A collaborative effort by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune discovered Harris County officials had a disaster plan in place seven months before Harvey, but didn’t implement it when the storm hit.
According to the Tribune, the plan even anticipated the Red Cross would be slow to act in the wake of a major disaster, an assumption that reportedly came true.
The plan stated that while the Red Cross was the city’s “lead partner” in disaster response, Houston shouldn’t count on the charity organization to be immediately available, stating:
In a major disaster where there is widespread damage, the local resources of the Red Cross may be overwhelmed and not available immediately. It may be upwards of 7 days before the Red Cross can assume a primary care and shelter role.
This disaster prep document, called the “Mass Shelter Plan,” also stated it was the responsibility of the county to get its citizens to safety, and was approved Jan. 31, 2017.
The plan’s aim was to train city employees as shelter staff, set up accommodations for up to 10,000 displaced people and identify buildings that could be used as shelters outside the scope of the Red Cross’ shelter facilities.
The goal was reportedly to fill that seven-day gap until the Red Cross could arrive, according an email obtained by ProPublica reporters. In it, county emergency management planner David Alamia states, “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.”
Once the storm hit, predictions of inadequate resources from the Red Cross were fulfilled. Evacuees were reportedly told to bring their own food and supplies with them to shelters, because not enough were coming in.
Despite this, and despite a plan passed to mitigate the very thing that was happening, county employees reportedly had no idea of the plan’s existence, and were scrambling to open shelters at the last minute.
“Shelter after shelter and Red Cross was absolutely no help,” said Recovery Specialist Stevee Franks in an email to a coworker in a nearby county. “We had to open shelters ourselves which was stupid stressful.”
Franks works in the county’s office of homeland security and disaster management.
According to the Tribune, the county only hosted one training session, attended by 40 volunteers, before Harvey struck, a stark contrast to the regimented approach outlined in the plan.
The plan stated employees would be trained to operate a shelter, but Paul Suckow with Harris County’s Community Services Department, who took part in the training, said that “would be a higher level of training than we received.”
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who was in charge of disaster relief during Harvey, said officials did the best with what they had in light of an unprecedented disaster. The shelters the county set up, he says, were “recognized as the best ever provided, and will likely become the model used around the country.”
A fact sheet on the storm circulated among county employees stated the county relied on the Red Cross for shelter efforts, saying “we are not a sheltering command for hurricanes; we rely on the Red Cross.”
Accounts differ as to the speed and efficiency of post-Harvey responses between Red Cross and Harris County officials, and records like the fact sheet obtained by ProPublica show county employees were still in the dark on the Mass Shelter Plan after the storm.