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Commissioners seek improvements to Travis County’s disaster response

Wednesday, October 5, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Members of the Travis County Commissioners’ Court and county staff are moving forward with a host of changes they hope will improve the county’s response to catastrophic events such as the Labor Day fires. They range from establishing a system of emergency coordination that would collect and act on information about a given disaster, to the beginnings of a wild fire risk assessment study for the area.

The move came as the court heard testimony and raised questions about gaps in the service offered by private organizations such as the Red Cross, public entities such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and local volunteer groups. Through court members were quick to praise the response to the fires, they expressed concerns about a lack of communication.

“Our issues were trying to determine what were the needs,” County Emergency Management Coordinator Pete Baldwin told In Fact Daily. “Bottom line is, unless we know what needs there are out there, we’re unclear as to what services we need to provide.”

He further suggested that a gap in public understanding of the legal limits of county assistance was also problematic. “We understand that when something bad happens, you want help,” he said. “Perhaps that’s an area that we really need to work on: Educating the public exactly on, when something happens, what assistance can you expect from the county that we can legally provide.”

Pct.3 Commissioner Karen Huber saw the bulk of the fire damage hit her section of the county. She told In Fact Daily that a Texas county can respond to victims of a disaster in only very limited ways. “That said, if we know where needs are, if we can’t fulfill those needs, then perhaps we can identify the resources that can,” she added.

Still, Huber noted that she’d received only “half a dozen” calls to her office looking for help. “We have not been able to clearly hear from the community what specific resources are needed—where there may be gaps in the coverage,” she said. “There are some things the county can do, (but) we have to know.”

In court, Huber also expressed some concern for well water users in areas affected by the fires. “None of this is on any kind of municipal-type water system, and the majority of these homes…are all on wells,” she said. “I know from my own research…that some of these wells may be toxic now.”

The county does not have a complete accounting for all of the hyper-localized water systems and well users that exist within Travis boundaries. Pct. 2 Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt lamented that fact. “In Texas there is really very little regulatory scheme, much less inventory of what wells are out there,” she said.

After an hour’s worth of testimony, Huber motioned for a host of changes. These include the information coordination and risk assessment study mentioned above, as well as more immediate relief in the shape of an in-the-field temporary permitting office, and various informational print and online media publications. The move passed unanimously.

County staff will continue to bring additional policy changes related to the Labor Day weekend fires before the court for vetting by Travis’ legal team. Some could come as early as next week.

Huber said that larger changes could also be in order. “My hope is that this will have several positive results—silver linings, as it were—in that we’ll move more quickly towards a county-wide fire department…(and) perhaps at the state level, they’ll look at more funding for emergency responses,” she said.

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