HOUSTON, Texas---Despite brisk winds and an unexpected drop in temperature, unit and section leaders with Joint Task Force 71, Texas Army National Guard, joined the U.S. Coast Guard and members of the Harris County Hazmat team for an extensive tour of the Port of Houston ship channel and interagency capabilities brief Tuesday, December 6, 2011.

JTF-71 is the command and control for the FEMA Region VI homeland response force, and as such provides Defense Support to Civilian Authorities to the state during disasters and other emergencies.
The Austin based organization collaborated with the Port of Houston emergency response agencies for the tour to gain a better perspective on the complexity and diversity of the critical infrastructure key to the nation's economy.

The Houston Ship Channel has been and remains a catalyst for growth in Harris County since 1837. It generates jobs and opportunities that allow businesses and surrounding communities to flourish. A 2007 study by Martin Associates says ship channel-related businesses contribute to more than 785,000 jobs throughout Texas while generating nearly $118 billion of statewide economic impact.

Additionally, more than $3.7 billion in state and local tax revenues are generated annually by business activities related to the port.

"The port is a 25-mile-long complex of diversified public and private facilities located just a few hours' sailing time from the Gulf of Mexico, ranked as first in the United States in foreign waterborne tonnage and second in the world. More than 220 million tons of cargo passed through and 7,700 vessel calls were recorded through the Port of Houston in 2009," said Bill Hand of the Harris County Hazmat team.

Within the last two decades ,concerns have shifted to from fighting wars outside the U.S. to combating small-scale, local attacks from dirty bombs inside our own borders. Dirty bombs are speculative radiological weapons that combine radioactive material with conventional explosives, hence the attribute "dirty".

The irradiation of such busy a commercial center and highly trafficked transportation hub like the Houston ship channel could have a crippling effect on the entire nation.

The Department of Defense moved to deal with such localized threats by establishing specialized National Guard units around the country, like Joint Task Force 71, with the skills to deal with dirty bombs, as well as weaponized biological and chemical agents.

"This October, the Airmen and Soldiers of Joint Task Force 71 completed the National Guard Bureau certification process to become the third HRF in the nation," said Col. Lee Schnell at the start of the information sharing portion of the day. "We came out here today to develop a solid foundation of communication and understanding of abilities with the agencies we will be partnered with before such a need arises."

With an overabundance of simple blasting agents all along the ship channel, such as mixtures of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, developing and maintaining relationships between the Texas Military Forces and area emergency response agencies has become one of the top priorities for the TXMF leaders.

"An inherent necessity exists for us to create relationships, build partnerships, and understand capabilities as well as limitations of various response agencies to have an effective response prior to an incident," said Maj. Bobbie Jackson, commander for the 6th Civil Support Team, Austin, Texas.

Page last updated Sun December 11th, 2011 at 00:00