like a perilous westward wagon journey.

"Genoa Camp is down," Davis announced next. Time for workers to relocate if the incident commander said it was safe to do so.

Then, as the imaginary storm raged, a resident taking shelter at Castillo Community Center had a seizure. The team called 911.

Then power went out, but the center's generator kicked in.

Harris County was barely hanging in there by the end of the drill, having experienced an incredible cascade of misfortunes caused by strong winds and high water.

In reality, though, hurricane season is just getting started.

During last month's derecho, the Houston area was reminded that severe storms can spring up without much warning. The derecho cast a bright light on the area's preparedness since officials had little lead time to activate emergency operations.

Though Houston was caught off guard, many systems did operate — roads were cleared, cooling centers opened, workers arrived from other regions to help restore power, distribution centers opened and community groups assisted with clean up.

Garcia's team hopes the additional preparation will pay off like a well-stocked wagon.

As the dry goods store owner warns in Oregon Trail, "You're ready to start. Good luck! You have a long and difficult journey ahead of you."

©2024 the Houston Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.