Ray Wilson had two weeks to settle into his new position as Emergency Management Coordinator for Hood County.
Then the May 15 tornado struck, and the heat was on.
“I don’t think anybody could have predicted that,” said Wilson, who also became Hood County’s new fire marshal on May 1. “I know emergency disasters could happen at any time. I just wasn’t expecting it in my first two weeks.”
Wilson had 12 years of experience and training with the Tolar Volunteer Fire Department, where he had been fire chief. He also was a longtime public servant as an officer with the Fort Worth Police Department.
“I had never really dealt with what I would call the ‘back side’ of a disaster,” said Wilson, who worked traffic control after a tornado that struck downtown Fort Worth a few years ago. “I’ve always been on the operations side. The recovery effort, I haven’t dealt with in the past. I learned from people who have been in those roles.”
One particular key individual with previous experience in the emergency management role was basically working side-by-side with Wilson in the aftermath of the tornado that killed six people and injured dozens more. Sheriff Roger Deeds began serving as a volunteer emergency coordinator for the county in 1998. Deeds was officially named to that post in July 2003 by former Judge Linda Steen. Deeds remained in that position, and also as fire marshal, until he took office as sheriff on Dec. 31, 2008.
“Ray has had 29 years of law enforcement experience and a dozen years with fire and EMS in Tolar, so he was very qualified for all the jobs ahead of him,” he said. “(For Wilson) it was like being thrown to the wolves. He had a crash course, but he handled it well.”
Deeds said he’ll give advice or assistance any way he can.
“I put a lot of my life in that office,” Deeds said. “I’m not going to let him down. I’ll offer any and all help I have to give.”
Wilson said he was on his way to his home near Tolar when the storm began to threaten the area on the night of the tornado. He got a call from Deeds, and soon they were both in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) inside the Sheriff’s Office monitoring the storm.
The CodeRed alert was issued out when several storm spotters reported seeing funnel clouds. Soon, chilling reports on the emergency scanner began to tell the grim tale of severe injuries as well as deaths in the Rancho Brazos subdivision.
Wilson indicated that training helped keep some semblance of order despite the chaos.
“I most definitely believe so,” Wilson said. “With any disaster or emergency, initially there is chaos but you try to organize that chaos so you can manage it. I think Hood County’s got a lot of great people. Everybody knows their job and they were able to step in and handle it quickly and professionally.”
Deeds agreed that all of the training sessions personnel go through did pay off.
“It comes back to you pretty fast,” he said.
Wilson said that beyond law enforcement, firefighters and EMS, an incredible number of people – both locally and from around the area – came through to provide essential manpower and support in the hours following the tornado.
“We just had so many partners in this, there is no way I can name everybody,” Wilson said. “Everybody knew what their job was, and they stepped into that role and came together for what I really believe was a successful operation. Everybody has that heart to step in and help. It’s a partnership with everybody.”
Wilson said that the recovery for the hardest-hit areas of Rancho Brazos will be ongoing indefinitely.
“The cleanup effort’s been remarkable. But the cleanup is not something that’s going to happen overnight,” Wilson said. “It’s not anything you can put a time frame on (getting) back to the way it was, pre-tornado.”
Deeds said he was proud of the way Wilson responded in his coordinator role.
“He’s done a great job,” the sheriff said. “He will be a good one to be fire marshal and emergency management coordinator for many years to come.”
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