A man checks in at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston during Hurricane Harvey.
A man checks in at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston during Hurricane Harvey.
Photo by Doogie Roux

Houston Nonprofit Searches for Texans Who Vanished During Harvey

In the weeks since Hurricane Harvey's record rainfall caused widespread flooding and destruction in Houston, the city has slowly but surely begun to recover. Streets in affected neighborhoods are lined with sodden carpet and furniture, while water is finally starting to drain from the last submerged streets. But even as life returns to normal for many, it's clear Houston will take months – if not years – to return to its pre-Harvey state.

One local organization has focused its effort on what is often a forgotten aspect of a national disaster's aftermath – missing persons. Texas Center for the Missing, a Houston nonprofit, is helping to track down the Texans who vanished during Harvey, a ferocious storm that killed more than 70 people.

After Harvey made landfall, TCM staff and volunteers worked with the Houston Police Department's Missing Persons Division at the George R. Brown Convention Center, taking 138 storm-related missing person reports. They also received 11 reports through their website, for a total of 149. By comparison, the nonprofit usually handles 120 to 150 missing person cases in a given year.

TCM, which receives no government funding, worked with the Red Cross, FEMA and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Team Adam to track those reported missing and enlisted the help of local and national journalists to highlight specific cases. As a result, 125 of the missing persons listed at the convention center were safely located: three were found dead and six remain unaccounted for. Seven of the people submitted to TCM’s website are still missing. Here is where their list of the missing stands now:

Reported to Texas Center for the Missing
Alexandra Smith
Santiago Gonzalez
Cedric Johnson
Vernice Lishin
James Simmon
Druvani Torres

Reported at George R. Brown
Alyssa Foster
Antonio Moreno
Michael Anthony Guster
Susan Woodruff
Tanaya Mason
Dianna Scurry

Reported at GRB With No or Incomplete Contact Information
Gustavo Gomez
Ruben Enrique Torres
Rosa Lee
Richard Thienel

Beyond these lists, others vanished during or shortly after Harvey pummeled the Texas Gulf Coast. Jim Simmon, a former editor of the Houston Press, went missing on September 3. The Houston Police Department told The New York Times investigators are still searching for 22 people who disappeared during Harvey, including two children.

TCM Director Beth Alberts said Harvey presented some distinct challenges, since the Red Cross and other shelters “did not have a comprehensive, centralized database of those that were checked into their facilities, making it impossible to assure families that their missing loved ones were safe,” she said via email. Alberts pointed out this was different from Hurricane Katrina, noting that while TCM performed the same service back in 2005, most shelters had an online database of those staying in their facilities.

“We are disheartened that those resources were not available for our own hometown evacuees,” Alberts said. “We feel that we could have saved some loved ones a lot of heartache had those lists been available.”

Alberts also pointed out that current technology is its own kind of hindrance, as most people no longer memorize phone numbers, which are stored in cell phones that may have been destroyed by the storm. On the other side of the spectrum, she said, “Some of the missing elderly only have landlines which went down during the storm or were inaccessible due to evacuations.”

Not knowing a loved one’s phone number is far from the only problem, Alberts said.

“I had no idea that even loved ones that live in the Houston metro area might not know a family member’s address,” she said. “Some people mentioned that they feared for someone because he/she was not posting anything on social media!”

Alberts added that homelessness creates additional barriers to locating someone, as it makes it hard for those who may be habitually homeless to stay in touch with friends or relatives.

Alberts says their work on the open cases will continue until all of those who are missing are located. Anyone seeking help with a missing person can complete an online report or call 713-599-0235. The nonprofit's website also has safety tips for parents and caregivers of children and those with special needs, such as Alzheimer's. Texas Center for the Missing is also holding its annual golf tournament, the 2017 Amber Alert Golf Challenge, at Memorial Park Golf Course on September 26.

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