After Hurricane Harvey Rescue Efforts: Texas Infrastructure Recovery is Just Beginning

One week after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, there is a mix of weariness and determination in southeast Texas. As the water recedes, the scale of the devastation is becoming clearer. Nevertheless, the heartwarming stories from brave responders bring hope for the long recovery effort ahead.

by / September 3, 2017
FEMA Administrator Brock Long welcomes President and First Lady Donald and Melania Trump along with HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson on their arrival in Houston to visit survivors from Hurricane Harvey. Photo by Barry Bahler/FEMA

What a week in southeast Texas. So many dramatic stories of tragedy, weather impacts, devastation, loss of life and the human toll — and yet rescue, response, support, strength and hope in abundance. 

The entire country (and world) watched, and prayed, and gave donations in amazing ways. Unsung heroes emerged from law enforcement agencies and the military to the Cajun Navy to ordinary citizens to a weather man who reported conditions and flooding levels without ceasing. 

On Sept. 3, 2017, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced that more than 30,000 federal partners working on the response and recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Harvey:

  • Nearly 37,000 people in 270 Red Cross and partner shelters in Texas. More than 2,000 people in seven shelters in Louisiana. Nearly 60 people in several shelters in Tennessee.
  • More than 2,600 Red Cross disaster workers on the ground.
  • More than 16,800 individuals and 1,500 pets rescued by the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, FEMA and the Department of Defense.
  • More than 2,000 federal law enforcement and support personnel are supporting public safety and security efforts in southeast Texas.
  • More than 15,000 National Guard personnel from 40 states are supporting operations.

The following commodities have been provided by FEMA to the states:

  • Texas
    • More than 4,700,000 meals;
    • More than 4,300,000 liters of water;
    • More than 13,900 blankets; and
    • More than 13,400 cots
  • Louisiana
    • More than 416,000 meals;
    • More than 414,000 liters of water

The mission, said FEMA officials, is “taking care of people.”

Government and nonprofit organizations worked nonstop to support emergency search and rescue efforts. Technology also played a major role.

For example:Josh O’Connor, a fire specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Department of the Interior, wanted to help search-and-rescue teams in five Texas counties that were in Hurricane Harvey’s devastating path.

He had a powerful piece of technology that he had used to aid in fighting wildland fires that he believed could be adapted to help Texas emergency management responders speed their response activities and do it safely.

Combining publicly available geo-referenced PDF maps with the Avenza mobile application for smart phones and tablets, O’Connor created a way to inform searchers where they were on a flooded street, an inundated parking lot or submerged park. It can even tell responders what utility infrastructure is underneath them, and where other important infrastructure might be located that responders cannot see.

“We knew it could take 36 hours or more to get large printed maps to rescue teams and this technology would help them respond more quickly in real time,” O’Connor said. “With this tool we can produce maps in minutes and make them available to rescue teams in flooded areas to show them exactly where they are in terms of submerged roads, power lines, and more.

Current Houston Situation — A Tale of Two Cities

The LA Times described the current situation in Houston as varying widely between north and south:

“It's a tale of two cities right now,” said Pete Carragher, 64, a geologist who returned home by canoe with his son-in-law, who lives nearby, to check on their houses and fetch supplies.

“You go a mile north and you would never know anything had happened, apart from the extra lines at the gas stations and the few shops being shut,” Carragher said. He stood in knee-deep water, dressed in waders and boots. “It's just if you're in this floodplain areas here, it's devastating.”

In much of Houston, the floodwaters have receded, allowing traffic to flow on the city’s freeways, where there had been dramatic scenes of white-capped waves only days before.

The Houston Chronicle described the scary situation for many in this way (on 9/1/2017):

As financial estimates of the calamity in Houston and beyond soared past $100 billion, the gritty business of the day — mucking out flooded homes and looking for more people who perished in the floodwaters — continued Friday under peaceful skies with no hint of rain.

Frustration mounted as well. So many people called the federal assistance help line or logged on to the website that waits became interminable. A spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency explained that all systems were up and running, then offered what could have been a summary of the entire week.

"We're overwhelmed," she said, declining to give her name. "It just gets worse and worse."

The good news was that the storm runoff pouring into local reservoirs and down its waterways declined, albeit with a pace still often measured in inches. The Harris County Flood Control District said that homes that did not flood are not going to, easing the uncertainty for those potentially affected by releases from the two big dams, Addicks and Barker, and occasional floodwater end runs around the edges.

Meanwhile, this video shows footage of the aftermath of Houston chemical plan explosions caused by the storm. 

Despite Huge Challenges: Recovery Efforts Are Working Well

While it is far too early for ‘lessons learned’ or even to make judgments on overall rescue or recovery efforts, the situation is clearly improving. Nevertheless, major problems still persist. An Orlando Sentinel opinion piece said this;

“The volunteer armada helping rescue Houston flood victims is impressive, but it’s also a reminder that state and federal reinforcements of boats and helicopters can’t ever seem to respond fast enough when big storms hit. And while Texas leaders have been quick to praise President Donald Trump’s immediate disaster declaration — to help speed federal aid — the true test for his administration will be how soon federal help translates to temporary housing, emergency home repairs and other relief.”

