Community Health and Resources Management Workshops
Workshops show how planning decisions made today will impact tomorrow’s environment and community. They include more than three dozen indicators for assessing planning decisions.
CHARM is a practicum driven endeavor directed by the Texas Coastal Watershed Program (a part of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service). Through its workshops, CHARM provides the public with an interactive method of looking at long-term growth and development. How can we plan for a safe, resilient future? Where should growth be encouraged and where should it be avoided? What does the health of our watersheds and coasts look like with 5,000 new homes? 100,000? Where does it makes sense to grow sideways, inward, or upward? Which areas are particularly vulnerable to flooding and surges?
Most important of all, what do we want to conserve for future generations?
Each workshop begins with a long-term population target and a time frame. Participants select areas on the map to target for development and apply a development style. CHARM takes that information and calculates in real-time
a host of planning impacts. Each table works as a team to create their custom plan while exploring data, talking about what matters to them, and learning as they listen to others. The exercise continues until participants hit their growth targets. The final results can be compiled and table teams can share strategies and ideas. They can use input and priorities gathered from the workshop to develop planning recommendations.
Local officials and resource agencies are seeking new ways to involve the public on coastal planning issues. It is the objective of the Coastal CHARM program to facilitate that through the sharing of tools and mapping information. The CHARM mapping application supports community planning in a public workshop setting. The tool works at local and regional scales as well as addressing multi-year and multi-decade planning horizons. The program is ideal for comprehensive, watershed and general land use plans as well as coastal resource planning.
Because CHARM has a standing, in-house gulf-wide database of spatial data and a shareable template for the mapping application, new scenario planning workshops can be quickly developed for any area on the US Gulf coast. This means that planning partners in the community can focus on organizing and outreach, not data management or technology.
Expansive Flood Control Project Safeguards Austin Neighborhood
While much of Texas was overwhelmed by torrential rains during the 2015 Memorial Day weekend, residents of one Austin subdivision were spared thanks to a flood mitigation project completed in 2004.
Before the project, more than 175 homes in the Crystal Brook subdivision were subjected to direct flooding from Walnut Creek. Much of the area was within a flood plain in which water depths potentially could reach seven feet in some homes. Additionally, the storm drain system in the neighborhood was inadequate; frequently resulting in serious localized flooding that occurred during smaller storm events.
The project consisted of two-phases. Phase I focused on improving the drain system, while Phase II involved the installation of a levee/floodwall system to protect the neighborhood from creek overflows. The levee/floodwall system incorporated Loyola Lane to create a flood barrier on the southern boundary of the neighborhood. Prior to the improvements, Loyola Lane was five feet below the base flood elevation and could not be reconstructed without the integration of a flood control project.
A concrete floodwall system, eight feet high and 5,700-feet-long, was built to surround the parts of the neighborhood adjacent to Walnut Creek. A large box culvert system was installed south of Loyola Lane stretching for three-quarters of a mile. These improvements created a storm drain system with adequate capacity to reduce localized flooding during frequent smaller events including construction of a bypass channel, inlets, storm drains, levees, floodwalls, bypass box culvert, and bank stabilization.
By increasing storm drainage systems capacity, the completed project provides protection to the one percent annual chance level, thereby reducing the effects of localized flooding of the entire neighborhood.
Local Ordinances and Companies Work Together To Promote Water Conservation
While some Texas cities experienced record breaking floods in 2015, drought still remains a high hazard in some areas. A dry landscape can cause adverse economic, environmental, and social impacts as rivers, reservoirs, groundwater levels, and soil moisture all drop. Extreme heat and parched soil can have severe consequences on agriculture. Lack of rain can destroy crops, causing thousands of dollars in losses.
Changes in Texas laws and city ordinances have been some of drought mitigation’s newest best practices. Water conservation activities including xeriscaping and water utility company rebates are just some of the new programs being used across municipalities to help Texans conserve our most precious resource.
Many of the most popular water conservation opportunities are promoted by local water utilities. San Antonio Water System (SAWS) offers $100 coupons to local nurseries for residents who replace parts of their traditional lawns with certain drought-tolerant plants.
Austin Water offers residential properties $25 for every 100 square feet of healthy turf grass converted to native plant beds with a maximum rebate amount of $1,250. Dallas Water Utilities offers free irrigation system check-ups to help residents conserve water and lower water utility bills. El Paso, known for its aggressive promotion of water conservation, has paid residents for years to replace their grass with gravel, cement or native plants. Combining changes in local ordinances and water conservation programs can make a difference in helping residents across the state lessen the effects of extreme heat and drought.
Working to educate the public on in-home conservation these entities continue to promote water conservation by saving homeowners money while letting them know how they can improve their environment.
