Date: 2021-10-06 12:00:00
In a decade of unprecedented natural disasters and a nearly two-year coronavirus pandemic, Hays County officials are consolidating public safety resources not only for better emergency preparedness but also to keep up with growth and the way people communicate.
From flash flood warnings to coronavirus vaccine clinic dates and everything in between, local authorities have upgraded the way they get the information to residents, and with a central command center set to open in 2022, the county has never been more prepared.
Kyle broke ground in September on a $37 million public safety center, allowing for the expansion of the Police Department. The building also will have space for an emergency operations center that will serve as a hub for surrounding counties and first responders.
The 64,000-square-foot facility will have several meeting rooms that can be used for training, public gatherings and community-based programs.
“This is about putting resources in the right areas because when we deal with an emergency, we tackle the most crucial areas first and work our way down,” Kyle City Council Member Robert Rizo said. “It is important to have a command center like this so that we have one central place to work together, communicate and work to keep our people safe.”
Mike Jones, emergency services office director for the county, said the last several years have been a wake-up call for everyone, prompting city leaders and residents to become better prepared for emergencies.
In 2015, a Memorial Day weekend flood killed 14 people, trapped dozens of others and left behind millions of dollars in damage to homes, public spaces and other areas along the Blanco River.
Jones said that flood was a lesson learned, and six years later the goal is to get the message out.
Since then, more than 30 flood warning systems have been installed at low water crossings across the county, offering a live feed of the water levels. He said the county has also worked to register residents for its emergency notification system, which integrates severe weather information and other newsworthy alerts.
With more than 230,000 residents in the county, Jones said more than 100,000 addresses are registered in the system.
The city of Wimberley has joined the effort in localizing its mass notification system, the first system upgrade in recent memory.
Laura Calcote, city secretary and public information officer for Wimberley, said the city launched a mass notification system called CivicPlus that will enable the distribution of urgent and routine alerts across multiple communication channels straight to a resident’s devices via text, phone call or email.
She said the system also would have alerts for road closures, citywide events and other community news for residents to opt into.
“It’s an easy way to communicate with our residents,” Calcote said. “We really didn’t have a functional system in place prior to this. Now we have one place where we go to send out those emergency alerts that we deem necessary.”
Through local partners, such as churches, H-E-B, and the Blanco River Recovery Team, which was put in place after the 2015 floods, Jones said designated meeting places have been established to offer food, water, shelter, clothing and information on recovery efforts.
He said recent flooding events also led to better preparedness among residents for emergency evacuations or shelter-in-place orders.
Jones said the county offers emergency preparedness classes to residents, in which they learn skills such as first aid, citizen response in an active shooting, and search-and-rescue techniques. He said it’s also a great place to talk with residents about emergency supplies such as flashlights, water bottles, firewood and backup generators.
During the weeklong February freeze, he said he was happy to hear that several people had what they needed to survive. But work still needed to be done so more people are prepared.
“We had some folks without, but some were prepared with water, firewood and generators and created a response team for themselves and their neighbors,” Jones said. “When I go into a public setting and talk about how to put together evacuation or shelter-in-place bags, I get a good response now compared to a few years ago.”
He expects that to continue to improve, citing the uncertainty experienced during the freeze and the pandemic.
Rizo said the new public safety center, which was approved by Kyle voters as part of the November 2020 bond package, will be a place where local leaders and crews can collaborate in times of need, especially during major weather events like the February freeze, and bring resources together to meet the needs of the community.
During the freeze, when many residents went without water and electricity and had limited access to grocery stores, area officials collaborated to provide water and food through a food bank drive. They also arranged for shelter and beds for those who were flooded out by busted pipes.
“I don’t think anyone saw this coming, but it’s good that we (as a city) have the foresight and learned lessons that shows us that preparedness, if nothing else, can take care of that,” Rizo said. “As a city we are doing a great job of pre-thinking anything that could come up in the future.”