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Appendix - Hurricane Response and Recovery Discussion Summary

On September 14, 2017, the Houston Public Library (HPL) hosted 23 leaders from the government, nonprofit, and private sectors for a two-hour meeting to discuss how their organizations were leveraging their own and other community resources to respond to the complex needs of the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. HPL and the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries convened this meeting in lieu of the previously scheduled two day Houston Dialogue on Public Libraries, which was postponed until November 15-16. The meeting took place in the auditorium of the Julia Ideson Building of the Houston Public Library in downtown Houston.

Participants represented nonprofit and community based organizations of various sizes serving diverse populations and missions throughout the city; organizations from the business sector and private philanthropy; colleges and universities; and select agencies, departments, and branches of local and state government. A list of participating leaders appears at the end of this summary report.

The meeting provided participants an opportunity to gather, share stories, exchange information, and identify areas where they, their organizations, and their networks could support one another and work more effectively in concert in the months ahead. The agenda addressed two tasks: first, identifying community needs and priorities and, second, identifying common ground where aligning efforts could lead to greater efficiency and impact. The following questions served as a catalyst for discussion:

  1. How has your organization been engaged in helping its constituents and the community at large recover?
  2. With whom have you partnered?
  3. What has gone well and where can we do better?

This conversation took place just 20 days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall on the Texas coast. While participants were focused on the immediate priorities and goals of responding to the disaster and getting a solid recovery underway, they also had an eye on the longer term needs of rebuilding and achieving goals for the city that predated the hurricane. The following summary highlights insights and observations of participants including the priorities and goals that participants identified for their organizations and the city; challenges faced during the early days of the response and recovery activities; and issues that will need to be addressed to ensure a strong recovery and more resilient city in the long-term.

There were three critical needs in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane and flooding: (1) ensuring that first responders had the information and resources they needed to do their work, (2) providing accurate information to key stakeholders, partners, and the public, and (3) monitoring and providing stability for people who were most adversely affected, with particular concern for employees, customers and clients, students (in the case of colleges and universities), and vulnerable populations (children, seniors, low-income individuals and families, people with health challenges). As participants discussed how their organizations mobilized their resources, personnel, and other assets to address these needs, 12 insights and common themes emerged from the experiences shared around the table. Insights 1-8 describe what went well and Insights 8-12 reflect challenges encountered.

