COLLEGE STATION, Texas — It’s a scene of utter devastation.
Smashed automobiles, derailed train cars and piles of rubble are scattered across an apocalyptic landscape. Hard-hatted responders cling to nylon ropes alongside a gutted high-rise. In the distance, an industrial fire sends flames and smoke into an otherwise bright blue sky.
Stretching across 52 acres just west of the Texas A&M University campus, Disaster City clearly deserves its name.
The mock municipality began taking shape in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Now, it is part of Texas A&M’s nearly 300-acre Emergency Services Training Institute, which attracts firefighters and other first responders from around the globe.
A brutal surge of violent weather has swept much of the nation this year, underscoring the importance of training centers such as this one. More than a thousand tornadoes have roared across the Midwest, South and Southwest in a year that also has seen costly hailstorms, extreme winds and catastrophic flooding.
“Folks just didn’t catch a breather,” said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. The more than 1,200 tornadoes recorded as of June 23 aren’t the most ever (there were 1,817 in 2004), but this year’s total has easily surpassed the average range of 979 for a season.
As forecasters eye the skies with the onset of hurricane season, the Texas facility is a place “where you can exchange best practices and lessons learned so the next generation of first responders … can benefit from the knowledge that has been captured by [those] who learned the lessons the hard way — from experience,” Bunting said.
W. Craig Fugate, who headed FEMA during the Obama administration, said “extreme events require a higher level and more expert training” and that the surge in violent weather illustrates “the need to train for these events and make sure the first responders have the skills that are required.”
Last year, more than 116,000 responders trained at the institute, coached by instructors who have confronted some of the nation’s most horrific moments, from the wake of 9/11 to Hurricanes Harvey and Katrina. The institute operates as part of the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, also known as TEEX.
TEEX is the national training contractor for FEMA’s 28 urban search and rescue teams.
Disaster City is set up like a typical midsized community to give responders diverse challenges. It includes a strip mall, a government building, an office complex, a single-family residence and a theater.
Volunteers or mannequins are typically hidden within the smashed autos, train cars and buildings so first responders, including dogs, can practice search and rescue operations.
One jarring scene features a concrete beam sitting atop a bright yellow school bus and a crushed SUV. The mangled high-rise is missing a wall and displays twisted steel rods protruding through broken concrete. A collapsed indoor parking garage is full of crumpled automobiles.
All 5,800 members of FEMA’s 28 urban search and rescue teams either train here in College Station or use a curriculum that the extension center developed.
The center is also part of the Department of Homeland Security’s National Domestic Preparedness Consortium. The congressionally mandated consortium, which includes six other training centers, was formed in 1998 to help communities and regions prepare for catastrophes, including acts of terrorism.