Weslaco has the crucial experiences and highway system infrastructure — along with superior military, public safety, food distribution, and emergency response resources already in place, or soon to come online — making it the best choice to serve as the disaster relief headquarters for the Rio Grande Valley, Rep. Armando "Mando" MartÃ-nez, D-Weslaco, told fellow state lawmakers on Wednesday, April 8.

In addition, the Mid Valley Airport in Weslaco is centrally located to serve all regions of deep South Texas, especially major coastal population centers — such as Brownsville, Port Isabel, South Padre Island, and Raymondville — which usually suffer the worst damages whenever hurricanes or powerful tropical storms hit the Valley.

Weslaco's legislative, city, and public safety leaders laid out their positions before the House Committee on Defense and Veterans Affairs, which held a public hearing early that morning on House Bill 848 by MartÃ-nez.

HB 848 would require the governor to designate the Mid Valley Airport as the disaster response headquarters to better protect South Texans during times of natural and man-made catastrophes.

HB 848 was left pending in committee — a normal procedure in the legislative process — for possible action later in the legislative session.

"The Mid Valley Airport is the perfect location to house or coordinate emergency responses for the Valley," said MartÃ-nez, who, as a firefighter, licensed paramedic, and critical care flight paramedic, is an expert in life-and-death scenarios. "A major U.S. Border Patrol facility, a planned Department of Public Safety complex, and the Valley's only Texas National Guard Armory are next to, or near, this airport. It makes sense to continue building on these resources by having the airport serve as the air transportation hub for major emergency actions taken by the state and federal governments during times of emergency."

Edinburg airport too far away

Those and other advantages of the Mid Valley Airport were highlighted by Weslaco's top leadership despite public opposition registered by the Edinburg City Council, which favors a rival bill which is being carried by Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg.

Peña's version, House Bill 2152, is identical in language to MartÃ-nez' HB 848, with the exception that Peña's bill substitute's the words "South Texas International Airport at Edinburg" for MartÃ-nez' "Mid Valley Airport" designation.

Peña filed his HB 2152 several weeks after MartÃ-nez first filed HB 848.

MartÃ-nez, who is also leading efforts to transform the University of Texas Regional Academic Health Center in Edinburg so it can provide the first two-years of a UT medical school, said the Edinburg airport has numerous other issues MartÃ-nez, who is also leading efforts to transform the University of Texas Regional Academic Health Center in Edinburg so it can provide the first two-years of a UT medical school, said the Edinburg airport has numerous other issues The Edinburg airport is 20 miles away from the U.S. Expressway 281/U.S. Expressway 83 interchange, and under ideal conditions, it would take at least 20 minutes to get emergency vehicles from the Edinburg airport to the crucial roadway intersection, and at least another hour to get to the Valley's coastal populations, he said.

Under the Edinburg City Council's proposal, designating its airport as a staging ground for buses and heavy equipment would not be the best use of the state's highway system, MartÃ-nez said.

During an impending or actual catastrophe, such as the approach of a major hurricane, the key stretch of U.S. Expressway 281 which cuts through Edinburg and continues northward past the city's airport would be much more important for mass evacuation purposes.

MartÃ-nez said the state would convert the three southbound lanes of U.S. Expressway 281 to northbound in order to help Valley residents escape in their vehicles, and any ground emergency resources located at the Edinburg airport would be hard-pressed to get to the population centers in Hidalgo and Starr counties.

Weslaco has proven emergency response experiences

MartÃ-nez' effort was endorsed by Weslaco Mayor Buddy De la Rosa, who was not able to attend the hearing because of other important business, but whose letter of support was entered into the public record before the House committee.

George Garrett, director of the Mid Valley Airport, represented the City of Weslaco during the committee public hearing.

Garrett said Weslaco has already passed crucial tests protecting the Valley against hurricanes.

"Over the last 10 to 12 years, I have been intimately involved not only with state, but with federal agencies, as far as disaster relief goes in case of a catastrophic event in the Valley," Garrett noted.

In addition to serving as a command headquarters for the state's military forces last summer during Hurricane Dolly, the Mid Valley Airport and the Super Armory were utilized by Texas in preparation for other major recent hurricanes which threatened the Valley or hit north of the region, including Hurricane Ike, which moved northward and devastated Galveston last summer, and Hurricane Brett, which caused havoc in Del Rio in 1999.

The Mid Valley Airport is specifically designed for emergency response situations, Weslaco leaders noted.

Garrett reminded the legislators that when Texas officials in the late 1990s decided to consolidate Texas National Guard resources by building a "Super Armory" in Weslaco, it was done because the Mid Valley Airport was capable of serving the needs of the Texas National Guard.

"We have coordinated with the U.S. Air Force, the Texas National Guard, and other entities to ensure that the Mid Valley Airport meets the requirements for their needs and capabilities of operation," Garrett said. "We have the experiences, we had Texas Task Force 1 respond to the Valley after Hurricane Brett, which caused disasterous results in Del Rio."

Texas Task Force 1, according to Texas A&M University, is one of the most active search and rescue teams in the country, having responded to at least one major disaster each year since its inception in 1998. From the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks to Hurricane Katrina's devastation, Texas Task Force 1's urban search and rescue and water rescue teams have expertise in responding to both man-made and natural disasters.

"In anticipation of flooding in the Valley, Texas Task Force 1 was deployed with a number of swift water rescue capabilities," Garrett told the House panel. "During Hurricane Dolly, we had helicopter operations, Texas Task Force 1, FEMA based out of our airport and armory, and we continued operations during Hurricane Ike, as it (turned) away from the Valley and struck Galveston.

"We are in the right location, we have regional response capabilities," Garrett concluded.

Weslaco designation would help Edinburg, other airports

In addition to the public safety components, MartÃ-nez believes that allowing the Mid Valley Airport to take on the responsibilities of homeland security for the Valley would be an economic boost for the entire region.

"The Valley is a growing economic powerhouse for Texas, and the state and federal governments must continue to invest in programs and policies designed specifically to protect our people and assets," he said. "The Mid Valley Airport, and the surrounding law enforcement, public safety, and military resources, provide an important layer of civil defense that we need to help protect all our Valley residents. Designating the airport as the emergency response headquarters will pave the way for more public safety resources to be put into place."

Edinburg, which has included in its legislative agenda an effort to have its city-owned airport also designated as a state headquarters for disaster relief, would be able to concentrate on its major mission of transforming the South Texas International Airport at Edinburg into a major air freight cargo distribution center, MartÃ-nez said.

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