In a span of three months, Hurricane Dolly, Tropical Storm Edouard, Hurricane Gustav, and Hurricane Ike tested TDCJ’s resolve to respond to a pending natural disaster by taking dead aim at TDCJ facilities situated along the Texas Gulf Coast from Brownsville to Beaumont. In each case, the agency weathered the storm without serious damage or injury, a remarkable achievement Pacher attributes to proficient planning, sound decision-making, and the extraordinary execution of the agency’s disaster plan by employees in the field.
“I guess I learned that no two hurricanes are the same,” Pacher, whose job it is to coordinate the agency’s response to emergency situations, said about the numerous tropical weather systems affecting Texas this year. “There was something different and something more challenging about each one of them.”
Pacher said the power and unpredictability of Hurricane Ike, a strong Category 2 storm that barreled ashore on Galveston Island on September 13, proved to be the biggest challenge for he and other members of the central command staff in Huntsville. Indeed, before finally striking Galveston, forecasts called for the independent-minded hurricane to make landfall first in far East Texas, then in the Rio Grande Valley, and then in the vicinity of Corpus Christi.
“From predicting where it was going to go and making decisions, there’s never been one that I’ve been involved with where we’ve had a harder time pinpointing where we needed to evacuate from,” Pacher said. “I don’t know that anybody on the coast of Texas could say that there’s another storm in recent history that fooled the forecasters as much as this one did. It was never consistent.”
In the end, TDCJ evacuated approximately 7,000 offenders, parolees, and staff from facilities threatened at some point by Ike’s 110-mile-per-hour winds.
Pacher was named the agency’s first Incident Manager in July 2006, a position created by governmental entities across the nation in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
“Across the nation and state, you saw a big focus on emergency management,” Pacher said. “I think what you’re seeing is that people realize the need for emergency management and preparedness because of Katrina and Rita. And I think that if you didn’t respond that way, if you didn’t create positions whoever you were a county, city, state agency - you were going to be left behind. If you don’t have somebody to focus on these things, you’re just going to be behind the curve.”
Pacher sees himself in a support role, a member of a central command team that coordinates everything from the evacuation of offenders to the delivery of provisions to affected facilities. In the event of an approaching hurricane or tropical storm, he is responsible for monitoring its movements and keeping senior TDCJ staff apprised of its strength and where it might make landfall. Even with the storm still days away, if TDCJ facilities could be threatened, the central command staff led by Correctional Institutions Division Director Nathaniel Quarterman is convened in Huntsville and planning specifically tailored for the storm at hand begins. Throughout the state of emergency, Pacher continues to feed information to senior managers and works to control the flow of the command staff.
“My job is to make sure that as a command, we are functioning as we should, that we are focusing on the right things,” he said.
And like his colleagues throughout a threatened region, his hours can be long.
“I am not alone in that category by any stretch,” he said. “There are people that positively worked more hours than me during Ike. There are people in the field that probably never went home. There are just periods of time, no matter what the emergency is, that people are going to spend long days trying to get a handle on things because that’s the most important part of it. If you don’t get it right in the beginning, the rest of it is going to be difficult to handle.”
Pacher gives the agency high marks for its response to the storms of recent years, including Rita.
“Rita was built up as this big, huge thing, and it was,” he said. “But Ike, even though it wasn’t that big, bad storm, the way it hit Texas, there was a lot more damage to our state than with Rita. Rita was more powerful, but it hit Texas with a glancing blow. So the challenges for everybody with these two storms were not the same. Even though we felt like we were tested during Rita, I think we were truly tested with this storm.”
Pacher’s hurricane-related duties don’t end with the passing of a storm like Ike. His office is also responsible for seeking reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for storm-related costs to TDCJ. He projects that costs associated with this year’s four major storms will run into the millions of dollars.
Like the tropics, Pacher’s days usually quiet down once the hurricane season ends in November. But even the numerous storms of the past few years don’t make him apprehensive about the start of another season come June.
“I don’t dread it,” he said. “That’s just what we do. If hurricanes come, we’ll deal with them as an agency. There are long hours, but all of us are doing a service. It’s just our jobs.”