After 10 years of seeing Liberty County through numerous disasters, Tom Branch has retired as coordinator of the Liberty County Office of Emergency Management (LCOEM). His last day on the job was July 31. He is succeeded by his former deputy coordinator, Crista Beasley Adams, who Branch believes is ready to lead the county through whatever disaster lies ahead.
In Liberty County, floods, tropical storms and hurricanes are frequent due to the proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. Flooding is often on a Biblical scale, such as last year’s Harvey, which dropped more than 50 inches of rain in some parts of the county.
“Harvey was an interesting animal. We were all basically stranded on our own islands. You pretty much couldn’t get anywhere,” Branch said. “That disaster was frustrating to some people, but to me, I think it went as well as it could have.”
Branch ranks his success as emergency management coordinator, overseeing an office of three employees, on the fact that Liberty County had no fatalities as a direct result of the storm. While there were a few close calls, no one perished.
“Fifty inches of rain. What are you going to do with that? If you knew it was going to rain and drop 50 inches of rain, we would have called for a mandatory evacuation of the low-lying areas in the county,” he said.
Harvey surprised people in Southeast Texas when it rained for three straight days, causing extensive flooding to areas that had never before flooded.
The resiliency of Liberty County residents, particularly those accustomed to living in flood zones, contributed to the successful outcome of the storm, Branch believes. Coupled with timely and accurate information from his office, residents were prepared for the disaster.
“When I tell people what is going to take place, and they make no effort to take precautions, I am not going to lose sleep over it. When I go to bed at night and think of something I haven’t told them, then that’s a whole other thing. More than once I’ve woken up from a dead sleep and thought, ‘I need to tell people about this or that,’” Branch said.
“Generally speaking, I think we’ve done as good of a job as we could do. I didn’t come here to be liked or disliked. I came here to do a job. I am not much of a kumbaya guy,” he added.
SINKHOLE WAS FIRST OF MANY EMERGENCIES
After a 30-year career in public safety, including 12 years as chief deputy for the San Jacinto County Sheriff’s Office under former Sheriff Lacy Rogers, Branch became emergency management coordinator for Liberty County in 2008. He arrived shortly before a sinkhole swallowed up a few acres of land in Daisetta when a salt dome collapsed.
“That was an unbelievable experience. Not long after that, Hurricane Ike came through in September 2008. Then we had a lull where everything we were doing was a response to Ike. Once you have a disaster, it lasts for years,” he said.
Pointing to a stack of boxes inside one of the LCOEM offices in the county jail, Branch explained that the boxes hold reams of FEMA-related paperwork for the series of floods that came after Ike in 2015-16. Then along came Harvey.
“We had five disaster declarations in 27 months with the floods. That’s almost unheard of. I know emergency management folks in the state who have never worked a disaster. The bulk of emergency managers across the state really haven’t had a lot of disasters. They might have a single flood event or something, but here we get a lot,” he said. “We are so close to the Gulf that we get a lot of rain. After Ike, we had a drought and got spoiled. It was pretty dry for a while. Then in 2015, we started with floods and they didn’t stop for a while.”
Of the top 10 floods on the Trinity River at the Liberty river bridge gauge, six have occurred in the last 10 years and half of those in the last three years, he added.
While cyclical changes in the weather are partly to blame for the flooding in Liberty County, Branch believes that the river is undergoing changes as well.
“Look at aerial photos from the river and you’ll see that the river has changed course. There are 40-foot tall piles of sand in places where there wasn’t sand before and in the next flood it will be moved somewhere else. It’s the nature of the beast. That’s how the river works,” he said.
9-11 TRAGEDY’S IMPACT ON EMERGENCY RESPONSE
The rules for emergency response changed after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, according to Branch.
“It created this business. After 9-11, there were suddenly new guidelines that had to be followed,” he said.
Being a “protocol kind of guy,” Branch adapted to the new guidelines easily.
“I am really big on how things are supposed to be done because I believe there are reasons for the protocols,” he said.
Until his last day on the job, Branch kept a red badge on his desk, a reminder of a time when protocols were not followed in Liberty County during the clean-up of Hurricane Ike. Local officials were investigated by the Justice Department because of how debris clean-up contracts were awarded.
“I had to wear that little red badge every time I went over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office to talk to them about what we were doing in Liberty County. I was happy that I had in those boxes every document I needed to show my office had done everything correctly. I could answer their questions with a document,” he said. “You do not want to wear one of those tags. That’s why protocols are so important. They keep us out of trouble and keep us from having to wear those red tags.”
As a result of the investigation, the county changed the way it handles hurricane debris, now contracting with companies ahead of the storm.
As he leaves the LCOEM, Branch is proud of all the advancements that he helped make for the county in the last decade. When he was first appointed, his offices in the Liberty County Jail were empty spaces. Through grants, he obtained radios and other communication equipment, computers, desks, chairs and other items that will help Liberty County respond to the next disaster.
He plans to spend the remainder of 2018 doing as little as possible, except for a little traveling with his children.
“I have plenty of things to do around the house,” Branch said of his home in Tarkington. “I’ve enjoyed what I do, and it’s been a lot of fun, but it’s time for something else.”