August 31, 2020

Hurricane Laura Response Debriefing

To say we really dodged a bullet last week is a colossal understatement.  With 150 mph winds at landfall, Laura is tied for the fifth most powerful hurricane to hit the continental U.S. since 1900, and is the strongest storm on record along its particular track in the Gulf of Mexico.  Our relief at having been spared from great devastation and destruction this time around is matched only by our compassion and support for our neighbors to the east, which was on display this past weekend with several local supply drives and other assistance efforts.

Though it ended up being a nonevent for us, the run-up to Laura was hardly much ado about nothing.  It was a very, very close call.  It was also an opportunity to demonstrate and evaluate our overall disaster preparedness.  The Bellaire emergency management team’s post-incident review gives us at least some idea of what’s involved in a response like this, and shows that we were indeed ready for any potential impacts.

The week before last, the Emergency Operations Center was initially focused on Tropical Depression #14, which would later become Hurricane Marco, and began conducting daily team briefings and regular conference calls with the National Weather Service and with the State and County.  By the weekend, our attention began shifting to Laura and the EOC status was upgraded to Level III—Increased Readiness.

These activities steadily ramped up as the storm approached, and on Wednesday morning the EOC moved to Level II—High Readiness, and then in the afternoon to Level I—Maximum Readiness.  The EOC was fully staffed overnight and throughout the event, although to maintain social distancing due to COVID-19 some personnel worked remotely.  Thursday morning, after Laura made landfall near Cameron, Louisiana, it had become clear there was no longer any threat to our area and the EOC began demobilizing and returned to Level IV—Normal Operations.

Supplementing the efforts of our EOC professionals, the Bellaire Volunteer Emergency Response Team was also ready to assist.  This is a group of citizens who really stepped up to help during Hurricane Harvey, and in 2019 our public safety departments made it official by recognizing them as an added contingent that could be called upon for support in responding to future disasters.  A location was identified for a volunteer center of operations—with COVID-19 safety protocols in place—had their deployment been required.

Public messaging is an important part of any emergency response, and the City developed a detailed messaging plan that prioritized the information to be provided as well as its timing.  The City consistently communicated to residents over the week leading up to the storm and through its conclusion, utilizing our Notify Me listserv, social media including Facebook, NextDoor and Twitter, the City website, and local media outlets.  The PrepareBellaire emergency alert system was, fortunately, not needed.

As we’re only now getting into peak hurricane season, it’s reassuring to have seen in our response to Hurricane Laura that we’re ready for whatever Mother Nature may have in store.  Our post-incident review is a worthwhile exercise to assess and document our preparedness activities and to inform our continuous improvement.  We’re forever grateful to our emergency responders—which include staff members from across all city departments—for all they do to keep our families and community safe.