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Potties, Pickups and Preparedness

Local governments, Native American tribes and nonprofit groups in Texas hauled in more than $298 million in federal homeland security grants from 2003 through 2008 and made more than 30,000 purchases, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of a Texas Department of Public Safety database. Much of the money has gone to improve local emergency response and to beef up police and fire departments — critical safety measures that taxpayers might not have been able to afford without assistance from Washington. But it's unclear how some of the expenditures have made the state, or the nation, more resistant to terror attacks.

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The city of Corpus Christi hasn’t used the $188,000 video screen it bought with homeland security funding in 2008. But when a hurricane strikes, city officials will be ready to watch footage from surveillance cameras around the area — if the storm doesn’t knock them out, of course.

If nature calls for firefighters in the middle of a 10,000-acre West Texas blaze 15 miles from the nearest facilities, they’ll be able to answer in privacy. That’s thanks to a $441 portable toilet local governments bought with homeland security dollars.

And you never know when terrorists might attack the nuclear power plant in the second-smallest county in the state. That’s why Somervell County used nearly $180,000 in homeland security money to buy a military-grade armored truck to protect the county’s 7,900 residents.

Local governments, Native American tribes and nonprofit organizations in Texas hauled in more than $298 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security from 2003 through 2008. The Texas Tribune analyzed a Texas Department of Public Safety database of more than 30,600 expenditures made with those dollars. The database, along with more than 100 monitoring reports from Texas grant administrators, was obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity during a yearlong examination of how effectively states across the nation used federal security dollars.

Texas cities and counties bought thousands of radios and cell phones to update communication capabilities. They purchased hundreds of vehicles, ranging from all-terrain vehicles and heavy-duty trucks to fire engines worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. They bought night-vision goggles, installed fences and stocked up on first-aid supplies.

Many of the items purchased have clear homeland security implications, but many others — like the video screen, toilet and armored truck — raise questions about how the investments address terrorism concerns. In Texas, much of the money has been spent to improve local emergency response and beef up police and fire departments, items that once were considered local responsibilities but now seem to fit the bill of homeland security. Local governments defended their expenditures as critical safety measures that their taxpayers could never afford without federal assistance. And monitoring reports conducted by the Texas Division of Emergency Management indicate that most grant recipients put the items they purchased to use. But what remains unclear, more than eight years after the Sept. 11 attacks spurred a flood of security preparedness grants, is whether any of the billions spent have actually made Texas, or the nation, more resistant to terror attacks.

Diffuse and Decentralized

Decisions about how homeland security funds are spent in Texas are made primarily at the local level. Regional governmental agencies decide what their security priorities are and then let the state know their plans. The state’s emergency management division monitors spending to make sure counties buy what they say they’re going to buy and use those things appropriately.

If the Texas approach to security spending seems diffuse and decentralized, so is the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s methodology for distributing and overseeing the billions that have been spent since Sept. 11.

According to a 2008 report by the General Accounting Office, DHS had spent $19 billion on local grants from 2002 to 2008 but never developed a way to determine whether the money improved national security. The money was meant for planning, equipment and training to enhance national capabilities to respond to terrorism and “to a lesser extent, natural and accidental disasters,” according to the report. Over the years — particularly since Hurricane Katrina — DHS and the Federal Emergency Management Agency developed a complicated matrix for determining which governments get money and how much. Among the agency’s goals is a 37-point “capabilities list” that includes preparing for, responding to and recovering from natural or man-made disasters.

As a result, local governments across the nation have access to millions of dollars they can use for any priority they reasonably say could help in a disaster-related situation. In fact, from 2002 to 2007, according to the GAO, funds were getting doled out quicker than some state and local governments could spend them, in some cases sitting unused for months at a time. While the agency had established goals for the use of the money, the GAO reported that DHS failed to develop a system that could analyze the effectiveness of the grant funds in improving the nation’s capabilities or reducing its risk. 

Despite repeated inquiries, FEMA officials who oversee homeland security grants never responded with direct answers about what steps they have taken since the 2008 GAO report to measure what effect on national safety the billions spent have actually had. A July 2009 GAO report indicated that FEMA still hadn't found a way to measure whether billions in security grants for urban areas effectively added response capabilities, though the agency told GAO investigators an effort was underway to develop such an assessment system.

Major Cities, Major Money

Texas metropolitan areas were the biggest overall beneficiaries when it came to DHS grants from 2003 to 2008. The city of Houston and Harris County, the two largest grant recipients, spent at least $53 million over the five-year period. The city of Dallas and Dallas County together spent more than $18 million. Bexar County and San Antonio spent more than $16 million.

