Federal Emergency Management Agency

Horns Up: Flip-flopping on its earlier decision to withhold additional aid, the Federal Emergency Management Agency declared West, the town devastated by a fertilizer plant explosion in April, a disaster area on Friday. The money comes as welcome news to a town still reeling from a disaster that caused as much as $100 million in damage to insured property. We appreciate the president’s and FEMA’s recognition of the importance of these funds to the rebuilding of West.

Horns Down: Gov. Rick Perry has called three special sessions during the 83rd legislative session, but he has yet to place tuition revenue bonds, the funding mechanisms for campus construction projects, on the legislative agenda. We hate to keep harping on it, but we have to ask: What gives, Governor? 

(Illustration by Colin Zelinski)

Update at 11:10 p.m. - Local fireworks sellers have agreed to not sell "winged fireworks", rockets and missiles due to concerns about fires starting because of dry vegetation. "Winged fireworks" are fireworks that shoot into the sky and are therefore considered more dangerous. Vendors in Bastrop, Travis and Williamson counties pulled these items off their shelves on Tuesday.

At a Mr. W Fireworks stand along U.S. Highway 290 west, sales people Skeye Sullivan and Zachary Pickrell sit in lawn chairs beneath a pitched tent, patiently awaiting customers. When a silver Tahoe pulls off to the side of the highway, Sullivan quickly rises to greet her new customers. She demonstrates a firecracker to a young boy, who giggles and claps his hands in excitement.


This stand is one of many firework stands that surround major and minor roads in Travis County outside of Austin’s city limits. Travis County has a burn ban in place until July 25, although fireworks can still be legally sold from June 24 to July 4. While Travis County officials are encouraging citizens to go to public firework displays, some people are taking advantage of the opportunity to buy the explosive light and noise devices in preparation of Fourth of July celebrations.

Pickrell said this is his and Sullivan’s first time selling fireworks, but they plan to do it again at New Years and in the future. He said the most popular item they’ve sold so far has been small noise-making firecrackers.

Sullivan, who said she has always loved fireworks for as long as she could remember, said fireworks are something everyone can enjoy. “It’s fire,” Sullivan said. “What’s not to love?”

Some disagree with Sullivan. Concerned with safety, Travis County officials are recommending people enjoy fireworks at community events where the explosives are handled by professionals, rather than buying and using their own. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, a department under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, fireworks caused 8,600 injuries in 2010, with 73 percent of them occurring between June 18 and July 18. FEMA warns that sparklers burn at a temperature around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to melt metal and cause third-degree burns. The agency also warns that firecrackers can injure a person’s hands or face if they explode at an unsafe distance.

Lisa Block, a spokeswoman for the Travis County Emergency Services, said the Travis County Fire Marshal’s Office believes it is safer to attend public displays because fire-fighting equipment and personnel are nearby to handle any emergency, should one occur.

“Every year during New Year’s and the Fourth of July, the number of calls made to emergency services increases,” Block said. “Usually, there are reports of a fire an average of three calls a day, but as many as 212 calls have been received in one day on these holidays.”

Should people decide to purchase and use their own fireworks, Block said there were certain safety procedures Travis County recommends they follow, such as only using fireworks on smooth, flat surfaces, away from leaves, grass, people and buildings. Block said it was also important to not use fireworks that seemed to be malfunctioning.

City of Round Rock spokesperson Roger Heaney said the firework show in Round Rock is performed by licensed pyrotechnicians and is staffed by the local fire department in the event of an accident. But Heaney said there has never been an accident in the 20 years Round Rock has been holding the celebration.

Heaney said people enjoy coming to the event because fireworks have always been something that fascinated them.

“Fireworks create a sense of adventure and safe danger,” Heaney said. “I think it also takes us all back when we were kids and how we had a sense of wonder and amazement as a child when we witnessed fireworks for the first time.”

The Round Rock firework show is on July 4 and begins at 9:30 p.m. at Old Settlers Park. In Austin, the Austin Symphony July Fourth Concert and Fireworks, another firework celebration, is happening at the Auditorium Shores at 8:30 p.m.

Heaney said public firework displays foster community spirit. But Pickrell said there is nothing like using fireworks on your own.

“People like to blow shit up,” Pickrell said. “Fireworks are a symbol of independence and American freedom. What other reasons do you need?”

Radio stations and TV channels all over the country aired a nationwide Emergency Alert System test Wednesday to unify communication in the case of a national emergency.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, along with the Federal Communications Commission and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, organized a national emergency broadcast alert that would signal an undisclosed national emergency, said FEMA spokeswoman Stephanie Moffett.

“We are doing the test now to see what works, what doesn’t and what improvements need to be made,” Moffett said. “It’s been in the works for months, and we wanted to do this when there was a time to test things out before something happens — if something happens — to merit the use of the system.”

In case of a national emergency, messages will be aired on televisions and radio stations nationally just like the local alert systems people are familiar with now, Moffett said. The only difference is that this was the first nationwide test, and all radio stations and TV channels to participated, she said.

Ann Arnold, president of the Texas Association of Broadcasters, said that the alert system is a useful diagnostic test for communicating with people across the nation.

“The EAS test is certainly still a viable mechanism for distributing information,” Arnold said.

A younger generation may be more interested in newer forms of technology, but broadcasting is the most reliable means of communication, Arnold said.

