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After heavy storms, Travis County’s good fortune has small cost

Wednesday, June 3, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County may have fared better than its neighbors during last week’s deadly storms, but that silver lining could have its downside for many property owners. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt predicted on Tuesday that the relative lack of mayhem would likely sink the county’s chances to receive federal assistance to deal with the aftermath.

“I strongly urge property owners to handle their own debris to the extent that it’s possible,” Eckhardt said during the Travis County Commissioners Court’s regular voting session. “If a private property owner is not able to handle their debris because of financial matters … that is something we could address. But if you have the resources to handle debris on your property from this event, please do so because public resources are stretched so thin in a legitimate countywide emergency.”

Eckhardt’s remarks came during a briefing from several county agencies that reviewed both their immediate responses to the storms and the ongoing efforts to deal with the aftermath. Representatives from the Office of Emergency Services, the Sheriff’s Office, STAR Flight, Transportation and Natural Resources, and Health and Human Services addressed the court.

The general consensus is that things could have been far worse.

“The flooding was very difficult for Travis County, but it is nothing like the Onion Creek flooding, the Halloween floods, and nothing in comparison to what was going on in Hays County,” Eckhardt declared.

The bodies of eight people have been recovered in Hays County, while three more remain missing. The Memorial Day floods claimed one life in Travis County. Transportation and Natural Resources Director Steve Manilla told the commissioners Tuesday that the death was related to a low water crossing.

Local emergency plans seem to have been executed without any major hitches. Emergency Management Assistant Coordinator Stacy Moore-Guajardo told the commissioners that the Austin-Travis County Emergency Operations Center was activated twice over Memorial Day weekend. Her office set up a total of three shelters across the county.

“We only sheltered about 10 people in our community that were affected by this disaster,” Moore-Guajardo said. “While the numbers were relatively low, we felt the need to continue our sheltering operations in the event that we needed to evacuate more people.”

The worst-case scenario never happened, though, and the shelters were closed by Tuesday after the remaining evacuees found alternative places to stay, Moore-Guajardo said.

The Sheriff’s Office also appeared to have been prepared for a major catastrophe. Planning Manager Michael Hemby told the commissioners that staff from Travis County Jail went to Hays County to prepare for an evacuation of inmates there.

However, Hemby said, “In the end, we did not have to do the temporary evacuation, but we do have a receiving site at the Del Valle facility should we have to shelter those individuals who are in their custody in our facility.”

Hemby told the commissioners that one notable deployment of deputies was to the county’s fleet fueling station at West 10th Street and North Lamar Boulevard. The station was inundated when Shoal Creek surged over a broad swath of western downtown. Photographs taken on Memorial Day showed psychedelic chemical slicks shimmering on the water’s surface.

“There was spills from oil and transmission fluids that we had on-site in containers that were secure, but some came loose from their mooring, for lack of better description,” said Morgan Cotton, public works director for Transportation and Natural Resources. He explained that the underground gasoline tanks escaped unscathed and the site’s refueling operation is already “back up and running.”

Nonetheless, Commissioner Gerald Daugherty declared that it’s time to relocate the petrochemical-laden facility, which is among several downtown properties the county is considering getting rid of. “This is really not a place where we need to have this kind of product in an area where we all know is going to flood again,” Daugherty said.

In a playful reference to Daugherty’s rare venture into ecological concerns that are generally more in line with her personal brand, Commissioner Brigid Shea drew laughter from the audience when she quipped: “I concur with the environmental sentiments of the commissioner.”

As far as the county’s liability in the chemical spill, Eckhardt noted that because there are two other gas stations in that area, determining the extent of the damage caused by each would prove difficult. She left any further discussion of that question to the closed-door executive session.

Also still undetermined is the amount, if any, of federal disaster aid the county stands to qualify for. Emergency Management Coordinator Peter Baldwin echoed Eckhardt’s doubts that individual property owners should count on any help from Uncle Sam. However, he explained that FEMA could forgo a county-by-county evaluation since the damaging storms stretched from the Red River down to the Rio Grande. In that case, Baldwin explained, FEMA would lump in all affected counties, regardless of their relative devastation.

At any rate, Baldwin said, the final official damage assessments are not expected to be done until Friday.

“So there’s a chance that we may and there’s a chance we may not be declared for (federal assistance),” Baldwin said. “But we’ve got to go through the process in order to get into that process.”

Oelfleckerp” by AntonOwn work (Anton). Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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