Four Feet High
The ‘What Ifs’ Of Hurricane Fiona
By Chris Oakley
(Adapted from material originally posted at the Alternatehistory.com message boards)
Summary: In the first two parts of this series, we recapped the actual sequence of events regarding Hurricane Fiona, then sketched out possible alternative scenarios for how things might have been different if A)Evan Hidalgo had managed to avoid the video scandal that ultimately wrecked his political career and B) the hurricane had made landfall in southern Florida as it had originally been predicted to do. In this chapter, we’ll listen to comments from a former Galveston public safety official about how better communications equipment might have saved more lives in the city when Fiona hit.
Since 2029 there have been at least twelve separate investigations into the communications breakdowns that led to the massive casualties suffered by Galveston’s residents during Hurricane Fiona in 2028. The scope and verdict of these probes, varies widely, but a single common thread has emerged from all of them: many of the standard radio and wireless phone systems being used by police and fire personnel at the time were simply not adequate for the task of co-ordinating any type of mass evacuation. Worse, some of those personnel hadn’t even been properly trained in the use of the systems which did exist.
One man who tried to remedy this situation, and wound up losing his job for his troubles, was former Galveston fire chief Trevor J. Hudson, now the city’s mayor and also an occasional guest columnist on fire safety matters for the city’s largest newspaper. For months before the storm and months after it, Hudson had urged city officials to appropriate more funds to upgrade the Galveston police and fire departments’ communications equipment and instruction facilities; his reward for his diligence was to be fired from his post less than a year after Fiona. In the end, however, Chief Hudson got the last laugh-- in the city’s next mayoral election he ran as an independent candidate and defeated his former boss by a 5-1 margin, winning with a campaign strategy that touted his knowledge on public safety issues and held out a firm pledge to clean up the post-Fiona mess that had been left behind by the previous administration.
They say everything is bigger in Texas, and that certainly applies where Hudson is concerned; the 6’4" ex-Purdue basketball guard easily towers over most of his colleagues at City Hall. His home, about an hour’s drive from his office, is an unofficial museum of memorabilia from Hurricane Fiona and its aftermath. One item that draws visitors’ interest above any other is the remains of a broken cell phone inside a clear plastic case; it once belonged to Hudson back when he was still fire chief, and he has kept it as a symbol of the frustrations he experienced in his fight to get the city’s emergency communication systems upgraded.
Many people consider it open to debate whether better comm systems could have saved more lives during Hurricane Fiona; Hudson, however, isn’t one of them. He tells just about anyone who will listen that more efficient radio and wireless phone systems would have avoided a lot of needless tragedies in the storm. "Half our gear," he recalls, "had been obsolete since 9/11-- hell, some of it was obsolete before 9/11. I told Burress1 a thousand times we needed better, but he just giving me a line of (bull) about how tight the city’s budgets were."2
Since October of 2027 Hudson had directed a barrage of memos at Burress’ office trying to persuade him to increase Galveston’s fire and police budgets and let Hudson overhaul the fire department’s communications gear and training procedures. Burress didn’t think such an overhaul was necessary and stated as much in no uncertain terms; Hudson, who at that point had been a member of the Galveston fire department for 36 years and department chief for the last three of those years, took this as a personal insult. "I was trying to keep this city safe," he grouses, "and all Burress could think about was trying to make the bean counters happy. It would’ve cost a hell of a lot less to upgrade our comm gear before the storm than it did to clear up all those bodies after."
The professional relationship between Hudson and Wade Burress, which had been awkward to begin with, began to deteriorate into full-blown hostility.3 By the time Hurricane Fiona struck the city in June of 2028, Burress and Hudson were barely even on speaking terms, preferring to communicate through e-mails or phone calls between subordinates at their respective offices. Gina Morelli, then Mayor Burress’ chief of staff, watched the tension growing between them: "You half-expected one of them to challenge the other to pistols at ten paces."4
One incident which took place during the storm continues to haunt Hudson to this day. The Galveston fire chief was attempting to co-ordinate the rescue of a stranded resident when he abruptly lost contact with the firefighters he was directing in the effort because of interference with his cell phone signal; it was only a brief loss of contact-- Hudson himself estimates it couldn’t have been more than 20 seconds --but by the time he regained the signal floodwaters had killed not only the stranded resident but also two of the firefighters involved in the rescue attempt. "I was depressed for days after that." he confides. "If we’d had a more reliable phone network in place, I know we could’ve gotten every last one of those guys out of their alive."
The association between Hudson and Burress permanently soured in late March of 2029 when the Galveston fire chief testified in front of a Texas state legislative committee investigating the communications breakdowns that hampered evacuation and rescue efforts during and after Hurricane Fiona. When Burress tuned in to the hearings on C-Span and heard a sample of Hudson’s testimony before the committee, he blew his stack; to the mayor, it sounded as if Hudson was intentionally trying to paint him in the worst possible light. "That (jerk) is publically slandering me," Burress complained to his wife, "and they’re letting him get away with it!"
For Mayor Burress, who was still being prodded by memos from Hudson about the need for upgrading the city emergency services’ communications gear and training processes, and who’d grown to not just dislike Hudson but to actively hate him, the C-Span broadcast was the straw that broke the camel’s back. From that point on, he refused to communicate even indirectly with the fire chief; on April 14th, 2029, he fired Hudson in a brief note delivered to the chief’s house by one of Burress’ aides.
Not that Hudson was particularly surprised by this turn of events; indeed, after finishing his testimony before the Texas state legislature he told a friend that "I’ll probably get pink- slipped for this". In the long run, however, Burress might have been better off trying to mend fences with the chief instead of making an antagonist out of him-- the firing cemented Hudson’s decision to go into politics and cost Burress his own job when he was voted out of office in the early 2030s.
Today Mayor Hudson, who plans to retire from office at the end of his current term and teach a disaster prevention course at the University of Texas, has implemented many of the communications upgrades and training reforms he tried but was unable to bring about during Burress’ tenure. He has been helped considerably in this regard by the current Galveston fire chief, Enrique Munoz, who was an engine battalion commander at the time of Fiona.
In the next installment of our series, we’ll speculate as to what life in Haiti might be like now if that unfortunate island had been spared the ravages of Hurricane Fiona.
To Be Continued
1Wade Burress, mayor of Galveson at the time of Hurricane Fiona.
2Oddly enough, this austerity didn’t extend itself to Mayor Burress’ use of city vehicles for personal purposes or his spending of municipal funds on questionable projects like his failed bid to lure an MLS expansion franchise to Galveston.
3In Burress’ first campaign for mayor, the firefighters’ union to which Hudson belonged had endorsed Burress’ opponent, then-incumbent mayor Malik Shannon; some people familiar with Burress suspect he may have held a secret grudge against Hudson because of this.
4From a CNN interview dated June 20th, 2038 as part of a two-hour special focusing on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Fiona.