As Tropical Storm Hanna increases in strength and inches nearer to the Texas coast, officials throughout the state are preparing for what’s to come.
While forecasts don’t call for torrential rainfall in the Brazos Valley, local first responders are still preparing for any disasters that might reach Texas as hurricane season persists for the next few months.
The Associated Press reported late Friday that Hanna is forecast to make landfall as a hurricane this afternoon, striking near the Corpus Christi area. A hurricane warning was placed into effect from Baffin Bay to Mesquite Bay, with anywhere from 5 to 10 inches of rain expected to fall on coastal communities.
According to the National Weather Service, Bryan-College Station faces a 70% chance of thunderstorms tonight, with a tenth to a quarter of an inch of rain expected. More storms are expected Sunday, with winds at about 5 to 10 miles per hour.
About 40 responders with Texas A&M Task Force 1 are spread across the Texas coast this weekend, awaiting Hanna’s arrival. According to TX-TF1 director Jeff Saunders, six separate squads of firefighters and other team members await to perform swift water and flood water rescues if needed, with a total of 12 boats at their disposal.
As TX-TF1 stands ready to respond, new precautions are being taken in regards to COVID-19. Saunders said the first responders are grouped together according to their region of origin, and firefighters with fevers are not permitted to attend deployments. The 40 who are along the coast now will be tested for COVID-19 before returning to their hometowns. Saunders said while his colleagues are taking precautions as recommended by the Centers For Disease Control, risk of exposure to the virus won’t impede their actions in helping someone in danger.
“Life safety absolutely comes first,” Saunders stated. “If our folks need to perform a rescue, they’re going to perform a rescue.”
Closer to home in Bryan-College Station and surrounding counties, disaster response leaders have already been in talks with a collective of health officials, fire departments and nonprofit organizations about a COVID-19 adjusted response to a major storm.
“Especially right at the beginning of hurricane season, we usually sit down and talk about plans for when things like Hanna pop up in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Jason Ware, deputy emergency management coordinator for Brazos County. “... Obviously the pandemic has changed a few things this year. For instance, if we had to [conduct] some type of shelter operation, social distancing and masks would need to come into play.”
Ware noted that currently, Brazos County is dry, and rivers and creeks remain low.
“If we don’t get 8 inches of rain in an hour, we’ll be fine,” he said, referring to the possibility of flooding. “Based off of the current forecast, I don’t think we will have that problem. But, we do keep in contact with the [National] Weather Service and monitor those situations.”
Ware said that local emergency operations coordinators keep in touch with organizations, such as the United Way and American Red Cross, that can offer assistance should anyone be displaced by a storm.
Mike Halfen, disaster program specialist for the American Red Cross in Bryan, said the Red Cross has been monitoring Hanna, and on a national scale has made updated plans for storm response following the start of the pandemic.
“COVID-19 creates a lot of challenges to what we normally do for disaster relief,” he said. With COVID-19, we now have to think about how to shelter and feed people safely. We as the Red Cross are prioritizing a non-congregate style of sheltering. We’re talking about a situation in which we keep people as isolated as possible — hotels, even camp rounds, college dormitories, casinos or any sort of living situation or sheltering option is something we will take a look at.”
One of the Red Cross’ contingency plans is for a high magnitude event in Houston, Halfen said. The Brazos Valley, he noted, is the first major stop for refuge north of the Houston area.
“Knowing this storm is hitting the Gulf Coast, that region [of the Red Cross] is ready to respond, likely to the possibility of some flooding,” he said. “In order to support that region, us being their next-door neighbors in the Central and South Texas region, we are staging physical resources for individuals needing help. And, we’re prepping some of our workforce in the event we’re needed to deploy to that area.”
Halfen noted the American Red Cross is in need of disaster response shelter volunteers, and donations of blood as well. To learn more about volunteering, visit www.redcross.org. To donate blood, visit www.redcrossblood.org/give.html. Halfen said all blood donors will receive free, complimentary coronavirus antibody testing.