Emergency Management

By: James A. Marten

Type: General Entry

Published: January 1, 1995

With the beginning of the nuclear arms race in the late 1940s, national and state civil defense acquired a greater urgency than it had had during World War II. Despite the founding of new federal bureaus in the 1950s, authority and responsibility for civil defense remained highly decentralized. Decentralization also characterized the state civil-defense program. In 1951 the Texas legislature unanimously passed the Civil Protection Act, establishing the governor as head of the Disaster Relief Council, which was composed of the directors of the various state agencies. The state program duplicated the national in that each agency retained responsibility for its respective relief function. The governor also appointed a state coordinator of defense and disaster relief, who operated at civil defense headquarters in Austin, served as a liaison among the state agencies, and took command during emergencies. William L. McGill served as state coordinator for the first eight years of the organization's existence.

Decentralization also characterized the local level, where mayors, county judges, or locally appointed civil-defense directors received responsibility for disaster planning in their cities, towns, or counties. In the 1980s the state channeled aid-in the form of funds and training-through sixteen state disaster districts coterminous with State Highway Patrol districts. Local civil-defense organizations provided manpower-chiefly volunteers-and implemented relief plans during disasters or practice drills.

In 1963 the Office of Defense and Disaster Relief was moved from the executive department to the Texas Department of Public Safety. The Texas Disaster Act of 1975 renamed the office the Division of Disaster Emergency Services, established the governor's Disaster Emergency Services Council, and provided for greater integration of state and local civil-defense functions. In August 1981 the division, while remaining within the DPS, became the Division of Emergency Management.

Division offices are at the State Emergency Operating Center, a 12,000-square-foot, concrete-reinforced facility located twenty-six feet beneath DPS headquarters in Austin. The director serves as chairman for the State Emergency Management Council, which is composed of representatives of twenty-seven state agencies and the American Red Cross. When a disaster occurs, DEM coordinates the resources and efforts of the council members to solve the problem or prevent the situation from deteriorating.

DEM maintains a duty officer twenty-four hours a day to alert state agencies of potential disasters and to coordinate responses. Heading the department on a daily basis is the state coordinator. DEM responds to a wide variety of disasters, both man-made and natural, such as hazardous material spills or severe weather. The division acts as the state search and rescue coordination center for missing airplanes in conjunction with the Civil Air Patrol and is the statewide coordinator for amateur emergency radio operators. The division also handles requests for federal aid-presidential, Small Business Administration, and Farmers Home Administration disaster declarations. DEM administers federal and state disaster-relief funds for eligible private and public damage in the event of a presidential declaration.

DEM personnel administer federal funds for thirteen programs, including Emergency Management Assistance, which provides matching funds for local-government emergency-management administrative expenses. DEM audits funds spent on both private and public disaster-recovery programs and administers three federal contracts: Nuclear Civil Protection, which includes population protection planning, shelters to help counter the threat of nuclear war, and all-hazard planning; the Flood Insurance Assistance Program, which assists local communities in floodplain management; and Hurricane Contingency Planning, which seeks to inform communities about actions to take to mitigate the effects of hurricanes as established by previously completed vulnerability analyses.

The primary function of the DEM through the years has been to aid victims of natural disasters. These range from the 1954 flood along the Rio Grande to the spring 1957 Panhandle blizzard to the 1979 Wichita Falls tornado, and include droughts, hailstorms, and hurricanes scattered in between. Perhaps the most impressive demonstration of Texas civil defense in action came during Hurricane Carla in September 1961, when the state organization mobilized to evacuate 530,000 residents of the Texas coast out of the path of the hurricane. Refugee centers were rapidly opened and filled, in places as far away as Dallas and Texarkana. Local and state civil-defense officials, the Department of Public Safety and the Red Cross, local police departments, and the Texas National Guard all cooperated. Their efforts limited to forty-five the number of deaths caused by Carla and helped Texans living along the coast to recover from a storm that inflicted well over $400 million worth of damage.

In order to fulfill its original purpose, protecting Texans during nuclear war, the Texas DEM participates in annual nuclear-alert exercises and disseminates information on fallout shelters and other aspects of civilian defense; it has also developed plans to evacuate and to shelter citizens in the event of a nuclear attack. Its bimonthly journal, Texas Defense Digest, has offered through the years about the same amount of information on nuclear as on natural disasters.

Harry Estill Moore et al., Before the Wind: A Study of the Response to Hurricane Carla (Washington: National Academy of Sciences, 1963). State of Texas Disaster Preparedness Manual (Austin: Texas Department of Public Safety, 1977), Part 2. Texas Defense Digest, December 1951. Mattie E. Treadwell, "Civil Defense Planning in Texas," Public Affairs Comment 5 (November 1959). Mattie E. Treadwell, Hurricane Carla (Denton, Texas: Department of Defense Office of Civil Defense, Region 5, 1962).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

James A. Marten, “Emergency Management,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/emergency-management.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 1, 1995