Another major hurricane will ultimately scream through El Campo and Wharton County.
When? That’s unknowable until it’s far too late to do more than hunker down or flee. That’s why authorities must react as though every year is “The Year” and why the public is urged to follow suit.
“Be aware that we have been blessed. We haven’t had a hit in a long time,” Wharton County Emergency Management Coordinator Andy Kirkland said.
A major hurricane is any storm with sustained winds of at least 111 mph, divided into Categories 3,4 and 5 – think “absolutely horrible,” “worse” and “inescapable nightmare.”
Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of buildings may suffer extreme damage or destruction, power outages will likely last weeks if not months.
Before The Big Blow
Before the storm, city emergency responders would be called into the Public Safety Headquarters.
“Depending on the expected location of landfall and intensity of the storm, the decision for personnel to remain at the police department usually happens eight to 12 hours before expected landfall,” Williamson said.
Final equipment checks are made and personal briefed. The West Loop HQ is designed to withstand hurricane force winds. “If an employee is deemed essential ... they will be housed in the building. We will not be housing all employees,” City Emergency Management Director Lori Hollingsworth said.
El Campo has generators at City Hall, the HQ, wastewater treatment plant and Monseratte Street water plant now. More generators are planned, but have not been purchased yet.
“We’ll do what we can with the existing generators and look at other options such as rental of equipment, etc.,” City Manager Courtney Sladek said.
Police and fire will respond to calls for help as long as they can, but for boxy ambulances and firetrucks, wind is a major consideration.
“There may come a time where the wind speed is too great for first responders to answer calls. This is a big reason why we encourage everyone to follow the evacuation recommendations,” Williamson said.
Those who stay should plan on being self-sufficient for at least seven days.
“This is what you have insurance for. Pack up the dogs and go visit the folks up north,” Kirkland said, adding those who opt to travel via back roads will not have support. “And remember cellphone service is the first thing to go down.”
During The Storm
Staff from dispatchers and officer to EMTs and street crews will hunker down – there’s no other option – aside from prayer.
That’s why the public is urged to plan on evacuating.
After The Storm
“One of the first concerns is to patrol the city to prevent looting,” Williamson said. “As people return, it is very likely that electricity may not be restored for days. This and other inconveniences caused by a storm can lead to short tempers and a lack of patience.”
City and county crews will begin to move debris from roadways.
In past disasters, members of the general public and businesses have provided emergency responders with ATVs, boats or whatever is needed to allow for travel.
If needed, disaster debris removal contracts will be enacted – and all will hope those trucks and personnel will be able to reach the city. “The city will work extensively to clear the roads with our crews and our debris removal company. Damage assessments will need to be performed to determine which roads are drivable, bridges are safe and any other damage to our infrastructure. These will be addressed depending on the situation,” Sladek said.
So much is an unknown until the city knows how bad the damage actually incurred.
The city will have re-entry plans and protocols for those who evacuate and hope the public won’t try to circumvent these. “The general public needs to realize that the initial assessment and response phase post impact from a disaster or event is a critical time and all the resources the city has will be needed to focus on restoring critical infrastructure and making it safe for all residents to return when the time is right,” Hollingsworth said. “When people choose to not leave as directed or return prematurely it significantly hinders the efforts.”
What would happen if a storm like the 1961 nightmare called Hurricane Carla were to hit again? El Campo city officials chose not to respond to that question.