Officials keep Victoria's emergency plan secret

 

State law orders local communities to prepare an emergency plan aimed at keeping their residents safe in the event Texas is hit by a hurricane or attacked by terrorists,

That document, which can be hundreds of pages long, contains information like whom to call in the event of a chemical spill, where shelters are and who coordinates search and rescue.

The plan also outlines emergency communication and evacuation routes in the event a monster storm like Hurricane Harvey barrels toward Victoria.

To see how well the city and county followed their emergency plan, the Victoria Advocate asked for a copy of it. However, the city, county and Texas Department of Public Safety said it should be kept secret.

Both the city and county referred to a 2013 opinion by the state's Office of the Attorney General, which upheld the county's argument that the entire plan could be hidden because publishing any part of it could provide criminals with information needed to carry out acts of terrorism.

However, hiding emergency plans from the public isn't the norm in all Texas counties. Several jurisdictions spanning from Galveston to Paris post their plans - or at least significant parts of them - online for the public to view.

That open-government policy is considered the best practice among national experts who say the public should be involved in planning for disasters.

"Regular people should be involved in the planning process," said Lee Clarke, a Rutgers University professor. "When officials keep plans secret, they're not doing anyone any favors - even themselves."

Victoria's emergency officials referred to the city attorney when asked why the documents were withheld. But Richard McBrayer, Victoria's top emergency official, said some governments might choose to go beyond what the state requires and add tactical components.

"Each entity receives from the state the basic template version," McBrayer said. "And many of those entities have decided to make them private or public depending on tactical plans."

But in Victoria, average citizens aren't the only ones who may not see the plan - neither county commissioners nor the city council are required to approve it. Some elected officials didn't see the plan until after Hurricane Harvey, when one councilman asked for a copy and found some parts of it weren't followed.

But national experts say emergency planning documents weren't always considered so secret.

Clarke, who authored "Worst Cases: Terror and Catastrophe in the Popular Imagination," said the terrorist attacks on 9/11 changed attitudes among some officials in emergency and law enforcement communities.

"They started operating on the presumption that more knowledge is dangerous," Clarke said. "You don't want to advertise to al-Qaeda or ISIS or some radical right-wing group or any radical group where your vulnerabilities are because then they can take advantage of them."

But that type of thinking is just a presumption, which doesn't result in effective disaster planning, Clarke said. Instead, the documents should be accessible and developed with the help of the public and elected officials, he said.

"I'm not talking that everybody needs to know where the nuclear codes are - that's not what we're talking about," Clarke said. "We're talking about if the water system is vulnerable, how come?"

Although governments often cite homeland security risks as the basis to keep plans confidential, some legal experts say that may not be the only reason they're being withheld.

"In my experience and in the cases I've dealt with since Hurricane Harvey, what we have is an embarrassed governmental body trying to cover its backside," said Joseph Larsen, a Texas attorney who specializes in media law.

Larsen, a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said he knows of a half dozen Texas counties tried to keep plans from the public after Hurricane Harvey.

But not all Texas counties fight to keep those documents hidden.

In Brazos County, which is home to Texas A&M University, emergency officials take the stance that the more the public knows, the better. The emergency plan - including a section on "terrorist incident response" - is posted on the county's website.

"We like to think that we are helping our citizens to be better prepared by having more information," said Michele Meade, the county's emergency management coordinator. "We think knowledge is power."

Some things are redacted - such as officials' personal cellphone numbers and specific lists, Meade said. But otherwise, she said, people looking to do harm could probably find information like government headquarters or shelter locations online.

"If people want that information, they're going to get that," Meade said.

Just northwest of Victoria, DeWitt County is gearing up to examine each section of its emergency plan during public county commissioners meetings, said Cyndi Smith, head of DeWitt's emergency management department.

"We're letting everyone in the county that has a part to play in our emergency plan have a say in it," Smith said.

In Victoria, however, that planning process isn't always so public. Councilman Jeff Bauknight said he didn't see the plan until he asked for a copy after Hurricane Harvey.

Bauknight wanted to know what was in the plan because he thought there was a lack of communication immediately after the storm, he said. But once he got a copy of the plan, he found that council members didn't have a designated role to play.

"People in my district are going to ask me the questions about what's going on with governmental response," Bauknight said. "This plan has no involvement at all of any City Council members."

Although county commissioners don't approve the entire 4-inch-thick document, County Judge Ben Zeller said they're very involved in creating and reviewing sections that address county issues such as public works, clearing roadways and putting up barricades.

"There's not a requirement for them to approve the document in its entirely," Zeller said. "But that does not mean that they're not involved with it and involved in the updates."

McBrayer, Victoria's top emergency official, said everyone directly involved in the plan's execution reviews it constantly. Even if a section focuses solely on a topic such as law enforcement or utilities, multiple people review each section, he said.

If residents want to get involved in emergency planning, there are other ways to do that, he said. His office hosts public training events and also recently asked for the community's feedback on a plan to mitigate future hazards.

But some national experts say the public and elected officials should be involved in creating and reviewing all emergency plans to ensure they're effective - not just the ones officials decide to share with citizens.

"The plan may meet the grant requirements," said Jeff Schlegelmilch of Columbia University. "But it doesn't meet operational requirements."

Schlegelmilch, who serves as the deputy director of university's National Center for Disaster Preparedness, said the government officials who create emergency plans are ultimately in service to citizens. Both the public and their elected officials should demand to see the plans, he said.

"When we hide information unnecessarily, we have to ask, why are we doing that?"

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Marina writes about housing, Hurricane Harvey recovery and local politics for the Victoria Advocate. You can reach Marina by emailing mriker@vicad.com or follow her on Twitter, @MarinaStarleaf.

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