Recently Orange County was in the worst drought experienced during most residents’ lives. Ironically, the ground breaking ceremony for the counties’ shelter of last resort was postponed four times due to the weather. The fifth time is the charm. Local officials and interested parties gathered Monday at the site location on Farm Road 1442 just one mile south of Interstate-10. The ceremonial turning of dirt, signified the beginning of the project, although the clock has actually been ticking for over a month.

“We have 450 calendar days to complete the project starting from June 22,” said Colin Garrett from G and G Enterprises, contractor for the project. “We are a week away from finishing up the dirt work on the building pad. We’re about to start the underground portion of the structure.” Garrett said they have had 17 rain delays. “Schedule wise, we’re doing okay, we’re working six days a week to make up the time that we’ve lost.”

“This is a big undertaking and quite a wonderful thing for us here in Orange County,” said Bobby Fillyaw of Orange County Economic Development Corp.

Orange County Judge Carl Thibodeaux said the emergency command center part of the project has been in the works for three years, but C.H.A.M.P.S. (Community Hands Assembling a Multi-Purpose Structure) has worked on the building of an event center, arena and baseball/softball fields “going on 10-15 years.”

“We moved forward with this building when the opportunity came up, thanks to federal dollars,” said Thibodeaux. He said it was a good thing we got the money early, implying we may not have gotten the money later the way things are going in government with the economy.

“It’s a great feeling, a great project and a lot of people have done a lot of hard work on this, not only county people, but volunteers, the C.H.A.M.P.S. group, Bobby Fillyaw… To be able to pull off a 10 and a half million dollar [building project] with minimum impact to the county’s budget is fantastic,” said Thibodeaux. “That’s also a great sign when you can do it with cash.” He said no money is being borrowed for this building.

Jeff Kelley-emergency management coordinator gave a special thanks to Mark Wimberly and Tina Lewis.

“I don’t think we could have done it without you,” he told Lewis. She is a disaster recovery specialist for the state. Lewis helped with the application phase and made sure all the compliances were adhered to. She will also pay the contractors.

The multi-purpose building will house county offices for Texas AgriLife, Building Codes and Permits and will be used as emergency management operations. The other half of the building will be a large event center with a commercial kitchen and banquet facilities that will also serve as a shelter of last resort and shelter first-responders in emergency situations. In a banquet style setting, the building will accommodate 600. It could shelter 400-750 first responders, depending on how it was set up, according to Kelley.

“It’s a little over 50,000 square feet. The entire building is hardened to tornado shelter standards. That was part of the requirements for the funding,” said Kelley. The building will be made of concrete walls and a concrete roof. It is designed to withstand 200 miles per hour winds.

“There are some conference rooms in there that we’ve designed with medical special needs in mind,” said Kelley.

“Whenever we evacuated for Gustav the last ambulance that we had in our possession left double loaded and we had no more patients. During Ike, when we evacuated, the last ambulance we had left triple loaded and no more calls. In the middle of the night, the last bus left with 15 people on it that didn’t have transportation. So, we are one mechanical failure, one flat tire away from having some folks we can’t deal with on any given evacuation. So we have designed a couple of those rooms with special needs things so in case something like that were to occur, we could take care of them,” said Kelley.

“We’ve never had a dedicated emergency operations center in Orange County. We’ve used the AT&T building or the Mauriceville Elementary School. A lot of thanks to those folks for letting us use the facilities, but in today’s world, they just don’t cut it and Ike proved that.

“Ike was tens of millions of dollars worth of response and recovery for Orange County. It was all conducted out of a whole bunch of different locations; very difficult to manage. This should simplify and make that a whole lot better.

“It’s not designed to be a public shelter, it’s important to know that,” said Kelley. “It’s only designed as a medical special needs shelter of last resort and a shelter for first responders.
“I started out here five or six years ago, developed a punch list of what I really wanted to try to get done and this was the last big thing I had on that punch list,” said Kelley.

There are plans in the future with the C.H.A.M.P.S. organization to build an arena, baseball/softball fields and other amenities on this site.

About Penny LeLeux

Penny has worked at The Record Newspapers since 2006. A member of the editorial staff, she has "done everything but print it." Most frequently she writes entertainment reviews and human interest stories, with a little paranormal thrown in from time to time.She has been a lifelong member of the Orangefield community.