April 19, 2006
Perry criticizes H-GAC evacuation committee plan

Yesterday, I wondered how Governor Perry would react to the Houston-Galveston Area Council's (H-GAC) cretive interpretation of his executive order to name a single person to manage future catastrophes that may strike the region. Today we find that the answer is that he doesn't much care for it.

"I do not see the wisdom in having 15 people being brought together on a conference call when 1.2 million people's lives are on the line," he said. "I think it makes abundant good sense in those grand, large situations like that to have one individual being able to make a decision on the evacuation of an entire region."

Well, that's clear enough. Problem is, just narrowing it down to 15 people was no small task, and not everybody is buying into the idea to begin with.

Before the committee approach was adopted, its name was changed from "Unified Area Command" to "Unified Area Coordinating Committee." Some judges and mayors, loathe to give the committee any undue imprimatur of authority, assented to the plan only after the name change.

"I'm not going to delegate my responsibility as a Fort Bend County official to any committee," said Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert.

Added Galveston County Judge James Yarbrough: "This committee is not going to tell me what to do."


[Houston Mayor Bill] White and [Harris County Judge Robert] Eckels both said they expect to reconcile Tuesday's vote with Perry's order.

"If there is a massive regional evacuation, then there needs to be someone that is calling the shots on transportational logistics. That's something we wanted," White said. "With the committee, it can happen before hurricane season begins."

Eckels said he thinks the committee of 15 - as opposed to 10 times as many mayors and judges - can name a single commander soon, albeit not within the timeline of Perry's order.

The inability to choose a single commander for every type of catastrophe, as directed by Perry, arose from discussions with emergency management personnel, who argued that one person might be best for a hurricanes, another for dealing with a bioterrorist attack, Eckels said.

"My expectation is that this committee will now move forward and identify people who will fill those commander roles," he said.


Most public officials denied that discord played any role in their ability to name a single commander for the 13-county region.

Yet it was clear Tuesday that some of the coastal-inland rifts caused by the Rita evacuation have not fully healed. Shortly after Rita, some coastal officials blamed Harris and other inland counties for failing to prevent logjams as residents headed toward San Antonio, Austin and Dallas.

"I already know what to do in my county," Brazoria County Judge John Willy said during the discussion. "What I need help with is areas outside my jurisdiction, where I have no power."

Further, as the story notes, the committee has no statutory authority to do anything, just some "moral authority" that may or may not (and probably won't) be respected by the individual mayors and county judges. That leaves us with this, which is more or less what we started with:

Under Texas law, county judges are a county's top emergency management official. They have the power to call for evacuations but derive their other emergency management powers from the governor. If Perry ultimately finds the committee approach unacceptable, therefore, he could intercede with his own plan.

Local officials, however, don't expect that to happen.

Still unclear to me is what exactly Perry can do about this. He can't prevent a county judge from ordering an evacuation; I'm not sure what he can do directly about their "other emergency management powers", and I'm not sure how interceding with his own plan would play out. This is beginning to have the feel of one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time but may turn out to be unworkable in reality. I'm more confused by all this than anything, so I'd love to hear some feedback from you. (Hey, blogHOUSTON! You guys have an opinion on this? I'd like to know it if you do.)

Posted by Charles Kuffner on April 19, 2006 to Hurricane Katrina | TrackBack

Great! Will they still be bickering about this when the next hurricane is here? Looks like we're on our own next time.

Posted by: Charles Hixon on April 19, 2006 4:12 PM

This is beginning to have the feel of one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time but may turn out to be unworkable in reality.

Here's a thought for our Gov -- if he REALLY wants to create regional commanders via gubernatorial fiat, then why any pretense of local control? The governor should just pick the regional commander as he might pick a university regent.

Oh, wait -- that won't do... because THEN someone might blame the governor for any resulting fiasco, and no governor wants that.

I don't know if that's much of a contribution to your discussion, but that's where I am right now, which is not far from your own "unworkable in reality" conclusion.

Posted by: kevin whited on April 19, 2006 10:03 PM


This is a murky area.

In talking to the Governor's office yesterday, they seemed to be taking the position that the Texas Disaster Act allows Perry to order almost anything when it comes to catastrophes. And Eckels told me that beyond the power to call for an evacuation, county judges derive all their "emergency management" powers from the Governor.

However it would, I think, require statutory changes, i.e. legislative action, to fundamentally alter the balance of power in local regions.

It's not going to be decided easily, and the local folks aren't going to cede power willingly.


Posted by: Eric Berger on April 19, 2006 10:33 PM

Is Perry a Global Warming Denier?

Or, does Perry believe in Global Warming, but just not in doing anything about it?

Or, is Perry making Global Warming (and therefore, Hurricanes, droughts, fires, heat waves) worse for everyone? Since Texas under Perry (and since Bush) and the U.S. under Bush have Voluntary Pollution Laws, this means that Greenhouse Gases are increasing unabated, unregulated--the HumVee of Pollution Laws--messing with Texas and the whole planet.

Hurricane Perry, saddling us with a Greater-Extinction-Level Job Performance.

I don't trust him with my family's fate in a disaster which in some part is of his own making. Not At All.

Posted by: Support Science to Reverse Global Warming, if still possible on April 21, 2006 4:12 PM