  1. The needs at the city’s shelters were very complex and involved many organizations bringing their unique competencies and resources. The Health Department provided epidemiologists and health inspectors to ensure that the shelters would not spread disease, and coordinated dialysis and medication services for people with ongoing medical needs. Capital One Bank deployed ATMs. The Harris County and Houston Public Libraries set-up computers and Internet access that enabled residents to apply for FEMA aid. They also provided books and makerspaces in pop-up libraries at the Convention Center and NRG Stadium to keep children and families entertained.
  2. Advanced planning helps. The United Way of Greater Houston is a lead agency in disaster relief and recovery; it maintains a 2-1-1 Texas/United Way Helpline that answers calls 24/7 to connect callers to the help they need. This includes emergency and evacuation information, food, and other essential resources. Other participants whose core missions are not so closely aligned with disaster response noted that they had applied lessons learned from previous disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike. Capital One Bank had a 1-800 number ready to provide information, the bank’s associates were mobilized to learn, and the bank was ready to set-up mobile ATMs and provide grants. After Katrina, the Chinese Community Center (CCC) decided to build a pipeline for doing relief work. CCC obtained CDBG funding to renovate the gym and volunteered its use as a shelter. The center went through training to be a first responder. With Harvey, the center’s plans to be a shelter faltered when its southwest neighborhood flooded and they had to pull out, but they still were prepared to provide case management services initially for 100 families.
  3. Organizations quickly reprioritized resources and programming to address the urgent needs of the community. As a HUD certified agency, Avenue CDC immediately deployed staff to do FEMA enrollment and made enrolling people in FEMA a critical priority. Avenue CDC has reshaped its counseling programs into disaster recovery counseling, housing counseling, and helping people with decision making on how they can move forward. The United Way of Greater Houston suspended the regular fundraising drive planned for the fall and, as a leading organization in the recovery, has been focused on securing resources and getting information out to people and providers of services (in collaboration with others). Peter Beard of Greater Houston Partnership emphasized the importance of helping people to understand the timeline and what resources are available because the window for FEMA applications is a relatively short one.
  4. Many community-based organizations served a critical role as liaisons for other organizations based on their established relationships with clients in vulnerable populations. The strengths and roles of organizations differed depending on the size of the organization, the resources that they had available, the organization’s mission, and other factors. In some cases, this differentiation allowed for complementary roles in the immediate disaster response. For example, smaller community-based organizations (CBOs) like Literacy Advance, which provides free adult education and literacy services and serves culturally-diverse vulnerable populations on any given day, did not have case managers and specific information on disaster response. However, the organization and its volunteers did offer a safe place and wrap-around services, as well as connections to the people for case managers from larger CBOs to come in and work with their clientele. The Chinese Community Center provided in-language case management support.
  5. Providing places for people in the community to gather and communicate with one another was very important for addressing the mental and emotional needs of people. Libraries and churches were some of the many places fulfilling this role.
  6. Organizations redeployed and repurposed staff to support internal departments and external communities. Harris County Public Libraries redeployed branch staff from libraries that were closed to other locations, and their engineering staff helped to do infrastructure and facilities assessments for other organizations in the community. Avenue CDC deployed staff and volunteers to churches and other community locations to provided expert assistance with FEMA enrollments. The Houston Public Library provided child care services for City of Houston employees; this safe place for children enabled city departments to get up and running more quickly. HPL also provided office space, parking, and technology support to maintain operations for displaced city departments. Faculty at Rice University worked with synagogues in Meyerland facing the loss of precious historical documents to create an archive for the synagogues to preserve the docs.
  7. Providing financial assistance in many forms was also a critical role filled by many organizations. The United Way of Greater Houston maintains funds to help with unmet recovery needs, works with nonprofits on coordination and collection of donations, and it launched a disaster-specific fundraising effort. Capital One Bank deferred payment options for banking products to ease the financial strain on customers. Colleges and universities ensured that students had access to food, shelter, and counseling on their campuses. Rice University provided free food and waived fees for students living on campus. Houston Public Library waived and adjusted fees for programs and services. The Chinese Community Center gave small grants in the form of Visa cards and provided help in applying for Small Business Administration (SBA) loans. The Texas State Library and Archives Commission working with the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries made small grants of $5,000 available to school libraries throughout the southeast region for things like pop-up libraries, evacuation services, and equipment needs. Phyllis Bailey discussed working with the Texas Black Expo to raise money and give grants to small businesses in need. Avenue CDC helped with distribution of cash. The Greater Houston Partnership helped businesses get access to capital to get up and running.
  8. The existence of established relationships facilitated organizational responses.Where relationships and networks were weaker, it was sometimes harder to figure out how to mobilize volunteers and offer resources, infrastructure, or other support. One participant cited his organization’s ability and desire to become a shelter but without having sought out this information beforehand, there was no information flow and preparedness for organizations that wanted to assist in this way. Others noted that they had many volunteers who were ready and willing to help (students, in the case of local universities), but there was no system for quickly or easily identifying where the needs were and then matching volunteer resources with those needs.
  9. The need to obtain and share information quickly was frequently met by broken channels of communication or an inability to verify the accuracy of information. This was compounded by the fact that needs were constantly changing and evolving. As an example of misinformation spreading, some displaced residents showed up at the city’s multiservice centers because they had heard these centers would be opened as shelters; they had to be directed to the appropriate city shelters. The lack of electricity and cellular telephone service compounded the information and communication challenges. Councilmember Amanda Edwards noted that she kept a bunch of portable cellphone chargers that she used to stay connected to the Internet. She used her social media channels to gather and send information. “We put out a list of shelters on social media and it had 800 shares immediately,” she said. People were hungry for information and there was no good way to get it.
  10. The infrastructure for early childhood care has been destroyed in some places, causing great concern for the safety and well-being of vulnerable children and their families. The Houston Children’s Museum and the Collaborative for Children were active doing social media and trying to meet the immediate needs of families. Tammie Kahn cited the need to focus on stabilizing communities around children with the challenge that, as of this date (9/14), “We don’t know where those people are yet.” The Houston Endowment was focused on getting 1/3 of child care programs online and doing site visits to assess the damage. Tonyel Simon noted that the Endowment partnered with Collaborative for Children to assess the damage.
  11. There was concern with how to bring the flow of donations into organizations in a meaningful way and to achieve equitable distribution of donations. This was illustrated particularly well by the library participants. Edward Melton commented that it can take a lot of effort that libraries do not have resources for at this time to process book donations; monetary donations are better. The Houston Public Library Foundation was accepting book donations for school and public libraries and, through collaborative efforts, will help to make sure that there is equity in who receives the donations so that all areas are made whole again.
  12. Participants expressed specific concern for the needs of vulnerable populations in the city, particularly in the long-term. These vulnerable populations included families with children, seniors, persons with chronic health conditions including mental health and substance abuse, low-literacy and non-English speakers, low-income individuals and those experiencing homelessness. Judy Harris of the city’s Health Department described the problem succinctly: “We design systems for ‘normal’ people—those who have the physical and intellectual ability to navigate the system with minimal assistance. Most vulnerable people are not included. We needed to set-up a communications hub to respond to the FEMA system, and assist these people who cannot navigate the FEMA system on their own.” She concluded by saying, “We need a community-wide strategy across the sectors.”

