GOVERNOR'S HOMELAND SECURITY DIRECTOR BRIEFS SENATE COMMITTEE
|Dallas Senator John Carona chairs a meeting of the Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security|
The Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee today heard testimony regarding the state's level of preparedness in the event of a future man-made or natural disaster. Steve McCraw, Director of Homeland Security for the Governor's Office, testified that Texas faces three major threats to public welfare: international terror, natural disasters such as hurricanes, and a disease pandemic.
With hurricane season only 35 days away, most of the committee's questions today focused on the lessons learned from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and how the state is implementing improvements in its disaster preparedness plan. McGraw said that while the state avoided loss of life when Hurricane Rita struck the Texas Gulf coast, there is much room for improvement. "Even though the state's very proud that everyone was out of harm's way 12 hours before landfall, I think we can all agree that it's nothing to brag about based on the congestion," he said. "We have to do better, there's no question about it."
One of these areas for improvement is helping different areas of the state work together to lessen the impact of a disaster. McGraw said officials dealing with millions of evacuees from hurricanes Rita and Katrina were surprised by how distant areas of the state, like El Paso, Laredo and Amarillo, would be affected by the influx of evacuees from New Orleans and the Texas gulf coast. The state must, he said, have a unified command structure to oversee evacuation and relief efforts, and must be able to utilize resources from across the state, not just in the immediately affected area.
To that end, the state is being organized into 24 regional areas based around the current Council of Governments regional districts. Each of these areas will be under a unified command structure. The state is also implementing improved interagency communication, that will allow fire, police and emergency crews to communicate on designated mutual aid channels. McGraw said that 17 of the 24 districts now have a unified command structure in place, with the remaining districts completing implementation by June 1.
|Senators Rodney Ellis, Eliot Shapleigh and Gonzalo Barrientos listen to testimony about the state of emergency preparedness at a committee meeting Tuesday.|
McGraw also addressed the issue of security along the Texas-Mexico border. El Paso Senator Eliot Shapleigh expressed concern that in an area that is in some cases more than 90 percent Hispanic, some legal residents might become the target of over-zealous law enforcement officials. McGraw replied by saying that local and county officials have no jurisdiction over immigration issues, and should contact immigration officials if they arrest an illegal immigrant during daily police work.
The threat to Texas from international sources comes not just from terrorism, McGraw testified, but also from organized crime along the border. He said that militarized, organized and violent crime syndicates currently control the illicit drug trade at the border, and that these activates can endanger both Texans and Mexicans that live and work in those areas.
The overriding theme of McGraw's testimony was co-operation, both between regions and between agencies, in order to effectively respond to any disaster, natural or man-made, that Texas might face in the future. To help accomplish this goal, the governor is asking for two measures to be passed by the Legislature. The first is the funding of the Disaster Contingency Fund, which helps support statewide emergency operations. McGraw said that this amount was initially estimated at about $25 million, but the costs associated with the efforts to fight the recent outbreak of wildfires in north Texas means the amount will likely change. The other request was for legislation granting authority to the governor to implement multi-jurisdictional evacuations.
Large scale disasters do not just affect one isolated area of the state, said McGraw. "Whether it's a terrorist attack or mother nature, they do not respect boundaries, jurisdictional or geographic and that as such it's necessary, especially when it's a catastrophic event, when it overwhelms and entire region, these things need to be planned for ahead of time, prepared for, and exercised for."