Harris County, Texas, recovers from Ike
On Sept. 13, Hurricane Ike crashed into the Texas Gulf Coast, sending a 20-foot storm surge rolling over Galveston Bay in Harris County. The storm killed at least 32 people in Texas and 67 people nationwide, according to media reports. More than 220,000 Harris County residents were evacuated from coastal areas, more than 2.1 million county residents lost power, and the area suffered billions of dollars in damage. American City & County spoke with Harris County Judge Ed Emmett about the community’s status two-and-a-half weeks after the powerful storm, the government response and the lessons learned from Ike.
Q: How is the county holding up?
A: If you did not know a hurricane hit, you wouldn’t necessarily drive into town and say, ‘Look, this is devastated.’ Clearly, the communities along Galveston Bay were severely impacted. We have a lot of piles of debris. It looks look like we’ve done a lot of tree trimming, but even those are beginning to go away. And, now we’re down to less than 5 percent power outages, so everybody has power back now. Gas stations are full, no lines or anything. [As for recovery,] I think New Year really will start as a new year for us, that we’ll be totally recovered.
Q: How was the interaction between the federal, state and local agencies that responded to the storm?
A: One of the biggest issues was we had a lot of people, members of Congress, others, who came down here and had press conferences, and they said things that are not right. Then that gets the residents all confused. Some of them have been wonderful. Some of them have called and said, ‘You just tell me what we can do to help.’ Others went to various sites and held press conferences and said things that are just wrong. Then the press, unfortunately, wants to focus on some little negative thing. We spent half a day dealing with one television station because the [FEMA supply] trucks were three hours late getting in at night. They were going out the next morning, so it didn’t matter if they were three hours late getting there that night.
Q: What have you learned from the storm?
A: First and foremost, communication between the county, the state and the smaller municipalities can always be improved. Houston gets all the media attention, but, in fact, it was the smaller communities that were hit the hardest. So, being able to constantly take care of their needs [was difficult].
For example, the first two disaster recovery centers were placed 20 and 25 miles away from the impact zone because somebody in Congress got somebody in FEMA to do that. Well, that’s just ridiculous. [It is] too far away. And, those people [close to the recovery centers] were impacted by limbs falling on their house and stuff like that. That’s nothing compared to the small community [like] Shoreacres, where 550 of the 670 houses were destroyed and are totally uninhabitable.
The second thing [was that some of our municipal utility districts] need to do a better job of making sure they have generators and fuel for those generators. We’re going to make sure that they do in the future, because [it led to some residents being left without water].
[Finally,] our evacuation plan worked very well. We didn’t have to use the contra-flow lanes that had been permanently established, but there were a couple of choke points where we could have done [better]. So I’ll probably have somebody spend pretty much their full time keeping up with construction [and] the choke points that need to be addressed in case we do an evacuation.