Commercial, military aircraft involved in evacuation test in June

HARLINGEN — A category 4 hurricane pushing a fierce storm surge forces officials to use commercial airliners and military aircraft to evacuate hundreds of residents out of San Benito High School.

This is just the type of scenario that could happen.

That’s why on June 8 and 9, the biggest air evacuation drill of its kind in the Rio Grande Valley and the first in the United States will be held to test commercial airliners.

“It’s pretty big, pretty intense, with a lot of moving parts to it,” Tom Hushen, Cameron County’s emergency management coordinator, said yesterday.

The Texas Department of Emergency Management will use the two-day exercise to test city and county departments involved in real-life emergencies, including fire departments, emergency medical services, hospitals and health departments.

“We want to test our people to see if Cameron County knows what to do,” Hushen said. “I think it’s a great opportunity to see if it works.”

The event will re-create the evacuation of 300 residents from the path of a hurricane packing winds of 131 to 155 mph winds along with a strong storm surge, Hushen said.

Hushen said buses will be used to evacuate 300 military volunteers from San Benito High School.

Buses will carry about 236 volunteers acting as residents to Valley International Airport.

There, they will board three commercial airliners which will fly them to Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin, where they will stay in shelters lined with cots.

Meanwhile, two military aircraft will carry 64 volunteers acting as patients to San Antonio, where they will stay in shelters.

“On board, there will be doctors and nurses, as if those individuals were actual patients,” said Charles Hoskins, deputy chief of Cameron County’s emergency management department.

Hushen said the event will mark the first time an evacuation drill uses commercial airlines in the United States.

Contracts are pending with airline companies, he said.

“We want to try to use different airlines to see if commercial airlines are a viable option,” Hushen said.

On June 9, flights will carry the volunteers back to Harlingen.

“The drill does not end until all those people are back here — returned home,” Hushen said.

Sergio Alvarez shovels sea weed off a board walk as the lingering effects of Tropical Storm Alex are felt along the Texas coast, Thursday, July 1, 2010 in South Padre Island, Texas. The Atlantic season’s first hurricane largely spared Texas, which had prepared for a possible direct hit. While it brought rain, spawned two tornadoes and caused 1,000 people to evacuate low-lying areas there, state officials reported no injuries or major damage. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)