Lessons Learned from Harvey Shared at #NSCexpo

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett shared the lessons learned from the devastating 2017 storm in the Occupational Keynote on Oct. 24.

HOUSTON – Making sure that the damage done by Harvey when the hurricane-turned-tropical-storm inundated the Houston area does not recur is a top priority for Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, whose job makes him the chief executive of the county government. Houston and 34 other cities are in Harris County, and Harvey dumped an unprecedented amount of rain on the region – some locations recorded more than 50 inches of rain during six days.

Harris County Judge Ed EmmettEmmett delivered the Occupational Keynote on Oct. 24 during the National Safety Council’s Congress & Expo here. His speech was expected to be a high point of the event and did not disappoint; Emmett discussed the county's (and also the city of Houston's, state of Texas', and FEMA's) preparations for Harvey, what went right and wrong during the response to help residents in more than 100,000 flooded homes, why no evacuation order was considered or issued, and lessons learned from the experience.

Emmett is the director of Harris County's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. He explained that the office has a state-of-the-art emergency operations center (EOC), but they had no plan ready for an event when the entire county is flooded and the state can't get in to help. "We were locked in our EOC for six nights, and some of the people weren't even supposed to be there," he said.

The county had pre-designated shelters that were to be supplied and staffed by the American Red Cross, and county officials wanted to open 36 of them but found that the Red Cross had no trucks or drivers available. Emmett found enough trucks and drivers, and the shelters opened. The George R. Brown Convention Center and NRG Stadium both became shelters for about 10,000 people each.

"There was never a decision not to evacuate. It was never even considered," he said. How could 4.7 million people be evacuated, he asked, and, for that matter, they could not tell which areas to evacuate because everything was flooded. Also, they remembered the experience of Hurricane Rita in 2005, when evacuees jammed all highways out of Houston and more than 100 people died in the evacuation, including 24 people on a bus carrying nursing home evacuees.

He praised the first responders and thousands of people who simply came to help out, either by using their own boats to rescue stranded people from their flooded homes or helping residents clean up damaged homes after the storm was over. "The real heroes were all the first responders, private citizens out in their boats, and people we don't even know" who came to help others, he said.

Key lessons learned from Harvey, he said, are:

  • Good communication among every agency involved in preparedness and response, and ongoing communication with the public, are critical during the event.
  • Don't get distracted. Questions about not issuing an evacuation order were one of the distractions during Harvey, Emmett said. "When you're in the midst of a crisis, you need to be solving the crisis," he explained.
  • Empower people to do their jobs and ensure they are trained to do them. "In the end," he said, "it always comes back to people."

In August 2018, Harris County voters overwhelmingly passed a $2.5 billion bond issue to fund flood control projects all across the county. It was the largest bond issue in Texas history, Emmett said, adding that the 86 percent approval for it showed how united the community is trying to make sure future storms don't do as much harm as Harvey.

He said he hopes that, 10-15 years from now, other jurisdictions look at Harris County as a model for smart recovery following a major disaster.

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