The Amber Alert test, which notifies people about child abduction through local and regional broadcast channels, exemplifies the effectiveness of using this medium, she said.

“Internet goes in and out, and cell phones don’t always have the best reception to receive text messages,” Arnold said. “Part of this is [also] testing the equipment and machinery of the system to make sure everything works in the case that we would need it to.”

FEMA spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said in a statement that FCC and FEMA are currently collecting data about the results.

“This initial test was the first time we have tested the reach and scope of this technology and what additional improvements that should be made to the system as we move forward,” Racusen said. “Only through comprehensively testing, analyzing and improving these technologies can we ensure an effective and reliable national emergency alert and warning system.”

Published on Thursday, November 10, 2011 as: National EAS test assesses effectiveness of alert system

The first nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System will be conducted on Wednesday at 1 p.m. in an attempt to prepare the American public for future emergencies.

“It’s a part of larger efforts to strengthen our nation’s preparedness,” said Jackie Chandler, Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman. “As a team, we’re testing this so that everybody will be prepared before, during and after disasters.”

After two years of preparing for this public alert, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s FEMA and the Federal Communications Commission have joined together to provide a 30-second EAS test that will interrupt television and radio programming across the U.S.

“This is the first nationwide test. We’ve never had an actual emergency alert system test,” Chandler said. “It’s a little similar to the local or the state version, however this will involve radio and television stations including satellite cable in all U.S. state and territories.”

Through this test the FCC hopes to locate any flaws in this nationwide alert and to fix what is not working, said Lauren Kravetz, spokeswoman for the FCC’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau.

The test is not something that the public should take great concern over, Chandler said.

“The most important thing right now is that we’re letting people know ‘don’t stress, it’s only a test,’” Chandler said.

Members of the Black Student Alliance pick up debris, bricks and scrap metal on a homeownerÂ’s site Sunday morning as part of Horns G

Photo Credit: Danielle Villasana | Daily Texan Staff

[Corrected Oct. 24: An earlier version of this story misstated the role of AmeriCorps in the Bastrop project. AmeriCorps helped coordinate the volunteer effort.]

Longhorns trekked to Bastrop by the busload to help neighborhoods not yet reached by federal disaster support groups after more than 1,300 homes were destroyed by recent wildfires.

More than 35 student groups registered for Horns Give: Bastrop, an event arranged by Student Government. Spokeswoman Sydney Fazende said SG raised donations and funds through an online campaign and from contributions from businesses, including $3,800 from Huffington Homes. It took six buses and 11 vans to transport about 800 student volunteers to Bastrop High School before heading out to the site on Sunday morning, Fazende said.

Some of the volunteers went to clear two plots of land owned by Bastrop homeowner Sean Harris. He said he lost his home, his mom’s home and his business, the North End Zone Remodel Project.

Harris said he was at home with his wife and children when the fires occurred. The sheriff forced him to leave before he could salvage much of his and his mother’s belongings, he said.

Harris said his mother, wife and four kids plan to go to the property today. His goal was to repair the property enough so that his family could return home, he said.

“The kindness and generosity of the students who decided to come out today is overwhelming,” he said. “Without the help, we’d be months behind getting this property ready for my kids. My only regret is that I don’t know who to contact or who to send thank you letters to because so many students came out.”

Reva Davis, president of the Black Student Association, said personal items found in the remains — such as old Christmas cards and a child’s handprint in concrete — proved to be a reality check.

“Everybody had their own little moments,” she said. “Everybody would find something that was wrong or amazing to them. It was all breathtaking because you don’t plan on losing something like that.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency and AmeriCorps have not yet begun work in the targeted neighborhood, said SG philanthropy director Josh Gold. He said he was a member of one of the first groups on the site.

Volunteers worked at a property owned by a man with severe back problems and his wife, who is confined to a wheelchair, Gold said. Although the husband had been making an effort to make improvements, he had not made a dent on his own, Gold said.

“We found a piece of jewelry that the wife actually made, and it was completely shattered,” he said. “It didn’t seem like much, but just seeing it, she burst into tears. I was tearing up.”

Those not affected by the fires can underestimate the positive impact a few hours of their time could make, Gold said. The difference made by the 800 students was incredible, he said.

“We live in a little bubble around UT,” he said. “Their whole lives were burned off the face of the earth for no reason, and they just have to pick up and keep going.”

Printed on Monday, October 24, 2011 as: Horns Give in Bastrop

ST. LOUIS — The federal government has frozen some aid to tornado- and flood-ravaged Missouri and the South to focus on immediate help for victims of Hurricane Irene, disappointing residents and officials who said Monday they still need help.

Federal Emergency Management Agency spokesman Bob Josephson said FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund is running low — down to between $800 million and $1 billion. When that happens, the agency focuses on immediate response, rather than long-term rebuilding. It also needs to ensure there’s enough money to respond to any other disasters that might occur this year, he said.

The shift drew criticism from Missouri’s senators, who promised to push to get full funding restored for Joplin, where a May 22 tornado killed 160 people and damaged about 7,500 homes, and other parts of the country hit by disasters earlier this year.

A little-noticed provision in the recently-passed debt limit and budget deal permits Congress to pass several billion dollars in additional FEMA disaster aid, but the White House has yet to ask for more money.