New Rest Areas Designed with Tornado Safety in Mind
More tornadoes have been recorded in Texas than in any other state, partly because of the state’s extensive size. An average of 132 tornadoes is recorded each year. The annual total varies considerably, and certain areas are struck more often than others. Tornadoes occur with greatest frequency in the Red River Valley of North Texas. The greatest number of tornadoes recorded in Texas in a single year was 232. The second-highest number was 223. These occurred in 1967 and 1995, respectively.
With that in mind, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) is constructing new rest area facilities in tornado-prone areas of the state to provide a safer experience and better services for travelers. The new facilities are equipped with surveillance cameras as well as air-conditioned, heated, and assisted-use restrooms. More importantly, they also have tornado shelters.
“Given the fact that we are about safety, we want to entice people to stop, rest and get off the road,” said Stephen Binder, a project manager for the Safety Rest Area Program. “North and West Texas are tornado-prone areas. We are 100 percent about safety. Putting tornado shelters in the rest areas in North and West Texas is simply the right thing to do. We don’t place tornado shelters in rest area facilities that are not high risk areas.”
Built to guidelines set forth by FEMA, the tornado shelters are 13’ x 11’ and have a capacity of at least 20 people. A surveillance camera is also in place.
“The design and construction was originally handled by our department because we know what works,” said Binder. “We try to place the rest areas within a 100 miles radius of each other and along both sides of the highway.”
Visitors to the tornado shelters are greeted by the wall plaques depicting historic tornadoes that touched down in the state along with other additional facts regarding tornado safety. These displays also serve the purpose of deterring folks from simply running into the building and rushing right out. They are encouraged to rest for a moment and stay a while to read the facts.
“We care about people. We like to display graphics. If folks see it, they will most likely remember the shelter,” said Andy Keith, head of the Safety Rest Area Program. “This will also attract them to the other information displays so they will stay around a little longer on their break from driving.”
Newton County Proves Mitigation Works
Over a 72 hour period in March, 2016, torrential rain drenched eastern Texas, resulting in flood levels across the Sabine River Basin not seen since 1884. Rainfall totals ranged from 14 to 20 inches, creating flash-flooding conditions along the river and its tributaries. Lake levels on Toledo Bend Reservoir, the largest man-made body of water in the South, reached record levels. This triggered spillway release of 207,000 cubic feet per second.
The good news is that mitigation efforts during the preceding decade remarkably reduced overall destruction and potential loss of life.
In 2004 Newton County began development of its first Hazard Mitigation Plan. The planners decided that flood-prone property acquisitions were the highest mitigation priority.
“Between the years, 1983 and 2001, there had been significant flooding of housing subdivisions located near and downstream from Toledo Bend Dam, requiring emergency evacuations,” said Greg Wobbe, Newton County’s Floodplain Administrator.
Some residents evacuated voluntarily. Some had to be rescued in boats. Keeping this from recurring would protect both residents and emergency responders who may risk their own lives to help residents escape rising waters.
The county decided to do something about minimizing the risks. The county developed an HMGP acquisition project application that initiated a multi-phase relocation process to move residents to safer, higher ground and restore beneficial floodplain functions.
Property acquisition is the most permanent form of flood hazard mitigation. For eligible communities, FEMA typically funds 75% of the cost of property acquisition with the local community and state contributing the remaining 25%.
“The local match for this project was funded by the Sabine River Authority. They have been a very important partner in this project since the beginning,” said Wobbe.
Texas Panhandle Partnership Implements Regional Alert System
In May 2015, an emergency alert regional system in northwestern Texas proved invaluable when it provided mass notification of severe weather and flooding to responders and communities in central and south Texas.
Reverse calling systems (emergency alert regional systems) use a database of telephone numbers and associated addresses. When tied into geographic information systems (GIS), this product application can be used to deliver recorded emergency notifications to a selected set of telephone service subscribers rather than a wide spread system alert that includes areas not affected. The system plays a key role in ensuring effective routine and critical communication to alert local residents and mobilize personnel in a timely manner.
The system, which has grown to include 150 counties, got its start in 2010 at the Panhandle Regional Planning Commission (PRPC). Funding was provided through FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program administered by TDEM.
With the help of FEMA and other partners the PRPC were able to establish a reverse calling system to serve a wide array of emergency management purposes at a highly affordable cost. After considering different options, the PRPC decided to work with a vendor to form a partnership with other jurisdictions that shared the need for mass notification. The PRPC applied for Hazard Mitigation Grant (HMGP) to fund the alert system project to ensure that all counties in the region could affordably obtain and maintain notification capabilities.
The result was the creation of the Alliance for Community Solutions (ACS); a group of stakeholders that share a common interest in developing and implementing cost-effective, technology based emergency management tools that benefit the entire group.
Partnering with other jurisdictions through ACS has been a plus. The notification system has been improved beyond its original design with enhancements funded by the PRPC and other ACS members. In addition to the common suite of tools that can send alerts by text, voice and email, the PRPC now includes an English-Spanish translation. Other ACS partners have added additional language modules including French, Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese and German to better serve their non-English speaking residents.
