Ryan Holeywell | @RyanHoleywell | August 27, 2015
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of New Orleans residents took shelter in the Superdome stadium. But quickly, conditions began to deteriorate. The air conditioning was off, bathrooms were filthy and trash overflowed everywhere, according to reports at the time.
“It’s worse than a prison,” one of the Superdome’s temporary denizens told the New York Times. “Here you get no water, no toilets, no lights. You get all that in prison.”
Eventually, leaders decided the situation inside the Superdome had become untenable. Those seeking refuge were evacuated elsewhere. Most went to Astrodome, which is owned by Harris County.
At the time, Robert Eckels served as Harris County Judge, the top elected position in the county. Earlier this month, Urban Edge caught up with Eckels and asked him to recount how he and his colleagues managed the unprecedented humanitarian response. His recollections –slightly edited and condensed for clarity – appear below.
The real miracle wasn’t that we had the Astrodome open and working 14 hours after we got the call. It was that we had everybody out in three weeks.
I had gotten the call as the storm was approaching from Jack Colley. He was the governor’s emergency management director. He said that we might need some shelter space – maybe for 2,500 people. We had talked in the past about maybe using the Astrodome. I told him we could accommodate that.
After the storm, we knew it was bad [in the Superdome], but I didn’t think there’d be an issue that they’d be coming to Houston. We knew there could be some folks coming in. But I had anticipated they’d solve their problems at the Superdome.
When Katrina hit, I was going up to Dallas to meet with the county judge about some urban transportation issues. I was getting hit by bands of showers from Katrina. I thought it was a pretty big storm if it could hit me, but it was just rainstorms. I came back that night and got a call at 2:30 a.m. It’s never good news when the phone rings at 2:30 a.m. By then, it was a couple days after the storm.
It was Colley again. He said, ‘Remember the shelter we needed for 2,500 people? Can you make it 23,750?’ He told me they were going to evacuate the Superdome and bring everyone to the Astrodome. I said, ‘If that’s what you need, we’ll do it.’ I called my guys, and they cranked it up.
Preparing for the influx
It turned out it wasn’t an evacuation from New Orleans. It was an exodus. We didn’t know how much the government had collapsed there. It was literally a collapse of all organized support for the facility. I don’t know if anybody understood that.
The word in the media was we had shelter space in the Astrodome. It’s an iconic symbol. But we also had 30 shelters set up throughout Houston. We were initially diverting people to those shelters because we expected a convoy of buses to arrive at the Astrodome.
The Astrodome had been used a little bit before Katrina. It had team restrooms and team showers for folks. It wasn’t a challenge to get the Dome ready. We hadn’t anticipated having that many people there for that long.
Interestingly, SMG had the contract to manage the Astrodome but also the Superdome and the Ford Center in Beaumont. So we had better intelligence about what was going on than FEMA had, through SMG and their management of all the facilities.
Aramark was our food provider for the events that happened there. They geared up like it was a football game or something, and the food was there. All of us had worked well enough in the past that we just said ‘the paper work will catch up and we’ll figure it out later.’
Gov. Blanco (the Louisiana governor at the time) called me as we opened up the Astrodome and was warning me about how bad these folks were in Louisiana. She said there’s going to be serious problems, bad guys, and a serious criminal element there. But we didn’t have the problems they had in the Superdome, perhaps because we were better prepared for it.
There were a bunch of sheriff’s deputies in uniform there, detectives who hadn’t worn them in a long time. They weren’t real happy about that. They were a little tight around the waste. I think we had 18 different police departments there.
The first vehicle we let in to the Astrodome was an Orleans Parish school bus. Everybody got out, and they asked the driver to pull around and park in the lot in the back. Nobody would admit to being the driver because apparently, he had just taken the bus and loaded it up for people on the way to Houston. The driver was a young kid who had never driven before. That was the first of many buses.
When the first group came in, we had a table set up with food, and they were filling up bags with it because they had been in a place where there was such a shortage. We told them they didn’t have to do that. We’d have food for them.
The buses were just lined up, and it went on for days. People forget that back then, we didn’t have the kind of technology we have today. We didn’t have smartphones. People would come in, and their phone batteries would be dead, or their service had been suspended because they had a prepaid cell phone. We got the carriers to agree to turn the service on even if the bills weren’t paid. We had hundreds of chargers for dozens of phones. Once they had phones, they could figure out where people were.
There were buses where people had loaded their kids onto them, and the parents were thinking they would get on. But then the bus would go off, with the parents still standing there. So we had boards set up with notes saying “Robert’s over here, Nathan’s over there.” With 20,000 people, how are you going to find each other, even when you’re both in the same facility?
We had the Health Department operating on the floor of the Astrodome. People were getting better healthcare than they were in New Orleans before the disaster. They had doctors from all over the country and world coming in.
Coast Guard Lt. Joe Leonard became the incident commander. We had to work with the city and have a neutral incident commander. He had worked with us during Allison. Everyone trusted each other. Eventually, we expanded into the exhibition center and the Astrohall. About 60,000 people came through the Astrodome and those other facilities, and at any given time it was probably about 25,000 on the ground across the facilities.
Volunteers step up
One of the great stories was the way the faith-based community came together. Interfaith Ministries helped to organize them. The churches popped up as shelters. You had the original 30 Red Cross shelters but also dozens of smaller, African-American churches. They were happy to take people in initially but didn’t have the financial capacity to keep it going for a long time. All of a sudden they’re running an air conditioner that used to just run on Sundays seven days a week, and they’re going bankrupt.
