EP 30 Hurricane Harvey, A Survivor’s Story with Anna Cave
[ANNA CAVE] It became a big thing, like, in our neighborhood, as our streets began to flood. People were posting on our Facebook page, you know, “slow down, you’re sending waves that are gonna hit the houses.” Because none of us were flooded, but the streets were flooded. And if cars went too fast, it was throwing water up, and it became like a thing everywhere. People were like, “Stop barreling through this water. You’re just sending it further into the houses.” And it became quite a thing, I know, it was pretty interesting. Well, one of the things that I think was pretty incredible was the way that newscasters addressed the storm. It was not just the weather, although the weather was a huge component. And certainly, in, you know, say, a 30-minute newscast, you would probably have 10 to 15 minutes of weather in there. But you also saw the tremendous output of information about ways to be prepared; you know, be sure you have these supplies. Be sure you’re prepared for power outages, this is gonna be a long-term event. And it was just really incredible the amount of information, and you know, they addressed the unpredictability of the storm, because certainly, any time you have a hurricane coming in, you don’t know where it’s gonna land, exactly where it’s gonna go, what it’s gonna be when it gets here. But they prepared us for the worst, in a very clear way.
Now, the other thing I will say, is you know, I look at the people who are… you know, the 20-something’s that are in my life, and many of them do not have TV, per say. They subscribe to the different services that are out there, they’re trying to minimize their cable bills and all that kind of thing. And so, they had to, you know, either go online or do it differently. You know? And I think that you would see a definite generational difference in how people acquired their information. But as far as, you know, television, local radio, all those kinds of things, they were hitting it, and they were hitting it hard. Also Facebook, Twitter, and especially, from your local agencies, your offices of emergency management, your law, your fire. Out here, social media is a big deal for law and fire, so they all are pretty active, and we’ve got a lot of good information that way. Right. Public messaging is gonna have to shift with the folks who are really now, you know, 20 and 30-something year old’s, are really starting to come into their own and their careers, and many of them are very disconnected from traditional forms of communication. And so, we’re gonna have to continue to be creative. I just had this discussion the other day, with a couple of emergency managers. One of the issues is government moves so slow, by the time they decide, “Oh, we’re gonna embrace this form of communication,” the world has moved on. And we’ve got to figure out a way to breach that gap faster.
[TODD DEVOE] Yeah. I mean, that’s so true, as far as that goes. It’s like, we do kind of step onto it really slow. I mean, think about this, I mean, we’re now just talking about social media managers at the government level, specifically for Facebook and Twitter. And even those, are just kind of now, kind of old people things. Kids don’t use Facebook and Twitter anymore, you know?
[ANNA CAVE] Correct. They’re Snapchatting, they’re… you know, and every year, some new thing becomes all the rage. And I think that you know, we just have to really figure out a way to be faster. I mean, there are still jurisdictions in the United States who don’t believe that they can engage on Facebook and Twitter because that’s just way too out there. And you know, that is speaking to an older generation now, and they’re missing how to communicate with what is a growing sector of our population.
I think it’s a significant issue moving forward. Well, I think, you know, they have a lot of experience about flood areas, about what areas typically flood, what areas don’t flood. And I think it’s really important to understand the scope and size of the emergency. I mean, this involves, ultimately, 58 counties are included in the declaration right now. 58 counties. That’s a huge number of jurisdictions.
The problem is, that I’m sure that in California, much of the attention came out of Houston. And around here, we refer to it as “Houston proper.” I live outside of Harris County, and we are still… we consider ourselves Houstonians. And Houstonians would be this huge bubble of people. But when you talk about Houston proper, under the direction of Mayor Turner, Mayor Turner made a lot of decisions that are where you get the impression there is conflict. And I will give you kind of… I think it happened, if I put my days straight, probably on Saturday, towards the middle part of the day, where now we’re starting the flood in Houston. I mean, this thing is coming, and the hurricane itself is still not here, but we’re sitting in those, what they call the dirty side of the storm. I mean, we are just getting pounded with rain. So, now we’re starting to see flooding, and I’m watching it, and it was 24/7 news coverage at that point, and obviously, as a retired emergency manager, that’s what I do. I’m watching all the news coverage, I’m flipping between channels. But governor Abbott did a press conference, and in that press conference that governor Abbott did, he’s talking about, “I reached out to…” you know, and he’s naming mayors in the county where Rockport and Port Aransas were because they took the first direct hit. He’s naming all these officials that he’s talked to. The judge in this county, the judge in that county, I talked to the police chief here. In other words, he’s reached out. He then says, “I reached out to the city of Houston and Harris county numerous times, and I’m waiting for a callback.”