In the midst of the storm, Houston IT Teams were working to maintain critical technology infrastructure. “Harris Health System Chief Information Officer Tim Tindle and his team are setting up a “virtual clinic” inside Houston’s NRG Center, which is opening its convention center doors to shelter up to 10,000 people, they report. Harris Health is using a pre-configured network for disaster situations that it created after Hurricane Katrina. The system will allow physicians on site to access patients’ electronic medical records, as well as manage tasks such as registering patients and ordering medications. Harris Health IT staff members are configuring PCs and phones, building the network and establishing connectivity to medical records stored in the hospital system’s data center.”

Wired magazine ran this piece describing how an army of drones were very helpful. "Pilots working for Fort Bend County, to the southwest of Houston, have used drones to assess damage to roads, bridges, and water treatment plants — and posted the footage online. Other local governments and agencies, including fire departments and state environmental quality officials, have worked with drone operators to identify flooding and drainage problems. ..."

The recovery effort ahead will take years to fully implement, and many areas will remain in rescue mode for several more days. It is an encouraging sign to see teams of experts traveling from all over the USA, including California, to assist in the recovery efforts.

Incredible National Giving — and the Potential Dark Side of Harvey Donations

A series of very positive stories developed throughout the week, as donations for Hurricane Harvey victims kept pouring in from all over the globe.

JJ Watt from the Houston Texans NFL team has raised over $17 million so far, and he tweeted pictures of supplies purchased on Sunday, Sept. 3.

Michael Dell and many other tech leaders donated huge sums of money. Technology companies gave millions of dollars and worked with government teams to distribute aid.

CNN reported that over $157 million has already been donated to Harvey relief efforts from businesses, with much more to come. (Note: in 2005, over $1 billion was ultimately raised for Katrina relief efforts.)

There is no doubt that rebuilding after Harvey will take an extraordinary effort. The Hill.com offered this analysis: “Harvey was a storm of historic impact, demanding unprecedented levels of assistance in rebuilding. … High-end estimates of the cost to restore Southeast Texas range in the neighborhood of $190 billion (double the figure after Hurricane Katrina).”

Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the dark side of the Net also surfaced this past week. InfoSecurity magazine highlighted how phishers tricked people during Hurricane Harvey with a variety of online and offline scams.

As I told SC magazine early last week, when the tragic events unfolded in southeast Texas, the dark side of the Internet came to life with a wide variety of online scams to trick global Web surfers. While there are many good causes that need our immediate support, there have already been reports of both hurricane victims and potential donors receiving misleading information that is attempting to deceive. Sadly, both Texans in trouble and those who want to give from around the world are falling for relief effort scams.

TheStreet.com also offered advice on what to watch out for and how to avoid online scams, pointing out that thieves are trying every trick in the book.

I offered this guidance at InfoSec Island’s website on giving to Hurricane Harvey relief efforts:

The Better Business Bureau is advising donors to be wary of these techniques which should set off alarm bells:

  1. Don't fall for copycats.
  2. Be wary of emails and social media.
  3. Don't provide personal information.
  4. Do your homework.Visit give.org to review the BBB Charity Report and to verify that a charity meets bureau standards for accountability.
  5. High pressure. Be leery of a charity that insists on immediate relief help. Legitimate charities will be glad to accept a donation later on.

Also watch out for Facebook pages or bogus GoFundMe accounts not related to relief efforts that try to attract emotional support with pictures. They typically will use actual disaster photos from the storm to make them look official.

The best advice I have is to give to the Red Cross using well-known and trusted channels. To contribute to the Red Cross, you can simply text the word HARVEY to 90999 on your cellphone. Or visit their website, RedCross.org, to donate by credit card.

Additionally be aware that personal appeals for money on crowdsourcing sites typically are not tax deductible, unlike the American Red Cross and Salvation Army.

Wrap-Up — Returning to This Topic

This is just my first blog on Hurricane Harvey rescue, recovery and restoration efforts. I plan to return to this topic next week with more coverage on technology infrastructure actions and related stories. I also plan to revisit this topic several times over the coming year, as it relates to emergency management, disaster response plans, cybersecurity and related government efforts after Hurricane Harvey.  

And while the many rescues in Texas and Louisiana bring stories of survival and hope, it’s also a reminder of the need for the rest of the country to get ready for the storms to come — perhaps sooner rather than later.

While communication and coordination of Harvey recovery efforts continue to generally go well, fears about another storm, named Hurricane Irma, are starting to enter the national conversation. Can FEMA handle back-to-back destructive storms? Only time will tell.

One thing is for sure: The name "Harvey" will bring flashbacks of "the great Texas flood of 2017" for generations. But the larger story won’t end there.

Memories will include the faces of the men and women of courage and perseverance under extreme duress. We learned once again about the heart and soul of those rescued and of the bravery and determination of many rescuers — from those next door to unsung heroes from all over America.

And the ending of this nonfiction story, taking place in Texas and Louisiana before our eyes, is still being written.