Two months have passed and hundreds of Wharton County residents are now transitioning from hurricane cleanup to a mode of recovery and rebuilding.
For Wharton County officials, this is a time to review and evaluate emergency response strategies, practices and procedures so we can become better prepared for future disaster events.
Local radio stations have always been Wharton County’s number one up-to-the-minute notification and warning system for all county wide emergency situations.
If home electricity fails, residents can still hopefully use their car radios to receive much needed emergency updates.
Wharton County maintains an Internet website displaying standard information from office closings to bidding of materials. The website is being upgraded to post emergency notifications and provide links to outside organizations like the National Weather Service, Lower Colorado River Authority, the River Forecast Center and the like.
Last Monday, commissioners court approved implementation of a Mass Telephone Call-out System similar to those currently utilized by the cities of El Campo and Wharton as well as local school districts.
The service provides Reverse 9-1-1 calls, cell phone and land-line texting, and emergency updates through the Internet, the National Weather Service and social media.
The messaging system has Geo Centric Targeting so certain portions of the county, or specific neighborhoods, can be targeted to pinpoint who receives the warning.
Wharton County officials have been working with AT&T to secure the installation of a 160-foot monopole communications tower behind the Precinct 1 Justice Building on Alabama Road in Wharton.
The new signal tower should eliminate the cellular system dead-spot that has plagued connectivity throughout the City of Wharton for months.
Finally, Wharton County Emergency Management has never relied upon social media to be a primary source for dispatching pertinent emergency information.
While it and other agencies have social media pages and provide timely updates whenever possible, we are well-aware of the mass confusion and endless amounts of misinformation generated and circulated by private postings.
Updating Colorado River
Wharton County officials recently met with LCRA senior staff to request assistance in obtaining updated topographic (LIDAR) river mapping and hydrological water studies for the entire Lower Colorado River Basin.
After three recently declared flooding disasters in the past 16 months, local officials are greatly concerned the banks of the Colorado River may have changed in structure and integrity.
Wharton County needs updated studies to help residents living along or near the river to determine if they should raise their homes, rebuild or relocate.
County officials requested LCRA’s assistance in acquiring county-wide river inundation maps. While the City of Wharton has flood maps provided by the National Weather Service, no one has ever prepared county-wide maps showing location and depths of overflowing floodwaters that might escape into the non-incorporated parts of our county.
Wharton County officials are equally concerned about possible changes in the depth of river bed sedimentation or, put simply, dirt.
Since 1991, the LCRA has maintained the Colorado River Bottom beneath the river bridge in Wharton to be 52.23 feet. Thus, if a 50-foot wave of water is headed toward Wharton then we are assuming a 102.23 foot cresting level.
If the actual river bed has changed in the past 25 years, then flood calculations could be off an entire foot which profoundly affects the warning and emergency response to thousands of local residents.
A total of 2,320 county homes were affected by recent flooding (980 in unincorporated areas, 1,300 in the City of Wharton and 40 City of East Bernard).
Wharton County officials needs more hydrologic information on the San Bernard River.
We need to install a river gauge in Austin County (north of East Bernard) so we can more accurately project river levels and flows.
Currently, there is only one San Bernard river gauge (located near Boling) and it malfunctioned throughout the recent flooding event.
New river gauges cost approximately $60,000 and necessitate an estimated $10,000 annual maintenance charge.
My fellow citizens, Wharton County was truly blessed throughout Hurricane Harvey in that we had no reported loss of life and no major injuries to the thousands of emergency responders providing local assistance.
While there is no way to prevent hurricanes, 20 inches rainfalls and 100-year river floods, we can and must continue to review and improve our response strategies to better warn, assist and serve all Wharton County residents.