City prepared for storm possibility
Celia devastated Mustang Island and surrounding areas with winds that gusted to 180 mph and a storm surge of more than 9.2 feet, according to the National Weather Service. The storm, which spawned several tornados, caused an estimated $500 million damage throughout South Texas, with more than half of the buildings in Port Aransas sustaining major damage, the National Weather Service reported. Thirteen people were killed in the Corpus Christi area, according to the Handbook of Texas.
With Celia's anniversary upon us, the South Jetty is taking a look at plans that have been put together by local city government, the school system and ordinary residents who have anticipated what they will do when another big hurricane hits.
As Port Aransas' emergency management coordinator, City Manager Michael Kovacs is well aware of the differences between today and the day 37 years ago when Hurricane Celia swept across Mustang Island.
"It's a completely new world -- communications, evacuation, planning," Kovacs said.
Though both the city's population and budget have grown since then, Kovacs said he feels the city has adequately prepared to face a storm.
"Our staff has done significant emergency planning," he said, noting that he, Assistant City Secretary Pam Hatzenbuehler and Police Chief Sam Russell are all involved in that planning.
Further, Kovacs added, there's now a "very strong" state emergency response organization in place, and federal agencies involved in planning for storms and helping in recovering from them have learned a lot - especially in the last couple of years.
That reference is to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) debacle in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans in 2005.
Aside from top-level agencies, Kovacs also pointed to interlocal agreements between Port Aransas and Corpus Christi, pledging mutual help in the event of a storm, and of plans for all the counties in the Coastal Bend Council of Governments to help each other. The Coastal Bend Council of Governments is a 12-county state subdivision ranging from Kenedy County in the south to Refugio County in the north and as far west as McMullen County.
The city also has contracts with experts who stand by ready to remove debris in the wake of a storm as well as oversee recovery operations.
"The recovery contractor will actually be in charge of things, including debris removal," Kovacs said.
Among the changes since 1970, Kovacs counts "a lot better local media. The World Wide Web allows everybody to see what's coming. There's the local National Weather Service as well as the National Hurricane Center," he pointed out.
Kovacs said after the island evacuation when Hurricane Rita was headed this way, only one person told city officials he wasn't aware of the evacuation order.
That should change in the future, if residents will remember not to hang up on a phone call just because it might be a salesman.
What's called a "reverse 9-1-1" system automatically calls every phone number in Port Aransas in the event of an evacuation order. That system was in place in time for Rita, but because the beginning of the prerecorded emergency message sounds somewhat like a telemarketing call, Kovacs believes many people hung up within the first few seconds.
The bright side of that, he said, is that many of the people who hung up on the call were probably in the middle of their own evacuation preparations.
While city employees will be told to evacuate if a storm heads our way, that doesn't mean the city will shut down.
It will simply change locations.
Due here within the next week or so is a specially-modified trailer that will contain emergency communications equipment as well as just about everything needed to operate a city from a remote location. That includes supplies of food and water.
The city already has three portable emergency communications boxes, each of which can be run either from a regular electric outlet or from a vehicle 's cigarette lighter. They let police, fire and ambulance workers talk to each other, even if the power is down.
And if that happens, the city also has emergency generators on hand to supply power to essential services.
"I'm satisfied we've reached at least the basic level of readiness," said Kovacs, who began his career as an intern with Corpus Christi's emergency management office.
"We have a lot of places we still need to go - there's always places we could go (to get better).
"There's always room for improvement in emergency management."