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Houston-Area Officials Approved a Plan for Handling a Natural Disaster — Then Ignored It

Harris County foresaw key risks, including a slow response from the Red Cross, but never implemented its strategy.

A man looks out on a flooded road in Houston during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in August 2017. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

This story was co-published with The Texas Tribune.

Seven months before Hurricane Harvey inundated the Houston area with a trillion gallons of water and led to widespread criticism of the Red Cross, Harris County adopted a disaster-preparation plan that’s key assumption was that the Red Cross would be slow to act. “In a major disaster where there is widespread damage, the local resources of the Red Cross may be overwhelmed and not available immediately,” stated the plan. “It may be upwards of 7 days before the Red Cross can assume a primary care and shelter role.”

The 17-page document, entitled the “Mass Shelter Plan,” was unanimously approved by the county’s governing body on Jan. 31, 2017. ProPublica obtained the plan, which until now has not been public, as part of a public records request.

The Mass Shelter Plan described the Red Cross as the county’s “lead partner” but was unequivocal in assigning responsibility should a calamity occur: “In the event of an emergency that requires evacuation of all or any part of the Harris County population, Harris County is ultimately responsible for the coordination of the evacuation, shelter and mass care of displaced local residents.”

The goal, according to a county spokesperson, was to provide shelter for up to 10,000 displaced residents. (Harris County’s population is 4.5 million; roughly half of those people live in Houston.) The plan proposed that county employees be trained as shelter volunteers, outlined specific roles for shelter staff and indicated the county would identify and survey buildings that could be used for emergency housing beyond those already identified by the American Red Cross.

“The main idea behind the plan is to have county personnel staff and manage the shelters up to 7 days until ARC volunteers can transition operations,” county emergency management planner David Alamia wrote in a December 2016 email obtained by ProPublica.

But in the seven months between the plan’s passage and the landfall of Harvey, the county took few steps to implement its strategy. Indeed, when dire flooding forced thousands of people from their homes, 3,036 emails obtained in a public records request suggest, officials didn’t even seem aware that a plan existed.

“Harris County had the forethought to identify — and rightfully so — that the Red Cross might not be able to be there for upwards of seven days depending on storm severity, and then they didn’t follow through on their plans,” said Meghan McPherson, an adjunct professor of emergency management at Tulane University, who reviewed the plan at ProPublica’s request. “It doesn’t seem they made a connection between what they promised the public and what they did.”

Hurricane Harvey, which struck in late August last year, generated a heroic response. The tales of citizens taking care of each other and volunteers improvising were legion. By contrast, the Red Cross came in for lacerating criticism. Local media chronicled myriad problems. Cities within Harris County emailed the county’s emergency management office asking for Red Cross help and the county acknowledged it couldn’t send it. “I hate to say this, but the Red Cross is completely out of resources,” county official Kristina Clark told the fire marshal in Humble, Texas. She advised him to open his own shelter, and get the word out that evacuees would need to bring “THEIR OWN food, sleeping bags, clothes, medication, etc.” One Houston councilman grew so exasperated that he confronted the Red Cross’ CEO in a parking lot and called the Red Cross, during a council meeting, the “most inept, unorganized organization I’ve ever experienced.”

For its part, Harris County’s emergency management department clearly scrambled to open shelters on short notice, emails show. Indeed, employees seemed taken aback that their department would have a role. “As far as coordinating mass care, GOODNESS we had to do that too,” wrote Stevee Franks, a recovery specialist in the county’s office of homeland security and emergency management, in a Sept. 10 email to a peer in a nearby county. “Shelter after shelter and Red Cross was absolutely no help.” As she put it, “we had to open shelters ourselves which was stupid stressful.” (We have left the spelling and punctuation in emails as is. Franks did not respond to a request for comment.)

Franks’ email did not mention that the county had passed a plan to avoid this exact scenario — nor did any of the emails examined by ProPublica.

Similarly, Steve Radack, a Harris County commissioner for nearly three decades, seemed unaware of the existence of the plan — which he voted for — when asked about it in an interview with ProPublica. “I cannot speak to that,” he said.

Like many, Radack praised the efforts of volunteers in the aftermath of Harvey. But as stirring as those efforts were, the Mass Shelter Plan envisioned a more centrally organized approach that emphasized training. “Harris County employees will have the opportunity to be trained in Shelter Operations,” it stated.

The plan cited more than a dozen roles that could be filled by shelter staff, and noted that the Red Cross recommended six staff members per 100 shelterees. But in the months between the plan’s passage and the landfall of Harvey, the county hosted only one training, for about 40 volunteers, in May 2017.

Paul Suckow, a senior planner with the Harris County Community Services Department, was among those trained. He said the group was taught the basics of shelter operations: what needed to be set up before the public arrived, how to assemble and clean the cots the Red Cross would provide and what to do with other supplies. All of the scenarios they role-played, Suckow said, assumed that a shelter run by the Red Cross would already be set up and waiting. Opening and managing a shelter, he said, “would be a higher level of training than we received.”