Unique Wildfire Mitigation Efforts in Bastrop County Trim Risks
On Sept. 4, 2011, a firestorm engulfed Bastrop County, destroying 1,688 homes, burning more than 34,000 acres, and claiming two lives. The Bastrop County Complex Fire was the most devastating wildfire in Texas history and work is underway prevent history from repeating itself.
The county received a grant from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) to fund the mitigation project.
“Reducing the amount of vegetative debris that fuels wildfires is one action the county is taking to minimize the fire threat,” said Michael Fisher, former Bastrop County Office of Emergency Management Coordinator. As dead vegetation and trees accumulates on the ground, a continuous source of fuel is created. When ignited, the resulting fire burns hotter, spreads faster, lasts longer and covers more ground. Removing the debris to decrease the fuel source means that the fires will be less intense.
The county decided to reduce the understory fuel using non-traditional mechanical means as opposed to prescribed burning. According to Fisher, it was a unique approach that had never been used.
“We targeted nearly 4,000 acres, which we are developing into a north project and a south project,” said Fisher. “For each project, we identified the line, area or zone where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wild land or vegetative fuels.”
According to Fisher, the developed areas feature a mix of houses located on small, medium and large lots. While the homes in those neighborhoods have varying degrees of fire resistance and space that can be defended, the adjacent areas have a history of large destructive fires and a dense amount of flammable plant materials.
The north project cost is just over $1.6 million; FEMA contributed more than $1.2 million. The south project cost is $2.1 million; FEMA contributed almost $1.6 million.
With those funds, the county has designed a mechanical thinning process that uses skid steers to grind up and remove the undesirable plant species growing under the tree canopy. As a result, in a wildfire outbreak, the fire stays on the ground and does not rise into the trees.
Fisher said that although the project sparked excitement and curiosity, there were some reservations among residents. Most of the acreage targeted for mitigation is private property. According to Fisher, the most challenging part of the project was getting homeowner buy-in, but the county succeeded in gaining right of entry from each property owner.
The results will also provide advantages for another group of Bastrop County residents.
The project sites, home to the endangered Houston toad, are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were consulted before work began. Toads in the project area have been captured and given to a biologist for safekeeping until it is deemed safe to return them to their habitat.
“We are learning that thinning out the forest actually creates a better environment for the Houston toad,” said Fisher. “In addition to mitigating wildfires in the neighborhoods, the project is helping to create a healthy forest because it returns the ecosystem back to the way it was intended.”
Bastrop, according to Fisher, is happy to tell its story. “If we don’t get it right, we’ll tell that story, too. Disasters are non-traditional. Sometimes it takes a non-traditional approach to do what needs to be done in terms of mitigation. You can’t be timid.”
For additional information regarding nontraditional wildfire mitigation, go to:
Wichita County Tornado Safe Room Program
Wichita County, 100 miles northwest of Fort Worth, is located in the area of Texas know as Tornado Alley. While they haven’t had a major tornado since 1979, the residents of Wichita County are still concerned with tornadoes striking their homes and businesses.
Prior to the Tornado Safe Room Program a few residents had installed safe rooms or shelters, but most of them did not meet American Tornado Shelter Association (ATSA) or National Tornado Shelter Association (NTSA) standards. Since the Tornado Safe Room project was implemented in Wichita County in 2012, over 500 county residents have taken advantage of the program and installed safe rooms or shelters at their homes.
The project began with the Wichita County Judge requesting hazard mitigation funding for the Safe Room Project. Once approved, the local news affiliates and papers begin running stories on how to apply for the grant which provided a 50 percent reimbursement of up to $3,000. Applications were available on the County webpage and in several County offices. A list of certified installers from the surrounding area was included to assist local residents in finding an ATSA or NTSA recognized installer.
Residents are able to install the safe room or shelter at a location best suited for them. Structures have included underground garage storm shelters, above ground safe rooms and backyard storm shelters. When the installation is complete, the application and all required documents are submitted to the County Judge’s Office. The information is forwarded to the Emergency Management Coordinator (EMC), who conducts a site visit so the GPS coordinates of the shelter or safe room are on file in the Emergency Management office and in the incorporated cities first responders’ databases. The EMC also gives the resident a picture of the ATSA or NTSA seal. All of these documents are forwarded to TDEM for review and payment authorization.
Since the program’s implementation, there have been several tornado warnings and thunderstorms that have brought high winds in excess of 50 and 70 MPH in the northeast and southwest portions of the county. None have hit the magnitude of the 1979 tornado, but because of those warnings and the new safe rooms, residents have a protected and survivable place to take cover.
The goal of the safe room program is to increase the safety of the Wichita County residents and allow them to protect themselves until a first responder can reach them.
The program began in 2013 and has recently been extended. The active support of the county judge and commissioner has been instrumental in its success.