From the beginning of the conversation, participants made it clear that Houston’s recovery from the hurricane and its aftermath would be a long-term process, on the order of three to five years. Participants described in broad terms what kind of recovery they envisioned and what elements would be needed to arrive at that goal. First, participants described the need for the proper focus to guide the long-term recovery and rebuilding efforts. This included:

  • focus on getting better, sooner
  • focus on a more holistic recovery
  • focus on boosting the long-term recovery
  • focus on vulnerable populations

Peter Beard envisioned the long-term recovery as a “resurgence” when he listed the three priorities of the Greater Houston Partnership (recovery, rebuilding, and resurgence). “Don’t forget to communicate for the long-term,” said Beard, who added that it is important to keep promoting #HoustonStrong as part of the DNA of Houston, which will be an important help with Houston’s long-term economic recovery.

Participants cited three key challenges that will need concerted attention as the long-term recovery unfolds, including:

  1. The long-term housing needs of transient populations. The current focus on recovery housing is months in scope, not years. Harvey has given new urgency to an old problem.
  2. The need for a community-wide strategy, across the sectors, to help the most vulnerable and ill-prepared to navigate the system. This includes filling gaps in mental health, case management, and home repair—three critical areas in recovery and rebuilding from the floods. It also includes a focus on removing barriers for what people can’t or won’t do for themselves—first identifying the needs, then looking at what can be done by which organizations to address them (e.g., seniors who feel safe because the water has receded when they may have a serious mold problem)
  3. The impact of the disaster on Houston’s workforce and skills development. Beard expressed concern for businesses in the residential space where there are many independent contractors in the types of work that will be needed for rebuilding, and the need to address their workforce needs. Moreover, looking at skills longer term is still an important focus. The skills gap that existed pre-Harvey won’t be going away and lost wages will have a big impact on people already on the wrong side of the gap and those severely impacted by Harvey.

Finally, participants listed the following elements as necessary for a strong recovery:

  • Honest assessments of what is going well and what isn’t
  • Alignment of organizations and development of an infrastructure to convene, coordinate, collaborate, and communicate better; to “complete the circle” of matchmaking needs and volunteers; and to mitigate future disasters (CCC’s Chi-Mei Lin suggested forming a closer communications network with the public sector, especially libraries and schools, around mental health and childcare issues)
  • Leadership commitment1
  • Recognition that needs are constantly evolving and a willingness to be adaptable to these changing conditions and needs
  • Addressing the information gap and providing basic disaster education
  • Addressing legal concerns
  • Ongoing capital access, grants, and resource support
  • Understanding the role of and need for technology and how to deploy and use it effectively (e.g., develop recharging strategy to address lack of electricity and cell service, community solar power chargers, how to reach people effectively via social media)

In a final reflection, Larry Payne reminded the group that the face of poverty in Houston is that of a single mother. He suggested that changing this picture would require tackling “the five pillars of life in Houston” (social, economic, political, racial, and spiritual) and addressing the common duties, obligations, and responsibilities that we owe to one another as part of our democracy.

1 Margaret Larson, a disaster recovery management expert with Ernst & Young, cited the example of the nonprofit community in Dallas which used a recovery grant (CDBG) to develop a disaster supply plan, kit, and resources. A group of top-level nonprofit leaders focused on communications get together once a month, making a leadership commitment, to be prepared for the next disaster or crisis.

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