Harris County emergency management spokesman Francisco Sanchez said only one training session was held because that was all the county and the Red Cross — which offered the training — had time to organize. A second training was scheduled for Aug. 30. It was canceled, Sanchez said, because of Harvey.

Sanchez said the Mass Care Plan came about as a result of “candid conversations” with the Red Cross about its sheltering capacity during flooding events after previous missteps in the county. “There is a tendency,” he said, “for American Red Cross process or flow to become very challenged, quite frankly overwhelmed, in flooding events.” But plans are made to be changed in emergencies, Sanchez said, and that’s what happened after Harvey hit. “A plan is flexible,” he said. “It’s scalable. We can apply it and we can adapt it — and we can throw the rules out the window to serve the residents of Harris County.”

Other county officials mostly sidestepped questions about the lack of preparation and defended their efforts. The dozens of shelters opened by the community and the county were evidence of good management, Commissioner Radack argued. He contended the Red Cross “let us down” and was “basically AWOL.”

Radack also complimented County Judge Ed Emmett, who runs emergency management for the county. “Somebody would be hard pressed to find any county that moved as quickly as Harris County did to assist people,” he said. “I think it was a great effort.”

Emmett told ProPublica in a statement that the “unprecedented disaster” meant that many normal responses would have been “unrealistic.” He asserted that the county’s shelter operation during Harvey “has been recognized as the best ever provided, and will likely become the model used around the country.”

People take shelter at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston after floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey inundated the city on Aug. 29, 2017. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Among our requests for documents, ProPublica asked for a list of shelters that the county had identified and surveyed in advance, as the Mass Shelter Plan called for. That request yielded an unexpected response.

Harris County did not provide any emails showing such preparation, but did — seemingly unintentionally — send internal emails in which county officials discussed ProPublica’s request with each other. An email dated Nov. 1, 2017, sent by Brian Murray, the office of emergency management’s planning supervisor, indicated that the shelter surveys envisioned by the county plan “do not, and never did, exist.”

Rosio Torres-Segura, a media specialist for emergency management, then emailed her supervisor, asking, “Do you want to reply to the reporter or do you want me to tell her these documents do not exist. She’s going to ask why?”

That supervisor, Francisco Sanchez, then told ProPublica the reason they did not exist was because the county had decided to leave the task to the Red Cross. “The end result of the plan and how it was implemented included extensive dialogue offline where we came to an understanding with the American Red Cross that they had unique expertise in selecting and inspecting pre-identified sites,” he said. “As hurricane season approached, it made sense to rely on the work of the American Red Cross and their existing inspections so we could be prepared to act more swiftly in the event of a storm that threatened our community.”

The Red Cross offered a different recollection. The organization “was always under the impression that the county might take steps to identify additional shelters beyond those listed” in the Red Cross system, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Penninman. “That kind of flexibility is critical in large and complex disasters like the response to Hurricane Harvey.”

Speaking more broadly, Penninman disputed the premise of Harris County’s plan. A seven-day response, she wrote in a statement, is “not the Red Cross standard, nor does it reflect the actual performance of the Red Cross and its partners. The Red Cross national standard is to respond immediately, maintain sufficient local resources to handle 48 hours of emergency sheltering activity, and resource for planned peak shelter populations within the continental United States within 96 hours.” Penninman asserted that within 48 hours of the arrival of Harvey, “the Red Cross had 6 shelters open in Harris County with a population of 3,649.” And by 96 hours in, she said, the Red Cross was operating 43 shelters serving 14,154 people.

Asked about the county’s failure to identify shelters in advance, Sanchez pointed to a space that was used successfully — the NRG Convention Center, which ended up housing 7,400 people — but only at the last minute. According to Sanchez, “Many of the relationships necessary to make that happen were a direct result of writing the mass shelter plan.”

But Rene Solis, who leads disaster relief efforts for BakerRiply, said he was unaware of the Mass Shelter Plan. BakerRipley, a nonprofit that focuses on community development, ran the emergency operations at the NRG Center.

The decision to allow BakerRipley to manage the NRG Center was made only the day before the shelter opened, Solis said. “There was no expectation or plan for us to [manage] the NRG Center,” Solis said. “It came about because of urgent need.”

Asked to identify any ways in which the county adhered to the Mass Shelter Plan, Sanchez said the county “worked to secure a cache of cots and other supplies” to supplement the Red Cross’ resources; updated the county’s mapping system to reflect the location of existing Red Cross shelters; and “worked extensively to strengthen partnerships with school districts and nonprofits that might support shelter operations.”

Here, too, some of Sanchez’s assertions didn’t square with the memories of others, in this case the Houston Independent School District. “No one from the county asked HISD for anything,” said school district spokesperson Lorena Cozzari, “nor did HISD ask the county for anything during the storm.”

Notwithstanding the steadfast defense of county efforts by its executives, some staffers seemed to recognize, in emails they sent in the weeks after Harvey, that the planning didn’t go as well as hoped.

“We are not a sheltering command for hurricanes,” noted a document, labeled “The Harvey Fact Sheet,” that circulated among county employees on Oct. 9. “We rely on the Red Cross.”

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