We worked out a deal with FEMA that was different than their traditional reimbursement program. They weren’t structured well to keep receipts and manage contracts so we wound up getting a per diem reimbursement rate for them. I thought FEMA was pretty easy to work with locally. Nationally, there was a problem with bureaucracy.
Residents had the capacity to care for neighbors when they needed it. I remember a guy from New Orleans telling me he was stopped at a gas pump. Someone saw his Louisiana license plates and bought his gas. Stories like that happened over and over again. It was incredible, the amount of people who volunteered and showed their generosity.
After Sept. 11, we created the citizen corps of trained volunteers. Our first big test was Tropical Storm Allison. We had 2,000 in the citizen corps, but we leveraged them into 60,000. We ran volunteers through little school within the Astrodome complex.
One way our shelters were different was that if you showed wearing a blue blazer and button-down shirt, that’s what you worked in. At first I was thinking we’d put our volunteers in T-shirts that say “Harris County Emergency Management.” It turned out that by everybody dressing the way they came, everybody was working together. Volunteers, managers, and workers in the shelter weren’t perceived as authority figures or superior figures. They were just one of the guys, working with the people who came in from New Orleans. People form New Orleans weren’t expecting to have the guys in t-shirts cleaning up after them. They’re working together with them.
One of my most vivid memories was of a woman from The Woodlands. She was wearing this blouse with pearls, carrying a tray of soft drinks, juices and snacks. She was serving these people from the Lower Ninth Ward. This guy told me, ‘I used to hate white people, but y’all are great to us.’ It was probably a good experience for both groups. She had probably never interacted with folks from that socioeconomic status who needed help either. We were all working together.
One of my keys to leadership is empowering people smarter than you to do things.
There were volunteers who said they knew the VA would show up and need information, so they set up a VA registration system. The British Consulate was there to take care of their foreign nationals, but they partnered within other consulates and coordinated a consulate support center for all foreign nationals who needed help contacting friends and relatives.
Things that we didn’t even know needed to be deal with got handled. I didn’t spend a lot of time running the operation – Joe was doing that – but I was making sure people were empowered to do what they needed to do. I talked to churches in the community and dealt with FEMA and issues out of Washington. I also talked to people on the floor of the Astrodome to see how things we were working. I don’t know if most of the evacuees knew who I was.
Occasionally, someone in a managerial position would try to say ‘you cant do that.’ And they were quickly overwhelmed by operational leaders who just took it over and started doing things. Even if it wasn’t exactly by the book, it still got done.
In my office, the only bad decision was no decision. I told them, ‘I don’t care what you do, make a decision and get it done. Bottom line: I’m not going to fire you because you did something different from what I would have done.’ Everyone knew they were empowered. Most of them were good decisions, and when they weren’t, that was okay as long as they did what they thought was the right thing to do.
Getting the evacuees into housing
We had minor problems here and there, but generally, it all worked out pretty well. To me, the big objective was that it wasn’t going to be a refugee camp, and we needed to move them out. We got them out of the Astrodome and into housing around the city pretty quickly.
Interestingly there’s a difference in attitudes among residents who had housing assistance. In New Orleans, you have projects. There are tenants and there’s a manager who’s a government employee. Nobody has much say. If there are rats and roaches and people pissing off the balcony, it’s ‘sorry – live it.’ The manager can’t throw the tenants out, and the tenants have to live with a bad apartment.
Here you have vouchers. Both the landlord and the tenant have power and responsibilities. If a tenant has a reputation or was thrown out of his last apartment, the landlord doesn’t let him in. And if a landlord has a bad apartment complex, the tenant can take his voucher and leave. There’s dignity and power on both sides.
Residents from New Orleans had to adjust to that idea. We had a lot of situations where the constable would come and say ‘I’m sorry, you’re getting evicted.’ The bad actors learned that we did not have the tolerance for those kinds of activities that they had in New Orleans. It was a huge stress on the landlords. Hats off to those who were willing to accept these folks into their apartments. They got paid for it, but a lot of them lost money because of the damage.
The Astrodome empties out
In the end, a lot of people had gotten comfortable in the Astrodome, and they were afraid that if they went out, they’d get lost. They had built little communities with boxes and blankets and tents. It was like a village inside the Astrodome, and they didn’t want to leave. But the Astrodome wasn’t designed for a Category 4 hurricane. That’s what we thought Hurricane Rita was going to be, and we were concerned for their safety.
Three weeks later, when Rita hit, there were only about 1,500 people left, and they were in the Astrohall. We put them on C-130 transport planes and took them to Fort Smith, Arkansas. When they went, Arkansas had full knowledge of who they were getting. We made sure they had a list of people, their medical conditions – everything. We had none of that. It was chaos when they first got here.
In the end, we think 150,000 people who came here stayed. It’s hard to know because it’s not like you have to get a visa. My daughter had a friend, Jade, who was in the fourth grade at the time. She came in from New Orleans. Here mother had worked for one of the colleges there. She was making straight A’s, but she was a full year behind the kids here because of the schools in New Orleans. Her mother said, ‘I’m not going back. I’ve got an apartment. I can get a better job. I’ve got a better school.’
There was this incredible resilience of the city of Houston. The real story of the shelter is how Houston came together and was the shock absorber for the country. We were able to respond.