The reports started trickling in Sunday, August 27, at the Harris County Emergency Operations Center: People were showing up at shelters across the county — but at some, there was no food, no water, no shower supplies.
The reports were landing on Laurie Christensen’s desk and, in many ways, disturbing her: Here all the government officials were, camped out at the EOC with their coffee and meals and snacks, she thought, yet the people who had just been evacuated on boats and were showing up at shelters with nothing but wet clothes on their backs were waiting on bottled water?
Christensen, the assistant chief of operational support services with the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, went over to the American Red Cross station within the building to ask what was going on. Shelters were popping up all over the city and county as faith-based leaders and schools and just regular folks opened up their doors to help. The Red Cross had both supplies and volunteers. Couldn’t the organization get both of those key resources over to these locations in need?
The answer, she would find, was unfortunately no.
“They didn’t necessarily have the trucks to deliver the supplies,” said Christensen, who was in charge of organizing many of the deliveries to shelters. “When they did get the trucks, they didn’t have the drivers. It would take 24 to 36 hours to even get people approved to man the shelters and get them there. Well, we didn't have that kind of time in this emergency.”
The resulting operations involved a hodgepodge of seemingly random government offices and private partners — such as UPS, Mattress Firm and H-E-B — stepping up to deliver basic necessities to thousands of displaced people across the region. Harris County officials found the trucks to deliver the supplies, found the drivers — including Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart — and, when the Red Cross said it could take up to 72 hours to perform background checks on volunteers to staff the many shelters, the county found volunteers, too.
“I told them we weren’t gonna do that,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said of the background checks. “I broke every bureaucratic rule in the book. Were all these people licensed truck drivers? I don’t know — but we had to get this done.”
Christensen said she contacted all the precinct constables to ask for large trucks or tractor trailers to help deliver supplies from the Red Cross warehouse and Houston Food Bank. The Harris County Clerk’s Office also performed deliveries, using its trucks that normally deliver election-day voting equipment to instead deliver disaster relief. Stanart and Chief Deputy George Hammerlein said they took their election trucks to the Red Cross headquarters at U.S. 59 and Kirby to pick up supplies, tried to take them to Dobie High School in Sagemont — but ran into high water and were unable to make it. They changed course and brought supplies to Trinity Mendenhall Community Center — a pop-up shelter they were pleasantly surprised to find was spearheaded by Councilwoman Brenda Stardig and “all of her friends.”
Stardig told the Houston Press there had been some confusion: People were showing up at the center, thinking it was a Red Cross shelter. But it wasn’t. Instead of shutting it down, she sensed her district needed the space and asked County Commissioner Steve Radack for permission to organize hundreds of volunteers — such as the Spring Valley Moms Club — to keep the shelter rolling. “It was 500-plus strong in volunteers, 24 hours a day for I don’t know how many days,” she said. “Everything from cleaning toilets to setting up cots to organizing hot meals coming in from chefs to you name it. We organized hundreds of bags of donations.”
Christensen said that community members spearheaded many shelters like this given that, for the Red Cross to open one, it needs to have a shelter manager on site and ready to go with approved volunteers, which many areas of town just couldn't wait for. Community volunteers could hold their own — but getting supplies to them was the real challenge, Christensen said. Even after Harris County found the trucks and drivers to step up, Christensen said more bureaucratic hurdles presented themselves — namely, mounds of paperwork.
In one case, a truck showed up at the Red Cross warehouse to pick up food and water, but the driver was told he could not take the supplies just yet because paperwork wasn’t finished and the supervisor who could approve the supplies pickup was not immediately available, Christensen said. The truck waited for one hour and 25 minutes, she said.
“I don’t want to say anything negative, but there is paperwork associated with what [the Red Cross] has to do: ‘We can’t do this because we don’t have this paperwork signed,’” Christensen recalled. “We would have a truck show up there to pick up food: ‘Well, we don’t have an order for that.’ I’ve got a driver and I’ve got a truck sitting in front of you. What do you need me to sign?”
“It was very frustrating for us,” she continued, “because understandably they have rules they have to follow, but during an emergency, we document, we keep up with that information, and we fill out that paperwork later. You do what you have to do because it’s an emergency.”
Eventually, Christensen said, the county looked to the Houston Food Bank to make things easier on the delivery side, given the food bank did not have the same type of paperwork hurdles.
In a series of statements to the Houston Press, the Red Cross said there were “three significant delivery challenges during this event.” They included “widespread demand for pop-up evacuation shelters, which exceeded prepared assets; unprecedented access challenges with most high-water vehicles in use for search and rescue operation; and acceleration of impact, as the storm hit Houston on Friday night instead of Saturday as expected.”
The Red Cross said it had pre-staged supplies at four shelters in the Harris County region in advance of the storm: at the M.O. Campbell Center in Houston, where 14 volunteers and 200 cots were set up; the Golden Acres Baptist Church in Pasadena, where four volunteers and 100 cots were ready; the First Baptist Church of Tomball, ready to receive 200 evacuees; and the Chinese Community Center, where seven volunteers and 200 cots were set up — but that shelter was ultimately rendered inaccessible by street flooding. The Red Cross set up at least four other shelters outside of Houston, in the greater region, by August 28.
Still, Judge Emmett and Christensen said that it did not appear to the county that the Red Cross had engaged in enough pre-Harvey preparations given how catastrophic the storm was forecast to be.
“I don’t want to kick ‘em in the shins too much,” Emmett said, “because we really do need them. But I wish they’d just admit the things they can’t do and don’t try and do 'em, and do the things they’re supposed to do, like set up a long-term shelter. They’re really good at raising money. I hate, in the middle of a storm, turning on television and seeing ‘give money to the Red Cross’ when we just had to bail them out because they couldn’t supply their own shelters because they didn’t have trucks and drivers.”
Earlier in September, Houston City Councilman Dave Martin made similar remarks about donating to the Red Cross and actually urged Houstonians not to donate money to the organization and to instead donate to local organizations. He said the Red Cross was the “most inept, disorganized organization I’ve ever experienced.”
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Though he told the Press he stands by his statement then, he said he has since met with Red Cross administrative staff to talk about how to move forward in the long-term. Christensen said that, when it comes to long-term relief, the hundreds of volunteers do a “phenomenal job supplying the efforts.”
But, during the next disaster, she said, the county will simply have to work more closely with the Red Cross to help them prepare for the worst — because that's not what happened last month.
“We’ve got to have more shelters set up,” she said. “You saw it on the news: People being evacuated from their homes, and all they have with them is the clothes they have on, and they need to have dry clothes. They need to get food, they need to get water, and they’re almost in shock when they get [to the shelter]. We have to be cognizant of that. We have to realize that they need to feel safe quickly.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the emergency operations center.