Last month, Governor Perry issued an executive order that mandated (among other things) the creation of an "incident commander" to oversee evacuation issues in each of the state's 24 regions that have councils of governments. Today, on the deadline for implementing that order, the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC), which is the council for this region, is set to defy that part of the order.
Former Kemah Mayor Bill King, who participated in the negotiations to select a local commander, acknowledged "big splits" over whether a single person should be named to oversee the entire region. Some local officials - the sprawling region includes major metro areas and small towns, coastal and inland communities - were reluctant to transfer any authority to one person, King said.
Elected officials in Harris and 12 surrounding counties, known as the Houston-Galveston Area Council, have instead chosen to elect a 15-person committee to determine how to handle such responses.
"It's probably impossible to find one person qualified to deal with every kind of event," said Jack Steele, executive director of the H-GAC.
The 13 county judges within the region, along with the mayors of Houston and Galveston, are expected to each nominate a member of the "command council." It's possible this council could then choose to name an executive committee or single member to coordinate responses, but the latter is unlikely.
Harris County Judge Robert Eckels agreed with Steele, saying the greater Houston region is too large and faces too wide an array of disaster scenarios - from a hurricane to terrorist attack in the Houston Ship Channel - for a single commander to possess the qualifications to lead every conceivable response.
"An incident commander, by its nature, is specific to a particular incident," he said.
[S]ome local officials favored adoption of a protocol similar to the National Incident Management System, or NIMS, established by the federal government after the Sept. 11 attacks. It's a flexible plan for local officials to coordinate responses with the federal government after a disaster.
Dennis Storemski, Houston's top emergency management official, said a majority of local jurisdictions favored a NIMS-like approach, in which an ad-hoc leadership group would be named once a disaster occurs.
King, however, said such an approach ignores the fact that, unlike most natural disasters and terrorist attacks, hurricanes are somewhat predictable. Not only can they typically be forecast a few days in advance, but, unlike a bombing in the Ship Channel, planners can be fairly certain a hurricane will happen at some point.
For that reason, he said, there should be a permanent, defined command structure to continually plan and prepare for hurricanes.
"The whole idea of NIMS is to be prepared for any kind of disaster," King said. "But you don't have that problem with a hurricane. You know what you're going to be getting."
Now the ball is in Governor Perry's court. What does he think about what H-GAC has done?
Perry spokeswoman Rachael Novier said the governor would withhold judgment of regional plans until they were formalized, but added that he expects his order to be followed.
"We have confidence that local leaders will implement the governor's executive order and adopt a regional unified command structure that protects lives and property in a catastrophic event," Novier said.