Harvey Reflections: Opening Homes for Disaster Relief

Though the government response was critical, Ed Pettitt says it was the citizen response that most impressed him during Harvey. Photo: Flickr user Coast Guard News.

Ed Pettitt has lived in Houston since 2011 and done a little bit of everything. With a background that includes time in the Peace Corps and medical research, Pettitt tends to get restless. In addition to hosting guests at his Third Ward home through Airbnb, he is involved in the Emancipation Economic Development Council and local rotary group. During Harvey, again, he did a little bit of everything, including help recruit new Airbnb hosts to offer space to displaced Houstonians.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Ed Pettitt outside Project Row Houses in Third Ward.

In addition to this being your first hurricane, you also had guests staying at your Airbnb listing. Were you expecting flooding?

I would send them links to what news stations were sending out. Then I also made sure we had flashlights, I actually went over to the Ace Hardware on 288 and I picked up a portable grill, flashlights, buckets and filled those up and kept them in the bathrooms.

Living in Botswana, that was stuff we did normally. I was actually kind of used to all that.

The following day, I kept looking out in the evening and the water was definitely rising and that’s just Houston. No matter where you are. But it never got to where it was approaching the door or anything, we were fortunate.

I’m a busybody. I can’t just sit still. So first I just drove while it was still raining. I spent a day just going around kind of exploring. 288 was completely a river.

I was able to drive as far as Southmore and walked the bike trail until the bridge. That actually was passable. There were some people there taking photos. That’s when I turned and looked at Good Hope. I saw a car submerged, a taxi, and all you cold see was the sign on the top.

Third Ward was kind of an island.

So when do you switch from sort of watching the water to helping?

I was able to get [to the George R. Brown Convention Center]. I went in and just got in line to volunteer and they were signing up people right then. It was probably Sunday. Volunteers were just finally starting to get there. They already had a lot of folks come in needing a place to stay.

But the amount of evacuees coming in, they weren’t really keeping up with.

The [Red Cross] was just handing out paper applications and they ran out of photo copies and the volunteers just had to wait. It was a bit hectic at first.

They said we need people to set up cots. So that’s what I did.

How was that experience? When did you switch gears and think Airbnb could be a resource?

People were coming in sopping wet, you’d try to get them dry clothes, blankets, a cot. A lot of the families just needed advocates. I just hooked up with one family, she said I need to charge my phone, so I found a place. I just stuck with her and her two kids. Sometimes she needed to go somewhere to get something, so I’d hang with the kids.

I did that for a couple days. I had some people at my house who would be there but in a few days, I had reservations that were getting canceled. I have this loft above my garage. I had actually been an Airbnb disaster response person after the Memorial Day flood. I hosted two folks. I signed up again. And right after I signed up, I got a person ping me to say they wanted to book it and it was a husband, his wife and three kids.

We just loaded up my Jeep with all of their stuff. They had a couple garbage bags full of possessions. They basically left with whatever was on their backs and then what was given to them at the shelter.

They were able to take Uber to my place and we all met there. I got them settled in and they stayed there for about two weeks. During that time I just had friends help out. They got them kitchenware and supplies. I had friends donate clothes. The people at Houstonia magazine, they were doing a donation drive. I saw that they were doing that drive and I was like, can I bring the family over? All of the colleagues just kind of adopted them. And they started up a gofundme for them and were able to raise 1,000 just to help them with other needs apart from the donated stuff.

As that was happening we were able to find them a home to rent in Fifth Ward.

And you were also encouraging other folks to sign up on Airbnb to both stay and to host people, right?

We had to start from zero. To do Airbnb you need to have your drivers license to upload. We were trying to get people signed up. A lot of them didn’t have credit cards. In the beginning the system was still very glitchy. We had to call headquarters and do all these exceptions.

I was trying to spread the word among fellow hosts that they should consider offering their space for free. I was sharing in a Facebook group for Airbnb hosts. I just joined Jeff [Kaplan, founder of New Living] and his buddies. He held this open house and we had a website and a number you could text to get instructions if you wanted to host. We were able to supplement what Airbnb was doing.

I had one lady who drove down from Chicago, with a kayak on her car. By that time that wasn’t the biggest priority but she came and was ready to help wherever was needed. She helped at NRG she helped at the Midtown Kitchen Collective and she helped at the Harvey relief hub.

You’ve seen the challenges up close and worked with multiple systems, where are the gaps, what would you fix?

I have a tendency to do things and as soon as it start working smoothly, I get bored and have to go to something else. George R. Brown had tons of volunteers at one point and I said, I’m done here, I’m not adding value.

I heard they were sending people to smaller shelters, one was the Forge for Families. I had done something there previously. I went there and I arrived before families even started coming. They were just setting up the cots. They had nothing. That evening, they were bringing people in by the truck load. There were a lot of elderly folks, people on dialysis, people who were sick and there was not one medical person, just a home health aide who had been evacuated herself. She stayed up all night helping people. I wrote on Facebook that we needed medical folks, because I work in the Medical Center as well. One of my friends here, Antoine Bryant, came and said, what can we do? I said, we need pharmaceuticals. He drove to Sam’s Club. They were closed but they had someone there to give out stuff to the Red Cross. They gave us $500 worth of stuff. This one young medical doctor from the Medical Center came in and started taking down everyone’s issues. Within one day we set up a fully functioning clinic, a fully stocked kitchen and pantry.

Were there any lessons learned there for you?

The Red Cross has been getting a bad rap but they were the only organization on the ground prepared before the hurricane even hit ready to do immediate response. For the life of me, I have no idea why logistically it was as inefficient as it was. These things seem easy, just to have a printing station you knew you could use near the George R. Brown. If it handles huge conferences, why can’t we print volunteer applications? And why is everything paper based? Why doesn’t the Red Cross have some iPads to use? Logistically, they really needed a lot of help.

Then when you had all of these smaller shelters set up all at once, there was no communication between them and there was no way to know the needs of the shelter in particular. But then you had that map. That’s how I think Houston and Harvey really changed the game for disaster relief: the tech community and what Sketch City and Station Houston were able to accomplish. They were scrapping social media messages, even the ones I was putting out when I was at Forge for Families.

That really changed the game. In the future, though, now that we know, we can have those systems in place already.

I think Houston’s citizen tech people did a great job filling in these gaps.

Did Harvey change how you felt about Houston?

It was amazing to see how people didn’t even hesitate to wait for outsiders or even the government to help. They just wanted to get out there and do things as quickly and as efficiently as they could and they were ale to do that because of social media. They were very self reliant and very innovative. I think that saved a lot of lives. The government response had its role, but not right away.

Folks here weren’t looking for excuses. I think that’s what I really appreciated about Houston’s response. And just how they didn’t even question, should this be our role to be doing this? They just did it.

If you look at Forge for Families in Third Ward, historically they’re looked [at] as a space of need but in this hurricane, it was a place of refuge. The small business owners from Third Ward came out. They all came to the Forge and took care of people. I think that speaks a lot to the people of Houston opening their homes and hearts to people outside their immediate community.

 

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Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is Senior Editor with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

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