Former Houston mayor Annise Parker has seen her share of storms, but Harvey represented a new challenge: operate an emergency shelter. As part of the executive team with BakerRipley, Parker helped set up and run a shelter that served some 7,500 people, working 14-hour days and helping manage a volunteer crew that grew from 150 volunteers at night to 300 volunteers during the day. Now, she said her organization is helping put together a guide for other groups to help walk through the steps of setting up and managing a shelter. And she said she also sees a need for more communication at the neighborhood-level not only during disasters, but before and after.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
It seemed like BakerRipley just leapt into action almost instantaneously, how did that process go?
Tuesday morning, we had a normal conference all for the executives at BakerRipley, so 8:30, [CEO] Angela Blanchard tells us all that we’re not going to have the week off to deal with the flood as we had anticipated. We were going to go to NRG. By noon, there were a handful of us at the stadium, starting to lay it out. We received our first guests by 10 o’clock [that night].
That’s pretty quick, was there anything in place beforehand or was it all from scratch?
Nothing was in place. There’s a lot and lots of folks with operational experience and skills. None of us had ever run a shelter [but] we’d all volunteered at shelters and we’ve all experienced the aftermath of big weather events and our CEO has toured refugee camps around the world and they function similarly to this kind of shelter so we had a lot of understanding of what was going to be needed. So we were just laying out what functions go where.
We set up initially for 3,500 and we saw about 7,500 people total but the population never exceeded 3,000 so we made a good guess on that. We had the flexibility built in.
There was another shelter operating at the George R. Brown Convention Center, were you in communication, did you take cues from them?
We had three advantages that the George R. Brown didn’t have: the layout was easier, we had a whole lot more experience in shelters and then the third advantage is that we actually could see what was happening there. We had the benefit of the mistakes that they were making.
Talk about the site a little bit, what made it easier?
George R. Brown is smack in the middle of downtown but NRG is in a sea of parking lots, so it’s a secure facility. It may not be easy to get to but it has a perimeter that can be monitored, it’s easy to get in and out, there were places for our volunteers to park, our guests to park, buses had easy access.
We made sure there was an obvious entrance and because there were guards, people could get directions.
So it sounds like it ran smoothly?
It ran more smoothly than we had any right to expect and I’m proud of the fact that everyone from the director of FEMA to senior Red Cross folks to state emergency management folks said it was one of the best laid out, best functioning mass shelters they had seen. We put a lot of work into it to make it that way.
For nearly a month, we had a fully functioning medical bay with everything from dental exams to eye screenings. One third of the folks who came through had unmet medical needs. Some of that is equipment — nobody got out there with their wheelchair or walker — medication and equipment was lost but a significant portion of that was unaddressed medical needs. After we dealt with the folks who needed medications right away, we really had an opportunity to address some of these larger medical needs.
Federal law changed after Katrina so people are allowed to evacuate with their pets. We had a large kennel. But it’s also Texas so we had to have a weapons locker. Everybody who came through our shelter went through a metal detector. We had guns, knives, a machete. As they checked out they retrieved their weapons and went on down the road again.
Was it tough being outside government during this one, how did you think it was all handled? Were there big wrinkles?
I am completely out of the bubble. All I see is what everybody else sees on the TV.
The emergency response folks know what they’re doing. The only thing a public official can really do: don’t screw up the messaging and authorize or back up whoever is doing the authorizing of how you move resources from one area to another.
Fortunately for me, most of the folks over at the George R. Brown were people who had worked for me or with me.
We shared resources; we need more baby diapers over here, we have extra men’s shoes in large sizes. That worked really well. But part of the reason it worked really well is that we knew each other. We all had each others cell phone numbers before the storm.
We met with the Red Cross folks who coordinated the closing of George R. Brown and the relocation of folks to an intermediate shelter. We were going to send ours to the intermediate shelter in Greenspoint. Metro provided shuttles, Metro was a hero in this all the way through, transporting people, evacuating, they ran shuttles from Target and Walmart on an hourly basis.
Metro was going to transport the people, but when they closed George R. Brown, they loaded all the possessions in Metro buses, so it was a really slow complicated process. We went out and hired trucks. So we had the bus, it would hold 30 people instead of having half the bus be people and half the bus be their stuff. It was going like clockwork. The Red Cross actually said can you slow it down because we can’t check them in a fast as you’re loading them.
It was that kind of frustration. We had 30 dogs who would need to be kenneled and they didn’t have a plan for that. They just assumed somebody was going to show up and do the kennel on the other end. They didn’t have a law enforcement plan. That was a huge piece of what made ours work.
On a larger scale how do you think relief efforts ran?
What we don’t do enough, is if you have to evacuate and if you have to set up a shelter, where do you go to get that information? Emergency responders and operations teams, city and county [officials] know what they’re doing but a lot of what happens in an emergency is at the hyperlocal level. You go the nearest high ground, that could be a strip center. The water rises, you go to the next batch. We could probably do a better job of training our residents. There’s probably a million new residents down here since the last big weather event with Ike and Ike was a fundamentally different weather event.
In terms of communication and information there seemed to be a few hot spots: determining individual risk of flooding, health and environmental hazards and evaluating whether to evacuate. How is that all handled internally?
At the start of every hurricane season, I would sit down with the county. We would make sure we knew the protocols on each side. That kind of communication we would work on but you never know what part of town, what area is going to be hit and that’s why communication is sort of the first word and the last word because you’re dealing with it in real time.
The public sector entities, the emergency responders, the emergency operations command, the City and the County, we know what to expect and we do a lot of communication out to citizens but citizens have responsibilities as well. We need to figure out how the breakdown occurred. Even if it was discussed 40 years ago, you need to know if you’re in an area that can be flooded if they open the flood gates on the reservoir. You need to know whether you live a quarter mile from a bayou. Your house has never flooded before, but you need to know which direction do you go to get out of your neighborhood. Do you know whether your neighbor is oxygen dependent? To have a plan, not enough of us do that and that’s something nonprofits could be a key piece of.We nee to be pushing these kinds of conversations into the community level. This is what a resilient neighborhood looks like.
There are still people trying to live in their flooded homes and yeah you can live in your flooded homes if you take everything that was underwater out and how do you get that kind of vital information down into the neighborhoods?
That’s what BakerRipley is doing now. [We] now have a big chunk of the case management contracts. There a huge number of folks out there who don’t know the first place to start, aren’t citizens and don’t realize there are resources available to them, or who until you come and knock on their door, they’re frozen in place. And that’s the hard part because this is going to be going on for years.
How did Harvey change your feelings toward Houston?
To me it reaffirmed the positive feelings I have about Houston, the way we responded. People didn’t whine or complain, they got up and did things and made it work. Houston flooded before there was a single human here. We live in the coastal prairie. Do I believe in global warming? Yes. Do I believe the storms will get worse? Yes. But do I think that’s why Harvey dumped 50 inches of rain? No, I think it was a freak storm. I don’t think Harvey is emblematic of what we’re facing in the future but are we going to have more storms? Probably. We need to figure out how to do this.