[TODD DEVOE] Wow.
[ANNA CAVE] Move forward about 15 minutes after that, and here comes mayor Turner on TV, and I’m looking at a split-screen. The left side of the screen is mayor Turner at a press conference. The right side of the screen is a live shot from someone that’s out in the field. The live shot at the field, they’ve got people who are being rescued with airboats, with whatever is out there. And mayor turner comes on, and someone says, you know, “Mayor Turner, Governor Abbott is implying that you have not reached out for assistance. Are you going to be requesting assistance from the state of Texas?” And he goes, “Houston is fine! We have everything we need, we’re doing a great job.” And I’m standing here, staring at the TV. I literally was on the edge of my seat with my mouth open, flabbergasted that… I’m like, does he not see what we’re seeing? Because we’re looking at people being rescued out of houses, and then-Mayor Turner, “No, we’re fine!” And it was right then that I began to realize that we had a problem in terms of how Houston was addressing this emergency and this belief that we’ve got it. “We’ve got this covered, we don’t need any help.” And I think that this would be a familiar story, many of us remember the city of Los Angeles. I mean, we can go back in time and pick any big city in an area-wide disaster, and that feeling that, “No, no, we’ve got this, we don’t need any outside help.” Because they’re just not used to it.
You didn’t see that in small cities. In small cities, you saw people making decisions based on their own geography, their own people, and people typically listening to those directives, based on experience and what’s happened in the past. A completely different level of trust in many of the smaller counties with their officials versus the level of trust in the city of Houston. I wish I could, that’s one of the things that, you know, I’ve been here nine months, and we’ve attended a lot of… on public form, by, fortunately, living in a community that they give us a lot of attention, because we’re a big part of their tax base. And we’re retired, and we have nothing else to do, so we can make their life miserable if they don’t show up. The judge, pretty much from what I understand, the judge is the highest authority. I would acquaint him in the California sense, to say, a board of supervisors’ type position, because I do know that in our county when evacuations were ordered, questions were asked, and he said, “I am the only person in this county who can authorize evacuations. And if there was any hesitation on anybody’s part, I am issuing that evacuation order.” So, it became very clear that the judge, in this case, for us it was a judge (inaudible). He is the leading authority in the county, he is the one who would have to issue curfew notices. He’s the one who would have to issue all those kinds of things, obviously working in conjunction with all of the people who provide inputs. In our case, the (inaudible) districts, you know, people who control the river, he had army corps engineer staff, he has the sheriff’s office, he had the fire department, he had all those people at his… and the EOC. But the judge is the one who was doing the communication, and he is the ultimate authority, the one who signed each and every one of those orders. Because I did go on, I was just curious, I wanted to read the orders, and see what the detail said. And it was very clear the judge (inaudible) is the one.
So, I think it’s important, just as I talk about my experience, I live in Fort Bend County. It’s one of 58 counties that were impacted. And one of the things to understand about Fort Bend County is, it is the third fastest growing county in the United States right now. It is growing by leaps and bounds. And it is a suburb of the Houston area, we’re on the Southwest side of Houston. So, if you were to leave Houston, you would go through, you know, Missouri City, Stafford, Sugarland, and then you’d come to where we live. And it’s a good-sized county, it stretches all the way, it encompasses part of the I-10 freeway, all the way down to the 59-69 freeway. It’s a large county, very quickly growing, and it’s kind of exciting to be here. But I think that it makes a difference when you look at… you know, I worry a lot about those little counties that are not in a growth pattern, and are very small and are trying to recover from this. Because we have, as a larger county, and one that is growing this fast, we have access to probably more resources than they do.
