New “resiliency center” at Houston Community College aims to prepare Texas’ largest city for disasters

Houston Community College Chancellor Cesar Maldonado spoke at a press conference Tuesday after his state of the college address. (Justin Rex For The Texas Tribune, Justin Rex For The Texas Tribune)

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In the past six years alone, Houston has faced seven major disasters including multiple floods, a power grid failure, Hurricane Harvey and an international pandemic.

The frequency of these events has prompted Houston Community College to invest in an ambitious new training program for first responders, construction workers and business employees to lessen the deadly toil these disasters bring.

On Tuesday, HCC leaders unveiled their plans for the program that includes a $30 million resiliency operations center equipped with a 39-foot-wide swift water rescue channel, a 15-foot-deep dive area, and a 100-foot-long “rocky gorge” of boulders that are above and below the water surface to provide additional obstacle training.

“Our vision for this important initiative is to build a stronger, more resilient Houston where every Houstonian can be plan aware and response ready,” HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado said at a news conference announcing the center. “Every business can prepare for the future.”

The disaster simulations part of the resiliency operations center is at the heart of this new program, which will train first responders and residents in how to tackle flooded residential streets that include obstacles like floating debris, underwater vehicles and downed power lines.

The center will include training in rescue vehicles and will be used year round to replicate various emergency situations.

“What a firefighter would go through with the coursework to get certification would be much different from a citizen,” Maldonado said. “But certainly citizens are going to be using that facility to have a better understanding of what flooding means, what could be in the water, what kind of contaminants, what kind of hidden drains can cause a problem for children. So it’s not going to be just for the high-level first responders.”

HCC will offer its first classes this summer for large employers and small businesses. The program is in response to a call from Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner that 500,000 city workers become certified in “resilience efforts.” As the effects of climate change provide additional threats, cities and states across the country have begun to think about how to prepare and mitigate for catastrophic events.

A total price tag to build and operate the new program has not been released. Cost of the courses range from a few hundred dollars to just over $1,000 depending on the level of training involved. Program organizers say they anticipate federal workforce training dollars and employers to cover much of the cost for first responders and business employees that enroll.

The Texas Legislature approved nearly $5 million to design the training center. Another $10 million has come to HCC in private donations, Maldonado said. So far, the two-year community college has developed a 20-hour non-credit basic preparedness and recovery program that includes public rescue, medical triage, debris removal or facility construction.

The course will also help students understand supply chain challenges, construction and facility needs, disaster communications and coordination.

Students can take classes in risk assessment for their homes, how to support neighbors during an emergency, and the role and value of insurance.

Maldonado said students will take an assessment to measure their skills and pinpoint areas of training they want or need. The program will start out with non-credit courses that are open to all residents.

“The pathway that a student takes will be a function of where they are today,” he said. “Whether they want to do this professionally or whether they’re after this as a community supporter and want to help take care of their community. “

Eventually, Maldonado said, the school hopes to develop associate degree programs.

The new resiliency center design is expected to be completed by 2024.

Disclosure: Houston Community College has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.