Texas Emergency Management ONLINE 2016 Vol. 63 No. 4

Rapid Population Growth and Emergency Management

The Texas population is exploding. The state demographer’s office predicts that the population of Texas could double by 2050. Many of the counties around the large metropolitan areas of Dallas, Tarrant, Harris, Bexar and Travis counties are some of the fastest growing areas in the country and are quickly becoming some of the largest population centers in the state. What were once sleepy farm and ranch towns are now becoming large, progressive cities, and more and more people are living in areas that have long been prone to severe and dangerous weather events.

Population growth and weather hazards

Where the population is growing and some of the weather hazards typical to the area. Darker areas denote counties with higher population growth.

Population growth brings with it opportunities for positive change. Increased revenues from new business and industry along with increased tourism give cities the funds for municipal improvements and a higher standard of living along with a better infrastructure, better parks and better schools. But all that comes with a price.

Very often the infrastructure just can’t keep up. Millions of Texans suffer daily in some of the worst traffic in the country. Students attend overcrowded schools while districts struggle to build new facilities quickly enough. Emergency managers in these high-growth areas also are facing challenges never before seen at this scale.

During rapid growth, the changing demographics of the population may be difficult to track. At first, this may not seem important, but a very large proportion of people moving to Texas are not just from other states; they’re from other countries. These new Texans may underestimate just how severe the weather can get in Texas. They may have never experienced a Central Texas flash flood, a North Texas ice storm, a Gulf Coast hurricane or a Goliath blizzard. They also may be used to different emergency alert procedures and warnings, and chances are their first language is not English.

As populations grow, some jurisdictions that have historically performed emergency management requirements as a collateral duty now must recruit and hire full-time emergency management coordinators or entire emergency management departments. Those communities that have full time emergency management may need to look at hiring regional coordinators to coordinate responses for neighboring jurisdictions. A regional emergency management operations coordinator can focus on plan review and development, training staff on the National Incident Management System (NIMS), the Incident Command System (ICS), and the roles and responsibilities in an emergency operations center (EOC). Exercise planning and development will need to incorporate a larger scope and even consider scenarios for threats to the community that may not have existed before. Mutual aid agreements and contracts with other rapidly growing neighboring communities will probably present more challenges.

Emergency planners in rapidly growing areas must consider a rapidly expanding infrastructure and how it will affect emergency preparedness. Emergency plans must consider how new road and highway construction along with improvement to existing roads will affect an isolated or communitywide evacuation order out of and into their community.  New fire stations and other emergency response facilities spring up in new developments. Even the structure of the city government itself will change with growth, and planners must account for these changes.

A community’s sheltering plan may require constant scrutiny. The inability to evacuate, whether because of limited roads or little to no notice, may create the need for mass sheltering. The shelters must not only accommodate the increase in demand, but may also need to consider changes in policy or procedure. For example, security at shelters may become necessary where none was required in the past. Communities must also consider the complex requirements of a growing special needs population as well as an increase in pets and other animals that will require sheltering.

During population growth, communities may see an increase in Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD). These organizations have the best interest of their communities at heart. However, a lack of coordination between volunteer organizations and community officials can create confusion for responders and the general population.

Communicating with citizens and warning them of pending emergencies during rapid population growth creates additional concerns. For example, sections of the community still under development may not have warning systems in place or the new population may not be aware of how the warning systems are used for sharing information. A community’s homeless population may change, both in number and location. Communities must create avenues in which to communicate under these circumstances. Sometimes rapid expansion of cities and towns require consideration of whether or not to update warning systems communitywide.

As Texas population centers continue to grow at the current rate, planning and responding to disasters that are creating ever-increasing threats to areas that are not only densely populated but also cover very large areas, coordination among numerous large communities is critical, and sharing resources and allocating personnel is becoming even more vital. According to Doug Bass, Chief of Emergency Services in Dallas County, the North Central Texas Council of Governments (COG) has become a key role player in that coordination. It was clear how important the COG’s role is in this coordination when record flooding inundated the Metroplex in 2015 and deadly tornadoes struck in December.

Finally, a rapidly increasing population will bring a rapidly increasing demand for natural resources, such as water resources and electricity, and the restoration of these resources as quickly as possible following an emergency or disaster. The effects of a drought on a community and its water resources will become more extreme and of course affect many more people during rapid population growth, and emergency planners will need to consider these issues as they prepare and review their emergency preparedness plans.

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