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Damage minimal

Hurricane hits TDCJ facilities near Beaumont for second time in two years

Correctional officers rounding up inmates to board the bus
Offenders evacuated by bus from the privately operated Willacy County State Jail arrive at the McConnell Unit in Beeville.

TDCJ Photo

Monstrous Hurricane Dean made little mischief. But humble Hurricane Humberto sure pulled a fast one.

Humberto developed suddenly off the Texas coast as a tropical storm on September 12 and within 18 hours grew into a Category 1 hurricane that made landfall near High Island – virtually the same area where Hurricane Rita came ashore in September 2005 as a Category 3 storm – and caused minimal damage to TDCJ facilities near Beaumont.

Humberto, which dropped back to tropical storm status shortly after landfall, knocked out power to the Stiles, Gist, and LeBlanc facilities at about 4 a.m. Generators were used to provide the TDCJ facilities with electricity, water, and sewer until power could be restored the following day. Seven inches of rain and winds clocked at 70 mph in the area also caused some minor structural damage at the three facilities. The LeBlanc facility reported minor roof damage, and both the Stiles and Gist facilities had the roof torn from their outlying horse barns. Gist officials also reported water leaks in several buildings within the compound. There were no injuries to staff or offenders at the three units.

Parole Division Region I Director Jay Patzke said field officers accounted for all intensive supervision offenders within the scope of the storm and that damage to parole facilities in Beaumont and Orange consisted only of a few broken windows.

Humberto’s development from a tropical storm with 35-mph winds to a hurricane with winds approaching 85 mph in so short a time baffled even seasoned forecasters.

“To put this development in prospective, no tropical cyclone in the historical record has ever reached this intensity at a faster rate near landfall,” said senior hurricane forecaster James Franklin at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Stiles Unit Senior Warden Joe Smith said Hurricane Humberto didn’t pack the punch of Hurricane Rita, which left significant damage in her wake.

“There’s no comparison,” he said of the two hurricanes. “I wasn’t near as scared this time.”

Hurricane Dean tracks south

Hurricane Dean, meanwhile, tracked further south than initially anticipated to make landfall in central Mexico in August. But had the Category 5 storm taken a late turn to the north and dug into deep South Texas as some forecast models suggested it might, TDCJ was ready.

“I think the only surprise was that the storm didn’t come any closer to us,” said TDCJ Incident Manager Darin Pacher. “But we planned for it.”

Planning ahead for any sudden movements a hurricane might make proved prophetic two years ago when Hurricane Rita made a 160-mile shift in direction at the 11th hour and made landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border rather than further down the coastline near Matagorda as expected. Since then, TDCJ has continued to hone its hurricane response capabilities by regularly staging drills for both central and regional command staff members. The hurricane drills are extremely realistic, and because of Rita, responders can expect a number of twists and turns to be thrown at them at any time.

“I think it’s just a result of lessons learned,” Pacher said about the training. “You’ve got to be thinking down the road. Last time around, we didn’t have the incident command process in place. So that’s what has changed since Rita. We are now fully trained in incident command, and Hurricane Dean was the first time we really used it. So, from the central office standpoint, the training was key. Everybody knew their role.”

One lesson agency officials learned from Hurricane Rita was to remain flexible in planning and to allow for unexpected changes in a hurricane’s path. With Dean, Correctional Institutions Division (CID) Director Nathaniel Quarterman made the call to empty two state-operated prison facilities in Edinburg and to move all offenders from a privately-operated state jail in Raymondville a full 84 hours before storm winds were expected to begin blowing along the coast. And within 15 hours of his decision, the orderly relocation of approximately 3,320 TDCJ offenders and accompanying staff had been made to facilities in Beeville, Kenedy, San Antonio and Hondo. Approximately 182 Texas Youth Commission offenders, 82 TDCJ parolees, and 52 special needs offenders from TDCJ’s Galveston and Texas City facilities were also moved out of harm’s way without incident.

Extra time to plan

Pacher said that moving 84 hours prior to landfall allowed responders to consider staff fatigue and to plot a second move if Dean suddenly changed course. It also enabled the agency to complete its transport before the state was to begin evacuation of an estimated 133,500 people who had no other way out of South Texas by utilizing school buses, charter buses and airplanes.

TDCJ responders in the thick of the mobilization applauded the early call to move offenders and staff.

“People were calmer,” said CID Region IV Director Ray Castro in Beeville, where offenders from South Texas were sheltered during Hurricane Rita. “They knew they had to get the job done, but it wasn’t like they had to do it within six hours. Because of our experience with Rita, the staff not only knew what they had to do, but they also knew that they had the time to do it. It settled everybody down.”

Pacher described the response of regional staff to the emergency as “perfect.”

“You have to give credit to the people out in the field,” he said. “It’s not all about Huntsville. We do take the lead and try to set the direction, but the focus should be on the people who are getting it done.”

Officials with TDCJ’s Offender Transportation Department and the Office of Inspector General (OIG) also earned high marks for their response to the mass mobilization. As a precaution, transportation officials utilized chase vans and wrecker trucks in the event of bus breakdowns. OIG officers also staged themselves at points along the designated evacuation routs so they might be able to respond to any potential problem within minutes.

“From our standpoint, it couldn’t have gone any better,” said Chris Stallings, OIG’s manager for Administrative Support and Programs in Huntsville.

Both Pacher and Quarterman point to the improved communications between command staff and responders in the field as the biggest difference between hurricanes Rita and Dean.

“Communications, communications,” Quarterman said. “Everybody was plugged in and knew the direction we were going. From the officers in the field to the command staff.”

Overall, Quarterman and Pacher were well satisfied with the agency’s response to Hurricane Dean.

“I think we did a good job,” Quarterman said. “There’s always room for improvement, but basically, the plan worked. ”

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