I will address the boat issue first. They literally did get on TV and say, “If you own a boat, if you have a high truck or a high vehicle, that you can help with rescues, go out there and do it.” And I mean, they just went. I have to tell you, you know, I grew up in the emergency management field as a strong proponent of the ICS system. I spent a lot of time, you know, preaching that you must be affiliated, you have to do this, but then, here in Texas, there is a strong value placed on independence. And the ability to just jump in and help your neighbor. That is a value here. And it remains a value. That isn’t true everywhere in the United States, but it is here. And so, people literally, they go to their backyard, back the boat out, get out to where they’ve got enough water and they can float it, and away they went. And hundreds and hundreds of people were rescued when surprise flood water came in. I mean, places that had never flooded before, flooded in this. You know, we had anywhere from 35 to 50 inches, depending on where you were. That fell in four days. It’s an incredible amount of rain. And so, once rivers started overflowing, that water just had nowhere to go, it had absolutely nowhere to go. So, the rescues, I think had we not have that in place, it would have started to go in the direction of Katrina. But what you saw, is that they’re out in neighborhoods, these boats, and they would create their own kind of organization, where you might get two or three guys with a boat, and then you get three to five guys who had a pickup, and they line up. And so, the guys with the boats would go in, they’d load up a family, they’d bring them back, you know, and it was… dogs, and bags of clothes, whatever people were bringing, and they’d bring them back, and they’d hand them off to the guys who had the trucks. And the guys who had the trucks would then drive them off to whatever shelter, or to dry ground, or you know, whatever. And people were driving off, and every single person that the news talked to, and I watched hours, and hours, and hours of news, because the whole Houston area was on lockdown. If you weren’t being evacuated, you were on lockdown, nobody went anywhere. And what was incredible was the people were like, “Oh, I’m so grateful, they’re saving me and my family, this is just great.” I mean, and people were so calm, and so respectful, and so grateful. There was none of the, “Who is gonna help me?” There was, you know, “I’m so glad to be out of that house, I was scared,” all that kind of thing. So, they really did put out just a general on TV. If you have a boat, and this was said by Mayor Turner, not two hours after he said on TV, and said, “Oh, we’re just fine.” And then he goes and he tells everybody who has a boat or a high truck to get out there and start rescuing people. And that’s just, you know, how it all happened.
And you know, unfortunately, the opening of shelters was kind of behind. Initially, it was just the George R. Brown Convention Center, was the only shelter that I heard of. And like, even here in Fort Bend County, we only had one church open as a shelter, for those areas that always flood for us. Whenever the river rises, even a little bit. So, you know, they don’t open shelters at the same rate that, sometimes, we see happen. But people seemed to be taken care of. And it was very organic. So, that was pretty incredible for me to watch, and I have to tell you, it had a lasting impact on my view of the role of volunteers. And in those early phases of disaster, if you are in the stick of recovery; and what was cool, is you might be a police officer in the mix with these folks. I mean, he’s just out there helping to push the boat or help the people get out of the boat and load them on somebody’s truck. I mean, they were… because there’s not enough of them. I think that understanding on their part, they needed what these folks brought to the table. They didn’t have enough. And so, I think that, whereas… you know, when it’s not a true crisis like this, it’s easy to go, “Oh no, we have to be organized, you have to go check in there.” If they would have stopped to try to organize this, people would have died. A friend of mine is a volunteer, and he’s a volunteer. He’s still in Harris County, but not Houston proper, per say. And as a volunteer firefighter, their crew was assigned to get a boat ready and to go out and do rescues. And he provided what I felt was some interesting feedback, in terms of the frustration they had. You know, and you have to remember, they had, you know, four firefighters with, you know, a pickup and a boat. It’s driving rain, I mean, driving rain out there. Things are starting to flood, and they’re getting… they basically were handed a sheet, and said, “Here are the calls that are pending, that people who called and said they need to be rescued. Start down the list, just go.” And so, they head out, and he said… you know, sometimes, because a street would be flooded, and then you’d hit a dry area. So they had to pick the boat up, carry it over, get back in on the other side, where it was flooded again, you know, keep going. And so, rescues took a long time for these, you know, this little group of guys that were working together. And he said they would, you know, maybe spend half an hour getting into a house, and the house is empty because the people already got rescued by somebody else. And so, he said, “It’s not that I don’t want them rescued,” he said, “How do we get this coordinated and better coordinated so that we are not wasting the resources?” He said, “Because maybe I could have gone to another house on the list, that they haven’t gotten to, and get those people out.” And so, it was an interesting perspective, to talk to him about… you know, the citizen rescues. While they were very glad that those were happening, he also said that you know, or he said, “Sometimes people would put it out on Facebook, and so a friend in a high truck came, picked them up, took them away, and they just never canceled the order.” So, it was an interesting dilemma, as that went on. And you know, like I said, it’s important to remember, it was driving rain. With, you know, 40 miles an hour winds, the whole time while this was going on.
[TODD DEVOE] Right.
