Hurricane Harvey

Former Harris County leaders reflect five years after Hurricane Harvey

Town Square with Ernie Manouse discussed how the county got information out during the storm and lessons learned for the next big hurricane.

After Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast in August 2017, the storm stalled over Houston and dumped as much as 60 inches of rain on some parts of the region.

Hurricane Harvey goes down in the record books as the most significant rain event in Harris County history.

Houses and buildings were destroyed and the reservoirs overflowed. Highways flooded and about 30% of Harris County was covered in water.

Five years later as the area prepares for its next storm, Town Square with Ernie Manouse talked to former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and former Harris County Office of Emergency Management PIO during Harvey Francisco Sanchez about how the county got information out during the storm, and lessons learned after Hurricane Harvey.

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The following has been edited for length and clarity.

I know that right before the storm hit you were battling your own personal issues that were going on, if I’m not mistaken. Kind of a hard way to come off of a stroke and go right into this.

EMMETT: I had a stroke on August 15th. And Harvey, of course, started coming pretty much the next week. But I think the first thing I have to say is what Harvey taught me was hurricanes are easy. Because Harvey wasn’t really a hurricane. It was a tropical storm by the time it got to us. We prepared 120 hours before landfall, you evacuate people who are going to be impacted by a storm surge and you make certain preparations. But Harvey, the way it meandered around and rained over the entire area. It was hard to know where to go. What thing do you do next? And so that was one of my biggest memories. And whenever people talk about us being hit by Hurricane Harvey, I always remind them well, Hurricane Harvey was a bad thing that hit Rockport. But what we got was Tropical Storm Harvey days later. And I never want to see that again.

I’m curious how you were alerted to what was coming. And at what point did you realize how severe it was going to be?

EMMETT: Well, in a very typical way, whenever a storm enters the Gulf, Office of Emergency Management stands up, people start going, they’re getting ready to spend the night or as many nights as necessary. And then I have to say we all kind of heaved a little bit of a sigh of relief when Harvey was going in south of us. And then I remember the timing could be a little bit off. But somewhere around Thursday, Jeff Linder comes in and says, “You know, there’s gonna be a lot of rain with this storm to the northwest of us.” And it went along, he came back in and said, “You know, forget what I said, it’s not going to be northwest of us, it’s going to be on us.” And that was probably late on Thursday, which would have been August 24. And we started making decisions. And I’ll throw in kind of a humorous side note, one of the first major decisions we had to make was whether or not to cancel the Coldplay concert at NRG Stadium. It was for Friday night. And we all remembered what had happened in a previous rain event, when people were trapped at a Toyota Center after a concert. So we wanted to be sure that didn’t happen again.

Francisco, as this information is building, and you’re starting to know what you know, how do you disseminate information that informs a community but doesn’t panic one? How do you make those tough decisions of how much we prepare the populace for it? And how do we keep them calm?

SANCHEZ: I think the lessons we’ve learned over the years is one to really have a unified approach about how we tackle that … because we live in a county of like 1,700 square mile large media market. So kind of be just very candid and forthright, here are the facts you’re gonna need to know. No matter what the information is, here’s what you need to do to take action and to make sure that we move people towards something, that so they don’t panic, but they have that information, conveying that in a very steady way and what those alternatives are. But, you know, looking back, I think, and we’ve learned this, in following disasters across the country, you can tell people, you’re gonna get 40 to 50 inches of rain. And the media was saying that, the forecasters were saying that, and we were saying that, but people didn’t have a real world event to anchor that information to. And so people simply couldn’t fathom what that amount of rain did. And so that’s one of the things that’s a lesson learned from from Harvey.

Francisco, I’m also curious about getting information out and getting as being as transparent as you can. While you’re doing that, are you also frightfully aware of how soon people are going to be losing connectivity? So many people were without access to information because his power went out? They were unable to connect to things. Your thoughts on that?

SANCHEZ: No, that’s that’s something absolutely we planned on. I think, I started with a passion for communications and crisis communications after we opened up the dome for Katrina. So one of the core messages during Harvey, there’s potential for power to be out, how people get information, multimedia on social media by text. So we were telling people you ought to communicate by text, that you need to see how to get information, when the power was out how to make sure that you had all those charging devices.

 

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