/ History

Harvey Floods Houston: Reflecting on Katrina

The tragedy unfolding in Houston brought back memories of Hurricane Katrina and Houston's response to the plight of evacuees from Louisiana. It was a massive effort that consumed the city for weeks. The scale of it would change Houston forever. By some estimates over a quarter million evacuees moved to Texas. 100,000 or more would stay in Houston permenantly.

Many Houstonians did far more than I did. It really did seem like the entire city turned out for the effort. Over 60,000 Houstonians officially volunteered but many more times that particpated in other ways. I kept these notes, not because my participation was significant (it wasn't), but because I knew this was a significant moment in Houston's history.

Perhaps this account will help you be more effective in your own volunteer efforts. The George R. Brown Convention center is accepting evacuees again - this time from Houston. I know the details will be different but I have no doubt that volunteers (and evacuees) there now will be experiencing something very similar. If I could get to Houston I would be there.

You can help those affected by Hurricane Harvey by texting the word HARVEY to 90999 to make a $10 donation to the Red Cross.

Day 1

Forgive me if this is poorly written or incoherent. It's 4:22am and I'm dead on my feet. I really wanted to go straight home from work and sleep Friday (it was a rough week) but I heard that the city was going to open up the George R. Brown Convention Center to Katrina refugees. Since it's only a mile or two from home I decided to skip a night's rest and see what I could do to help. I didn't really think I'd have much impact, or contact with the refugees, but I was wrong.

As a volunteer I started off by filing out a volunteer form with very basic contact information and hours/days I'd be willing to work. I started this process about 11:00pm. I sat down to complete the form and someone told me to wait there until a team leader came by to pick me up in about thirty minutes.

The volunteer processing area is at one end of the convention center and the area is also used to process (unload, sort, move, etc) drive-up donations. At about 11:15pm a booming voice called for everyone's attention and explained that the first bus of evacuees was due at the center in twenty minutes. We were to "man our stations" and get the entire group processed and straight into bed for lights out around 12:30am. We were told that the evacuees had been fed. Since there was no food (for evacuees) in the hall there would be no eating in front of them in the event that some of them would still be hungry. The speaker went on to remind us about the traume the evacuees had been through. He closed out the speech by barking "Now put on a happy face!" I felt like I was on an ship heading into battle only I had no idea where my station was - or if I even had one.

Five minutes later a woman rolled up and gathered the hundred or so new volunteers. She gave us a big speech about escorting refugees to the donations processing area and letting them select one or two outfits per family member before bed. We were supposed to be friendly and at their disposal but we were also there to make sure that people didn't load up on the good stuff. It had to last. The, about ten minutes into her speech, she announced that we weren't going to do that after all and we could either go home or stay and try to assist the refugees in any way possible. It was a hint at the chaos to come. I chose to stay.

If it sounds like we were all making it up as we went along it's because we were - sort of. There was a framework and basic process but the system had to be flexible enough to absorb the unpredicatble. When you throw a few thousand strangers into a convention center under terrible circumstances the unpredicatable is going to happen over and over and over again. It was chaotic, and would soon be more so, but the good intentions and teamwork of decent people promised to hold it all together.

The bus was due at any time so ninty of us walked the quarter mile to the refugee processing area (this building is about a half mile long) and waited for them to arrive. They did just that, to thunderous applause, about five minutes later. I didn't really know what to do but I noticed some people putting bedding on some of the hundreds of inflatable mattresses on the floor, left the welcome line, and offered to help. Over the next two to three hours I ferried bedding and towels (piles and piles at a time in a big cart I "found") hundreds of yards back and forth between the donations area and the beds. I made hundreds of beds. I don't make my bed as many times a year as I made beds in that three hour period.

As refugees were processed I'd stop by their beds to ask if they wanted additional blankets, pillow, or sheets. Their reactions to this were amazing. Their faces would light up and they would dive into my cart looking for just the right kind of blanket or in many cases the right color sheet. I found the color preference kind of odd but then it hit home that these people had nothing but the clothes on their backs. It was difficult to look at them knowing the hardship they faced and will continue to deal with for years to come.

I ran back and forth with full cart loads of bedding maybe 10 times. I also ran towels to the medic station at the opposite end of the building (again about a half mile) on the last three or four passes. I was dead on my feet by lights out but I went back one more time with a load of blankets and pillows to help people make their inflatable beds as comfortable as possible.

The chaos subsided at lights out. Everyone was well behaved, tired, and obviously grateful. A lot of them wanted to make small talk and many of the families with children and grandparents pushed their beds close together and whispered to each other. Few of them were able to sleep which is normal given the trauma they had experienced.