[ANNA CAVE] So, it’s pretty crazy that they had all that. Donations management. What was interesting, is no different… I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a big city mayor that doesn’t come on and says something ridiculous, like, you know, “Send your clothes, send your this, send you that.” Nobody needed clothes. And of course, the donations management piece, I will say that was has been awesome, is it still continues to be covered here. And very quickly, the news channels were able to redirect that and say, “Please, do not send your clothes. These are the items that we are in need of.” And they would throw it up there. It very quickly went from, you know, the basics like water. You know, the real basic initial supplies, all the way to… and socks and underwear. Huge for the socks and underwear, baby items, always huge. Adult diapers, those are things.
Very quickly, I would say, day three or four, it kicked into a process where it was now seeking cleaning supplies; clean-up supplies. It shifted very quickly. Even today, you still see people looking for clean-up supplies and the emergence of (inaudible). For example, the church that I belong to, they stood up a donation center. They went out, in the midst of the hurricane, actually, rented a warehouse space that was empty, and we have been running donations for a whole bunch of private non-profits here in Fort Bend County. And they did a 21-day rental. And so, we are already halfway through with that and will be winding down operations next week. But it’s been great, because as supplies came in, they were shifting them out to either churches or other organizations, like Attack Poverty, Helping Hands, with supplies that they needed to serve their clientele. Get it out there, we’ve taken it as far as Beaumont, and we took some all the way down to Rockport. So, moving those supplies not just within our own county. Meet your own county’s needs first, but then as stuff is standing, move it, just get it out. And every day, they’d fill the warehouse, and empty the warehouse. In other words, bring it in, ship it out. And what they did for clothes, is they found an organization who would buy it by the pound. Found an organization, because what happened, by day… literally, that it stopped raining on that Tuesday, and by Wednesday, there was no one who was willing to take any clothes. No one could manage it. It just can’t be managed. So, I think that really, what we, as emergency managers can do, because we always wanna push cash, and cash is still king. But come up with a short list, and it’s a pretty short list I can give you, based on my daughter’s experience working in a shelter, and what continues to be in demand today, a very short list of items that people can donate. And that’s the message we need to start promoting, along with our 72-hour kit. Every area that gets hit by a disaster is gonna need baby items; diapers, formula. Especially older kid diapers. Believe it or not, they had a glut of newborn diapers. They needed them for that toddler, very specifically, they were able to come up with that. Adult diapers, socks, and underwear, of all sizes. So, I think that if we can begin to create a standard message and redirect that attention, we as a country can do a better job. That was a much bigger deal outside of the box here, along with the shoes that Melania was wearing. Nobody cared what shoes she showed up in here. We were just glad that we were getting the attention we needed to have from the president. We needed to have people who were gonna go back and advocate. And it was interesting because I would see things come across, like my Facebook feed, and I’m like, “Ok, no one here cares. No one. No one here cares.”
[TODD DEVOE] Right.
[ANNA CAVE] And you know, the thing with Joel Osteen, there were so many churches that stood up and jumped in to help, and continued to work. And are working to this day. You know what? If that church doesn’t stand up, you know, nobody cares. Nobody cares. You know, if you go out here too, you know, pick any of the 57 other counties, they’re not going to church there. They’re going to church somewhere in their local county. What is their local church doing? Are they helping to assist with the relief effort? And because of the (inaudible) situation, and how it works out here, that is how needs are being met. Is at those local areas, not with those big mega-church kind of operations. And there are a couple of exceptions to that, there are a couple of churches who have really stepped out. Houston Second Baptist, that’s one. But they’re a church that already had six locations throughout Houston, so them stepping out as a church put a lot of hands and feet out in the community, in lots of places. Because they’re… it’s a mega-church. It’s a huge church out here. So, they stepped up very successfully, and out here, if Joel Osteen doesn’t want to play, ok. I mean, you know, just don’t run for office again against (inaudible), because he’ll win every time. I mean, (inaudible) out here.
[TODD DEVOE] Right.
[ANNA CAVE] You know, it’s good for me, because what I see is, they are grabbing for negative news. And here… I mean, and I watched probably three different local news channels a day. And I’m not seeing negative news. I’m seeing either stories of help, I’m seeing interviews with, you know, FEMA people. With identifying needs at the George R. Brown and NRG Center, in terms of volunteers. I’m seeing all kinds of things. The worst press that I’m seeing out here is for the American Red Cross, taking a beating. Taking a beating. And far more conversation with that, and I have… you know, a pretty strong perspective on why that is, but you know, I mean, I don’t know if this show wants to get political, so. You know, the key is, when you empower people to help people, and then people continue to do that in all areas in terms of their response, and you reject that as not useful, all of a sudden, it’s a confusing message. And that message is what has (inaudible) the waters here. You know, you call people to bring their boats and their pickup and rescue people, but then someone brings food to people who are hungry, because the larger system can’t support feeding them, and you tell them, “Oh, we can’t do that here, because we are full.” Now you have a (inaudible) area. So, I think that, you know, all that has to be kind of weighed in to that. And it’s a piece of it. So, you know, Texas independence, like I said, we’re all about taking care of each other out here. Well, I think, you know, the Texas mindset here has been interesting.
