Austin
12:03 pm
Tue June 19, 2012

What if a Terrorist Attack Happened in Austin? City Officials Plan Response

Here's one heck of a lunch topic: Responding to a terrorist attack in downtown Austin during South by Southwest.

That was one of the noontime subjects city officials considered yesterday, in a workshop discussing their role in case of catastrophe – such as terrorism, an infrastructure collapse or a natural disaster.

Attendees, including the members of the Austin City Council, considered a range of worst-case scenarios. One was that SXSW attack: “It is a beautiful morning in Austin – bustling, with SXSW in full swing,” a planning scenario posited. “Without warning a large explosion rocks downtown Austin … Confirmed fatalities – 83; Injuries – 200+ (some key officials and staff are known to be among them.)”

Another exercise looked to the City of Minneapolis’ response to its Mississippi River bridge collapse. The crowd agreed training and preparedness played a large part in prompt and efficient response to that disaster. Manpower, equipment, and a command structure are all required, plus venues to relay information  to the media, victims’ families and directly to the public.

Otis Latin, the Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management of the City of Austin, which arranged the workshop, says he hopes to “look at lessons learned … if something like that could happen in the city of Austin [and] how those lessons learned could help us improve our plans.”

The workshop also reviewed Arlington, Virginia’s response to the September 11th attack on the Pentagon, and the need in some events for cooperation among local, state, and national responders. Though the Pentagon is a federal building, the City of Arlington had the first responders on the scene. (Likewise, though the Mississippi River bridge is a federal road maintained by the state of Minnesota, it connected two parts of Minneapolis.)

Indicators of Austin's response may be found in current practices for less catastrophic emergencies, like flash floods. There are many systems already in place, officials said, including a Flood Emergency Warning System and protocols for emergency shelters – initiatives that could be applied in case of terrorist attacks or more large scale disasters, such as a wildfire within city limits. (Austin got a glimpse of what emergency response looks like, when Joseph Stack flew a single-engine plane into the Echelon building in North Austin in 2010.)

Although city officials aren’t always first on the scene when disaster strikes, they play an important role in strategic planning and coordination.

As one workshop slide read, "Your EOP (Emergency Operations Plan) will never cover all the unforeseen challenges that lie ahead."