Houston reported the largest single expenditure: $3.1 million on a system to detect intruders around the perimeters of Bush Intercontinental and Hobby Airports. Other big-ticket items included $1.3 million for a five-man helicopter, and they used more than $600,000 for a closed-circuit video surveillance system to monitor the City Hall Annex and a handful of water treatment plants. The city also used homeland security grants to pay Houston police officers more than $250,000 in overtime to man two games of the 2005 World Series at Minute Maid Park. Houston used security funds to make movies, too: It paid a professional filmmaking company at least $194,000 to create a 22-minute film as part of the city’s “Have a plan, build a kit, stay informed” campaign to help Houstonians prepare for disasters. “We hand these out, literally thousands of them, at community events,” says Dennis Storemski, director of the mayor’s office of public safety and homeland security.

With the significant infrastructure installations in Houston — two major airports, the Port of Houston, the Houston ship channel, the multi-billion-dollar petrochemical industry — and its status as the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the U.S., Storemski says it makes sense the city would get and spend more money for security. A catastrophe in Houston could quickly impact not just all of Texas but much of the country that relies on the city’s refining complex for fuel.

When it comes to spending the millions the city receives each year for homeland security, Storemski says, Houston officials are guided by eight preparedness priorities established by DHS. They include expanding regional collaboration, implementing national incident response and infrastructure protection plans, improving information sharing and enhancing communication capabilities among emergency responders. “We’ve been pretty judicious in our use of the money,” Storemski says. The city spent money to build and operate a fusion center, where intelligence information from all over the region is gathered and analyzed, he says. They’ve spent millions to upgrade radio equipment so that all police, fire and other emergency personnel can communicate easily with one another. And the millions of dollars in equipment that Houston bought, Storemski says, is available not just to the city, but to the entire region.

Though the city hasn’t had to respond to any major terrorist threats, Storemski says, the security funds have helped Houston deal with the biggest danger it regularly faces: hurricanes. For instance, federal security dollars helped the city implement technology that officials hope will prevent the kind of massive traffic gridlock that Houston saw when millions of residents in 2005 tried to flee ahead of Hurricane Rita. The city has created a searchable database with information about projected hurricane wind speeds, allowing residents to input their addresses, find out what kind of wind speeds the hurricane will generate in their area and then decide whether they need to evacuate. During Hurricane Ike in 2008, Storemski says, the database predicted wind speed within about 5 miles per hour of the actual speeds. “We can’t build anymore roadways, so we need people to make better decisions,” he says.

Like Houston, coastal city Corpus Christi devoted much of its $3.5 million in homeland security spending to hurricane planning and response. “Our most important threat to the city would be a hurricane because that’s more of a known threat,” says Randy Sijansky, Corpus Christi emergency management coordinator. Many of the city’s homeland security projects, he says, have been focused on upgrading technology and radio equipment and building mobile command posts to keep communications up during power outages. Among the largest single expenditures the city made in that effort was $187,988 for what Sijansky describes as a “video wall.” The large screen in the city’s emergency operations center allows officials to view footage from surveillance cameras all over Corpus Christi. “That way we get the big picture of what’s happening in the city,” he says. Though much of the equipment hasn’t been put to the test with terrorism or weather threats yet, the investments have “hardened” potential terror targets, like the port and refineries along the coast Sijansky says. “It’s a very good insurance plan, and I think it’s well worth the money for that.”

Small Towns, Big Purchases

Just because Somervell County is small doesn’t mean it couldn’t be the target of a diabolical terrorist plot, says County Judge Walter Maynard. “We are a vital security area,” he says.

About 80 miles southwest of Dallas, Somervell County is home to Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant. Its two units can generate up to 2,300 megawatts of power, and Luminant, the company that owns the plant, is seeking approval to build two more units. “We’re the second-smallest county in the state, and we’re sitting here with the security responsibility of it,” Maynard says.

Somervell County, population 7,920, received more than $340,000 in homeland security grants from 2003 to 2008. The county spent more than half of that money, $179,550, on a Lenco Bearcat, a military-style armored truck. According to Lenco’s website, the Bearcat is “built with Mil-Spec steel armor plate certified to defeat multi-hit attacks.” Maynard says the county, fortunately, hasn’t had to use the truck it bought in April of 2008 for any terror threats. It has come in handy, he says, for a couple of situations in neighboring counties. Much of the remaining money the county spent went to buy radios and other communication equipment. “We’ve been very prudent with what we bought, because it was stuff we needed,” Maynard says.

The city of Dumas, population 13,900, spent more than $527,000 in homeland security funds. The city spent more than two-thirds of the money, $363,000, to buy a 2005 Pierce Enforcer hazmat truck in 2005. Paul Jenkins, Dumas fire chief, says the truck has been used four or five times to address “small-type stuff” in the area. The small Panhandle town about 50 miles northwest of Amarillo has never had a major threat to respond to, but Jenkins says that after Sept. 11, the goal became “pre-planning instead of waiting for something bad to happen.” And the hazmat truck isn’t only for Dumas. It’s available to 26 counties in the region. “I would never have presented spending half a million dollars on a truck just for the citizens of Dumas,” Jenkins says. With the truck in Dumas, he says, the region now has two hazmat vehicles to respond to a chemical emergency instead of only the one in Amarillo.