I was a big student of Katrina, Rita, Ike, all those hurricanes that hit kind of in that time frame, and watching how people reacted, and all of the lessons to be learned there. And I think that one of the values that I see here, is people don’t wait for government to get it done. And I think that that is a huge piece of what makes the mindset different. And if you are in a region where people become very dependent on the government to act, then you are gonna run into that conflict. Government is small here. And like I said, if you get outside Houston proper, Houston proper is different. But if you go out to other areas, government itself is very small. You can go into a city of 50, 60 thousand people, and City Hall is a little, tiny building. And then you’ll have your law, your buyer, but you have a little tiny building for City Hall. They just don’t build big government out here. And because of that, they rely on volunteer organizations to do much of the running for all of your services that get provided. So, what happens is then this event like this hurricane, all of those things, they kick into gear. They do it, they’ve done it before, whatever that disaster might happen to be, and they just get busy doing it. And when you’re done in your area, you go to your neighbor’s area, and say, “Hey, how are you guys doing? Do you need help?” And they just jump in and they do it. In Florida, it was interesting watching them stand up, and how evacuation orders got issued, and all those kinds of things. And I actually did see someone on one of the interviews that I was watching say, “We have strong counties, and we leave it up to the counties to make those decisions.” Well, I think that that is where some of this conflict is gonna come in. If you have strong counties, who are used to running things, that can create some conflict. And as a group comes in, trying to help, if you have a county who wants strong control, there’s gonna be conflict. Here, they’re a little more comfortable with messy, and that organic boots-on-the-ground. “Hey, you’re here to help those people? Awesome.” That being said, here in Texas, they’ve already filed suit against people who were price gouging. They’ve already got… I don’t know, they gave a number the other day, 20-some cases have already been filed for price gouging. Hotels, gas stations, whatever. They’re having none of it. They’re actively putting the number out. “Do you see someone price gauging? Let us know, we want your information so we can go after them.” It’s pretty intense, I was very impressed how quickly that stood up.
[TODD DEVOE] I saw a sign, a picture, I mean. And this guy had a sign and he was selling a case of water for $20. And this other dude, was across the way from him a little bit, and he had water, and said, “free.” I thought that was funny.
[ANNA CAVE] I see how things like that are funny. And actually, one of the people that they have already filed suit against, was a gas station who was charging… like, let’s say that they sell a bottle of water for $1.50. Because they could, they charged, if it’s a case of 24, they did 24 times $1.50, and tried to say that that was the price of a case of water. That normally is $2.99. And anyway, the attorney general is coming up after him. And do you know how that got reported? Things like next door, Facebook, Twitter. People were like: “Don’t go to this gas station at this corner, these guys are crooks.” You know, and they’re taking pictures, they’re not messing around. And that’s where social media can make a huge difference in putting a clamp on that kind of stuff. Disaster is humbling. And you know, that was kind of what, you know, for people who have reached out and asked, you know, what would be the one lesson is that… because we’ve been a long time in California, for example, and there are many other areas that it’s been a long time since a real disaster. Not a little disaster, a big disaster. And those kinds of things are very humbling for those involved, and I think that you know, that’s something to remember, as we get all full of ourselves riding these plans, and thinking we have all the answers. Nobody has all the answers because sometimes, the situation is so big that you’re gonna have to be comfortable with a little bit of messy. And things tidy up. I mean, I’m seeing all that, all the organizations helping with the (inaudible), and you know, everything is starting to tidy up now that we’re past the immediate danger. But it was humbling for us, individually, as a family, and the fear that we could be flooded. It changes people. My intention would be that we use it for good as we move forward. So, it was a pleasure to talk to you, and hopefully, put out some ideas that people might be able to incorporate into whatever they’re doing.
[TODD DEVOE] I always love learning from you, you are one of the best.
[ANNA CAVE] All right. Thanks, Todd.