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TDCJ prepares for new hurricane season with lessons learned from Rita

It was an amazing feat. More than 9,000 TDCJ offenders were moved out of harm’s way and later returned to their units safely and securely. Staff performed heroically under fire and sustained no injuries.

 Pacher and Moss gathering around lighted table with hurricane path
TDCJ Incident Manager Darin Pacher, right, and CID Plans and Operations administrator Kirk Moss, use a digital imaging table to project the path of Hurricane Cassandra during a simulated disaster drill held in Huntsville in April.
Photos by David Nunnelee
Still, agency administrators responsible for disaster response say that several lessons were learned from Hurricane Rita last September. No one expected, for example, that a mass exodus from Houston would create such gridlock that evacuation buses, from Huntsville, would be unable to reach prison units in the Beaumont area after Rita suddenly moved away from her projected point of landfall near Angleton.

“I think one of the biggest lessons we learned is that we always have to be expecting the unexpected,” said TDCJ Incident Manager Darin Pacher. He and other Correctional Institutions Division staff staged a hurricane simulation drill in April to prepare for the 2006 storm season that began on June 1. The agency also participated in a statewide hurricane evacuation drill staged by the Texas Engineering Extension Service during three days in early May.

“Essentially, this is an incident command training,” Pacher explained about the April drill. “We’re trying to teach the central office staff the process for operating within an incident command structure. To test that, we’re utilizing the hurricane simulation. We hope to achieve a good organizational capability, test some of the lessons learned from Rita, and find some new things we can do for the upcoming hurricane season.”

More than 40 administrators from departments throughout the agency participated in the exercise staged over two days at the Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas on the campus of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. Each administrator became part of a team responsible for coordinating responses to simulated events as they unfolded. One group handled logistics, another oversaw operations, while still another was responsible for planning. Other groups addressed safety issues, prison management and support matters, personnel needs, medical care, financial questions, and media inquiries. An incident commander responsible for the agency’s overall response to the simulated disaster directed all of the group activities.

In many cases, simulated events mirrored those that actually arose during Rita, including loss of power and communications, staffing shortages, and urgent calls for fuel, food, water and portable toilets. Command Center staff also had to deal with simulated reports of a busload of unruly offenders stuck in traffic on a major interstate and a pregnant offender who had gone into labor aboard a bus.

WIlliams leaning in to talk to Liles during a meeting
Administrative Review & Risk Management Director Debbie Liles, left, confers with then-Classification & Records Director Pamela Williams during a hurricane simulation drill held in Huntsville in April.
“It was a good exercise to get everyone together from the different departments, people who have not been directly involved before,” said Administrative Review & Risk Management Director Debbie Liles, who was part of the incident command center team during Hurricane Rita. “It helps us better connect with one another and find out resource needs and to better prepare for the hurricane season. We know where we are not prepared, so we can all go back to our offices and put together better preparation plans.”

The TDCJ drill simulated a Category 1 hurricane forming near the Bahamas on a balmy day in September. Named Cassandra, she drifted westward into the Gulf of Mexico and then turned north toward Texas, posing a potential threat to TDCJ facilities near the coast as Rita did. And like Rita, Cassandra, grew in size and strength as she approached the state. Finally, five days after forming, the simulation exercise had her slamming into Brazoria County as a Category 5 storm with sustained winds of 160 miles per hour. Hurricane Rita struck as a Category 3 storm with winds whipping at approximately 115 miles per hour.

Cassandra caused severe damage as far north as Huntsville. In Dayton, 110 mile-per-hour winds downed a large section of fencing at the Hightower Unit and left a security picket heavily damaged. TDCJ’s facility in Texas City was destroyed by the simulated storm, leaving only its cinderblock walls standing in its wake. But its offenders had long been moved out of the area. In all, administrators participating in the exercise coordinated the evacuation of some 13,000 offenders from coastal units, including those in Beaumont, prior to Cassandra’s landfall. Many were moved to units in the Huntsville, Palestine and Navasota areas. About 10,000 offenders rode out the storm in hardened units within the affected area. No injuries were reported among offenders or staff.

“It was actually more successful than I imagined it would be,” Pacher said about the exercise. “Just the interaction between all of the people in the agency is important. I think that is the best thing that came out of this.”

“Rita taught us lessons,” said Major Tom Hunt with Offender Transportation. “Every storm we’ve gone through has taught us lessons. This (simulated) incident has taught us lessons.”

Pacher said the TDCJ exercise and the statewide drill were good ways to build on what was learned from Rita.

“You can always improve, and that’s what we hope this will do,” he said. “We got it done with Rita, and we got it done well. But this will make it easier in the future for everybody involved. I think there’s absolutely no doubt that we’re better prepared. The staff that has participated in these last two trainings know exactly what they need to be doing. We are much farther ahead of the curve this year than we were a year ago.”

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Nathaniel Quarterman named director of CID division; Dretke retires

Nathaniel Quarterman portrait
Nathaniel Quarterman
Nathaniel Quarterman was named director of the Correctional Institutions Division in May, replacing Doug Dretke who retired. Quarterman had served as deputy director for Prison and Jail Management within CID since 2003.

“Nathan embodies the kind of focused operational leadership critical to our success,” said TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston. “His strong leadership skills will continue to serve our agency well in his new role.”

Quarterman began his TDCJ career in 1984 as a correctional officer and worked his way through the security ranks. Prior to his appointment to deputy director for Prison and Jail Management, Quarterman served as director of the agency’s former State Jail Division.

As CID director, Quarterman oversees 106 TDCJ facilities housing approximately 151,000 offenders.

“Because much of my experience has been in the field of operations, one of my priorities is making time to really listen to those who work in the field,” Quarterman said. “I am truly excited about this new opportunity. I have worked with a number of exceptional leaders in this agency who have taught me many good things, and I am hoping to take those lessons and use them in this new role.”

Quarterman was serving as assistant warden at the Coffield Unit in Palestine in 1995 when he joined the newly formed State Jail Division as the first senior warden at the Cole State Jail in Bonham. He was promoted to the State Jail headquarters in Austin in 1998 as the assistant director of security and was later named deputy director of the division. He became the director of the State Jail Division in September 2001.

Dretke retired after 26 years with TDCJ to serve as executive director for the Correctional Management Institute of Texas at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.

“Doug has served this agency with distinction,” said Livingston. “In his new role, Doug will continue having a positive impact in the field of corrections, as he has had during his 26-year career at TDCJ.”

Dretke started his career with TDCJ in 1980 as a correctional officer and later worked as a social service counselor and education and recreation supervisor before returning to the security ranks. He served as senior warden at both the Pack Unit in Navasota and the Holliday Transfer Facility in Huntsville prior to his promotion to Region IV director in Beeville.

In August 2001, Dretke was promoted to deputy director of the then Institutional Division. He because director of the Correctional Institutions Division in September 2003 with the merger of the agency’s Institutional, Operations, Private Facilities, and State Jail divisions.

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