Pretty well spent, I grabbed a box lunch provided by Jason's Deli (thanks!) and crashed out against the wall in the donation area. Most of the other volunteers took a break as well. There wasn't much in the way of coordination but it also really wasn't needed. There were probably 30 volunteers by that point (1:00am) and everyone was working incredibly hard just doing anything they could to help. The most difficult physical work of the night came when we realized that we were being crowded out by bottled water donations and decided to move hundreds of cases to a wall about 100 yards away. Ten of us spent the next hour tossing and stacking untold cases of water without rest. It was one hell of a workout.

People were rolling up as late as 4:00am with truckloads of food, clothing, toiletries, toys, and other donations. Many of them were simple hard-working people who had driven to Wal-Mart or Target and loaded up on hundreds of dollars worth of deodorant, toothpaste, water, and other necessities. The generosity was amazing. I also noticed that many unloaded their donations, parked their cars, and then joined us for the hard work inside. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed working with those people. Similar work would follow when we decided to restructure the donations area (with thousands of pounds of clothing, food, toys, etc) and prepare for breakfast service at 6:30am.

So now I'm home. I'm changing clothes, getting comfortable shoes, doctoring a huge blister, and I'm going back up to help them prepare for what will surely be a more chaotic day. They practically begged me to return for the breakfast shift but I'd already decided I was coming back. I haven't slept in 24 hours but I probably have another 6 or 8 good hours left in me. If I can stay awake I'll post another update when I return this evening.

If you have a shelter open near you I strongly recommend spending part of your day there if you can. These people need it and you'll benefit from the experience as well.

Day 2

I knew that Saturday would be chaotic but what I saw, the chaos, generosity, the superhuman physical effort from volunteers, far exceeded my expectations.

My first shift, from 10pm Friday until 4am Saturday morning, was difficult but enjoyable. At the time I thought it was somewhat chaotic but Saturday morning would lead me to rewrite my definition of chaos. I started my second shift after a two hour break to shower and change. At 6:00am there were just a handful of volunteers and the GRB was fairly quiet. We spent an hour or so sorting donating goods and preparing to run the evacuees through our own little Wal-Mart so that they could collect essentials.

Rose, one of the yellow-vested team leaders, appeared and gathered about forty of us to discuss the plans for the morning. She started by telling us that we were going to run the evacuees through the line in small groups. We had to keep them moving and ask them to take items from the tops of stacks instead of rummaging through them. This meant that those of us manning stations throughout the maze of goods would have to look these people, and their children, in the eye and be able to tell them "No." Rose asked everyone that felt uncomfortable with this requirement to step forward and in the next few seconds about half of our group did exactly that. Another team leader scooped them up and led them away. I have no idea what kind of work they went off to do.

Rose then said that there would be one station that would be the toughest of all. Near the beginning of the line of donated goods stood ten or so long folding tables covered with toys. The evacuees and their children would have to walk past this line of toys to get to the clothing and other goods. Someone would have to monitor that area to ensure that no toys were taken back into the primary evacuee housing area where they could result in noise and fights. I volunteered. That someone would be me. I had confidence in my ability to manage it without making people's lives worse but I certainly wasn't looking forward to it.

The idea that I'd volunteered to deny destitute children toys was more than a little surreal. Still, I knew that the process was in place for the benefit of the evacuees even if it did seem harsh. I was also confident that I could develop a process that would minimize the anguish. In fact, I had to do that.

The thought of escorting hysterical children and their families past a line of untouchable toys all morning was still a bit too much. I had a couple of tricks in store. First, we covered the tables with sheets. It's hard to cry over a toy that hasn't been seen. And at the end of the line we also had hundreds, if not thousands, of stuffed animals. If a child or family protested I could always tell them there were stuffed animals at the end of the line. These tactics worked extremely well.

Our group spent maybe an hour working our way through the goods and discussing how we would dole them out. The primary goal was meeting the evacuees immediate requirements while maximizing our resources. Families would have to share deodorant. An individual would get a small tube of toothpaste while a family would get a larger one. One child wouldn't get you a stroller but three would. The rules went on and on but in the end it would be up the the volunteer at each station to make hundreds or thousands of judgment calls thoughout their shift.

Planning completed, we manned our stations and waited for the evacuees. That's when volunteers started to stream in. Rose ran off to gather a hundred or so new volunteers while we sorted and generally prepared for the evacuees. It was right around this time that she brought the new volunteers, about 100 or so, over to my area and introduced me as the "meanest man in the building...scrooge." I guess some of these folks didn't get the joke because later in the day I'd hear volunteers frantically searching for "the guy named scrooge." These volunteers would each be assigned to an evacuee or family of evacuees to help guide them through the process. This was helpful because the other volunteers would help us move the evacuees through the line efficiently and resolve the inevitable conflicts.