Much of the remaining homeland security funds, Jenkins says, were used to upgrade outdated protective gear and equipment for the city’s firefighters. Without the grants, he says, Dumas firefighters might still be using old, damaged suits and breathing apparatus. For small fire departments like his, and particularly for departments composed entirely of volunteer firefighters, Jenkins says the homeland security funds have allowed them to update decades-old trucks and gear. “There’s lots of things that would tremendously hurt this country out in rural areas versus New York City,” he says. “If firefighters don’t even have good protective clothing to wear, then they’re not going to be able to help.”

Among many items the South Plains Association of Governments purchased with its $1.2 million homeland security allotment was a $441 collapsible portable toilet from Cabela’s. David Corder, emergency operations coordinator for the association, says firefighters and law enforcement officials have “certain comfort needs” that must be met even when they are fighting a fire deep in West Texas rangeland. “We tend to use a lot of equipment and personnel that come from private companies, and so we try to take care of their personal needs along with just putting out the fire and what have you,” Corder says. “It saves a lot of time sometimes, particularly if you have a female firefighter.”

The toilet was the only one reported in the homeland security spending data, but it was hardly the association’s largest expenditure. The association, which is a coalition of local governments in 15 West Texas counties, spent $298,000 to buy, install and train workers to use a multi-county emergency notification system. Out in rural West Texas, Corder says, responders have to be prepared for all sorts of weather-related emergencies, like tornadoes, snow storms and fires. Plus, he says, because of the region’s four universities and large beef industry, it could be a potential terrorist target. “We really don’t think of it so much as just homeland security as emergency preparedness,” Corder says. “I think our region now has the capability to sustain itself for several days without having to rely on everybody else to come help us.”

Local governments weren’t the only ones to benefit from the homeland security funds. Two Texas tribes, the American Red Cross and several Jewish organizations also received thousands of dollars.

The Ysleta del Sure Pueblo Tiguas, a tiny and impoverished tribe in the middle of the border city of El Paso, spent $276,000, primarily on upgrading law enforcement technology and communication equipment for its small police force. Nineteen different Jewish organizations and schools across the state spent a total of more than $1.1 million on fencing and surveillance cameras.

Oversight and Effectiveness

The Department of Public Safety’s Emergency Management Division monitors homeland security grant spending in the state. The Tribune reviewed 173 monitoring reports the agency prepared from 2005 to 2008. In most cases, monitors found that local grantees were appropriately using and tracking items purchased with homeland security funds.

In a few cases, though, they did find problems. In Lubbock County in 2007, monitors found that 80 cameras had not been installed because they did not meet county requirements, though the county was in the process of hiring a consultant to fix the problems. They also found two computers worth about $3,300 that had been purchased nearly a year earlier but were never used — one was still in the box. In Montgomery County, in the Houston area, monitors found a Chevy Silverado 1500 half-ton pickup that was parked and had been idle so long that the battery was dead. The truck had been bought to tow trailers but wasn’t big enough to do the job. They also found a ham radio, a security system and other equipment the county bought that was still in boxes. Monitors told county officials they should use the truck in training operations rather than just letting it sit. The county told the monitors it was in the process of installing the other equipment after recently moving into a new emergency management facility.

William Gregersen, grant operations supervisor in the emergency management division, says that there was initially some confusion among local entities about how to use and especially about how to track the equipment they purchased with homeland security money. “In its infancy, I think you had people who maybe didn’t have a lot of understanding of the system and the processes,” he says. But state officials spent time training locals what to do and the processes improved. “I don’t think we’ve seen ... a lot of waste,” Gregersen says.

What the state doesn’t do, though, is tell local governments what their priorities should be in terms of planning and purchasing. Each region of the state is responsible for developing its own emergency response plan and deciding what equipment and resources it needs to put the plan to work, says Jamie Youngs, grant coordinator supervisor for the DPS Emergency Management Division. It may seem weird that a small town like Dumas would buy a $363,000 hazmat truck, she says, but it probably fits into the regional disaster plan. She says DPS also maintains a database of all the emergency response equipment available across the state and where it’s located. That way if there’s a disaster in one area, officials can quickly identify the closest equipment needed for a response.

Texas officials say they’ve measured the effectiveness of funds spent here by analyzing the response to the multitude of weather-related disasters the Lone Star State faces every year. Whether it was the giant traffic snarl in Houston during Hurricane Rita, the freak flood that drenched El Paso in 2006 or wildfires that burned 940,000 acres in 216 Texas counties in 2008, Texas officials have used the disasters to learn what went right, what went wrong and how to plan for the next catastrophe. For Texas, Gregersen says, securing the homeland means more than preventing and responding to potential acts of terrorism. “This is an all-hazards approach.”

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