03/01/2018 / By Edsel Cook
Harris County had the foresight to adopt an emergency plan for natural disasters ahead of time, but it completely forgot about that plan by the time Hurricane Harvey hit Houston in August 2017, revealed a ProPublica article.
The Mass Shelter Plan (MSP) was a 17-page disaster-preparation document based on the assumption that the Red Cross would take time to respond to a disaster. The country approved it on 31 January 2017, seven months before Harvey arrived.
“In a major disaster where there is widespread damage, the local resources of the Red Cross may be overwhelmed and not available immediately,” read the plan. (Related: Prepping your home with essential survival supplies.)
The Red Cross was predicted to need a week before it could provide primary care and shelter. The plan expected Harris County itself to take up the initial burden.
“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,” warned the plan.
The goal of the Mass Shelter Plan was to provide shelter for up to 10,000 people. It called for training county employees as shelter volunteers, set specialized roles for staff and placed the onus of locating additional potential emergency housing on the county.
“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,” wrote David Alamia, an emergency management planner, in a December 2016 email.
Despite having an official disaster-preparation plan, Harris County barely moved to implement it. In fact, emails suggest that officials didn’t know it existed.
The MSP called for trained personnel who could run emergency shelters. But Harris County only held one training session for 40 volunteers in May 2017. Attendees like Paul Suckow said it only covered the basics and relied on Red Cross support.
A second training session was cancelled because of Harvey. (Related: Emergency preparedness: 7 Common mistakes preppers often make.)
The stories of heroic citizens and selfless volunteers during Hurricane Harvey are legion. So were the criticisms of the Red Cross.
Harris County itself was on its own for much of the crisis. Email exchanges between emergency management officers and county officials during the disaster made it clear that the Red Cross could not help them.
However, ProPublica also reported a startling lack of readiness on the part of county officials. Email exchanges detailed the frantic efforts of emergency management personnel to open shelters on short notice as if they were utterly unprepared for their roles.
There was also no mention of the Mass Shelter Plan in any of the emails checked by ProPublica. Harris County officials claimed they didn’t know about it or dismissed it outright.
“I cannot speak to that,” averred Steve Radack, a long-time Harris County commissioner. Instead, he harped that the Red Cross “let us down” and was “basically AWOL” for the crisis.
“Somebody would be hard pressed to find any county that moved as quickly as Harris County did to assist people,” Radack asserted.
“A plan is flexible,” claimed emergency management spokesperson Francisco Sanchez. “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.”
Emergency management boss Ed Emmett stated that Harris County’s approach “has been recognized as the best ever provided, and will likely become the model used around the country.”
ProPublica acquired the Mass Shelter Plan and associated emails through a public records request.
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