Once the introductions were complete the first families started coming through. My role turned out to be easier than expected thanks to the sheets covering the toys and well mannered kids. Once I had confidence in the process I turned it over to a new volunteer. I then turned my attention, along with a Huntsville TABC officer, to directing the increasingly flow of new arrivals.

By 10:00am hundreds of volunteers and an overwhelming number of donations were arriving. The place just exploded. I was trying to point people to the volunteer registration area, about 100 yards away, and direct the people dropping off donations to walk them to the sorting area about 50 yards in the other direction. By 11:00am the place resembled an anthill. Hundreds of new volunteers were forming lines to haul goods flowing in from the drop off area. The sorting area was overwhelmed. The huge exhibition hall was filling up with people and goods.

The entire place was just barely controlled chaos. Now a seasoned volunteer, I was directing traffic and answering questions at a furious pace. At times I'd have 5 people in front of me asking questions while I simultaneously tried to direct the constant stream of people coming in to volunteer. A typical 30 seconds went like this:

Me: "Volunteers?"
New Volunteers: "Yes"
Me: "Sign up at the table over there on the far wall."
Woman: "We have 1500 individually wrapped gifts to distribute..."
Me: "Volunteers?"
New Volunteers: "Yes"
Me: "Sign up at the table over there on the far wall."
Me: (turning my attention back to the woman) "Excuse me..very chaotic..so 1500 gifts? Very nice. How are they packed?"
Woman: "In boxes."
Me: "Volunteers?"
New Volunteers: "Yes"
Me: "Sign up at the table over there on the far wall."
Me: (turning my attention back to the woman) "Small boxes? Big Boxes? How much space would they take up?"
Me: "Medical?"
Nurses: "Yes. Medical"
Me: "Medical is through those doors there, at the other end of the building."
Woman: "We have six cars and trucks full."
Me: (turning my attention back to the woman) "You'll have to drive up outside and volunteers will unload them and take them to a sorting area. We'll distribute them later."
Me: "Volunteers?"
New Volunteers: "Yes"
Me: "Sign up at the table over there on the far wall."
Woman: "We would like to hand them out..."
Me: "Volunteers?"
New Volunteers: "Yes"
Me: "Sign up at the table over there on the far wall."
Me: (turning my attention back to the woman) "To evacuees?"
Woman: "Yes we want.."
Me: "Volunteers?"
New Volunteers: "Yes"
Me: "Sign up at the table over there on the far wall."
Me: (turning my attention back to the woman) "Sorry..lots of people"
Woman: "It's ok. We want to give them to the people."
Me: "We only have a handful here at the moment but we are expecting.."
Me: "Volunteers?"
New Volunteers: "Yes"
Me: "Sign up at the table over there on the far wall."
Me: (turning my attention back to the woman) "Sorry. Expecting 6,000-8,000 but we can't allow you to hand them out. We have a system for distributing goods."
Me: "Volunteers?"
New Volunteers (with a dog): "Yes"
Me: "Sign up at the table over there on the far wall. You'll need to take your dog home though."
Woman: (looking very disappointed) "We can't hand them out?"
Me: "No, I'm sorry. We have a system here to make sure that folks get what they need and there are other issues like safety that we have to worry about. Please hand them over to the volunteers. I can assure you that evacuees will get your gifts."
Man: "I have 1200 meals ready to serve where do you want them?"
Me: "Wha...?"
Man: "1200 prepared meals."
Me: "Volunteers?"
New Volunteers: "Yes"
Me: "Sign up at the table over there on the far wall."
Me: (reading the man's shirt) "Meals from Dave & Busters?"
Man: "Yes"
Me: "Nice. Grab a person with a radio over at the volunteer regsistration table. They'll tell you where they want them."

Throughout the day I'd have chaplains, company reps, media, doctors, nurses, business owners, volunteers, (even local con-artists trying to scam me out of donations) in my face at all times. I saw a 40 foot long trailor packed 10-12 feet high with hundreds of trash bags and boxes emptied by volunteers in 2 minutes. People ran up and pushed hundreds of dollars in phone cards into volunteers hands and left without saying a word. UPS pulled up with a hundred donated cell phones. One very elderly man carried in dozens of bags of donated goods one and two at a time. A Fed-Ex driver heard that we needed more pushcarts and he walked up to me with his dolly and said "I heard you need this. I will come back for it later but if it isn't here don't worry." I was speechless, and after nearly 48 without sleep, completely overwhelmed by the generosity and chaos. I ended my shift, made my way back home, and slept.


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John W. Little

John W. Little

John W. Little is the creator of Blogs of War and the host of the Covert Contact national security podcast.

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