This is (not just) a drill: How the NDOW prepares for natural disasters in Texas

September is National Preparedness Month and, at TCEQ, preparing for natural disasters is a year-round effort. Part of that effort includes taking part in the Natural Disaster Operational Workgroup.

About once a year, the NDOW meets to ensure the agencies responding to natural disasters in Texas, such as hurricanes, are all on the same page.

This year, the NDOW, which includes the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas General Land Office, US Environmental Protection Agency Region Six, US Coast Guard District Eight, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, met in July to go over best practices in responding to major disasters.

“During disasters, one of the most important things we do is work with our partner agencies, so, with a drill like this, it really helps us develop those relationships on the front end, so when we come in during an actual disaster, we already know the people, we have those relationships and we’re able to start working together immediately,” said Susan Clewis, TCEQ region director for Region 14, Corpus Christi.

Clewis was regional director in 2017 when Hurricane Harvey hit and knows how important preparation can be prior to a storm.

“For the region it’s a good opportunity for agencies to see what a real event would look like, so when they have to move into a real disaster, they’re familiar with how it’s going to work, who the people are and that helps them understand the process,” Clewis said.

Last year, the annual event was cancelled, so it was important to get the agencies back together to practice protocols.

“Practice makes perfect and during COVID, we had to miss a lot of exercises, so it’s good to get the muscle memory back for all the systems we have to use: How to respond, the people we’re supposed to call, to find out who’s in charge at every event and just keep communication up,” Jack Lunday, TCEQ Emergency Management liaison said. “It is hurricane season, so if we do have a hurricane in the coming weeks or months, then we’ll have just practiced and when we come back, we’ll know the partners we’re going to see, where to deploy right away and where we have the capability to go set up and respond in that local area.”

One of the benefits of different agencies coming together is learning how to protect the environment that they may not be as familiar with.

Keyth Pankau, U.S. Coast Guard district response advisory team supervisor in the Greater New Orleans Region, has overseen the pollution response along the Gulf Coast, from Mexico to Tallahassee, Fla., for about 12 years. He’s seen how training can help preserve the marshlands in Texas and Louisiana.

“I think the average citizen should feel very secure knowing the amount of effort and time that’s spent preparing for these disasters,” said Pankau. “We try to think of every different angle, especially when it comes to how we protect the environment. The more we can do to plan and prepare, the less intrusive we must be when we respond to that environment. A lot of times the environment is sensitive, so if we can talk through that in an exercise ahead of time, we can think of all the ways we can mitigate the impact when we are responding to a disaster.”

He added that talking with different agencies can also help individuals realize their biases and deter them from thinking that just because they successfully responded one way in a situation doesn’t mean it always will.

This year, much of the training focused on mobile data collection apps to ensure agencies were all using the same standardized collection system, so that they can be more efficient in reporting data from the field after the disaster, which provides a better picture of the incident to stakeholders.

“I can’t stress enough how important having good working relationships with our state and federal partners and local agencies are during a disaster response,” said Anthony Buck, TCEQ’s emergency response coordinator. “A hurricane is such a huge disaster that TCEQ cannot do it alone. We need to rely on our state partners to come out and take care of business. It’s a huge endeavor and we have a lot of partners to help us out.”