Preparedness & Recovery

Hurricane Katrina Hero Carries Lessons Learned to Future Challenges in Harris County, Texas

Mark Sloan's performance during the disaster earned him many accolades, including the President’s Call to Service award.

by / April 4, 2011
Mark Sloan is the emergency management coordinator for Harris County, Texas. Photo by Oscar Williams. Photo by Oscar Williams.

As a young man, Mark Sloan spent his time on the playing field. “Everything I dealt with related to football, basketball, baseball. It all revolved around sports,” he said.

Sloan learned some vital skills in those days. “Sports helped me understand the team concept. Coaching taught me the importance of reaching out to others. Wanting to be a professional athlete and knowing how few people got there, I learned what it meant to work for something that wouldn’t be easily accomplished.”

In his present role as emergency management coordinator for the Harris County, Texas, Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Sloan is putting all those skills to work. Since taking the job in 2008, he has automated flood warning systems and traffic management, enhanced Doppler imagers and GIS mapping, and improved regional interoperable communications.

His first real test, though, came while in his previous position as director of homeland security and special projects in Harris County. Looking back on the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, Sloan can say a couple of things with certainty.

First, you cannot be absolutely prepared. “You can plan every day of the year for a variety of potential situations, and then something completely different comes along — something you didn’t plan for or even think you might have to deal with,” he said.

Second, when “something different” does come along, your best defense will come not just from the first responder community, but also from the civilian world.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, Sloan relied on a regional volunteer corps designed to provide surge support in times of crisis. The Harris County Citizen Corps brings added muscle to a department that spans 34 municipalities, 54 fire departments and 125 law enforcement agencies.

“The function is to help bring together individuals who would like to become better prepared for the types of events we may face,” Sloan said of the $800,000 program, which is funded largely through grants. When Katrina hit, Sloan received 1,000 e-mails an hour from corps members looking to help.


Forming Connections


Since its launch in 2002, the corps website, www.harriscountycitizencorps.com, has received 7.5 million visits. Corporate and social service partners drive traffic to the website with links, while the site refers interested citizens back to the sites of those partner agencies. “There is a web of connectivity,” Sloan said.

That connectivity is integral to Sloan’s philosophy of successful emergency management in a department that draws $1.9 million in
annual funding. “You must have open communication,” he said. “We talk on the phone to our partners probably once a month. We have quarterly meetings with all of the agencies to discuss issues and concerns. We have formal monthly meetings with the different entities. This way we know one another by face and name, so that when a disaster occurs we are not just then
introducing ourselves.”

Those introductions have been extensive. More than 8,300 citizens have completed the Community Emergency Response Team training course through the corps, readying themselves
to work with partners that include the American Red Cross and United Way.

The corps’ success stems from Sloan’s emergency management approach. He talks about organization and resources, but first and foremost, he talks about communication.

He cites the 2009 H1N1 outbreak as an example of the power of good communication. As news of the health threat became available, the corps’ first priority was to get the word to the county’s nearly 4 million people by posting
updates on its website, delivering messages to the media, and channeling information through schools, Meals on Wheels and other door-to-door agencies. The corps also has been broadcasting public health data via social media.

“You have to use all methods of communication that you can possibly get your hands on,” Sloan said.

That commitment to outreach, especially on the technological front, has come in handy not just during times of crisis, but also in everyday events. “When we have a potential for severe weather, for example, which here might be flooding with a potential for a hard freeze, we will post a warning of what is coming up,” Sloan said. “We use it to
provide any message we need to push out.”


Eye of the Storm


All these efforts come in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Sloan’s performance in that emergency earned him the President’s Call to Service Award in 2007. In fall 2008, the Houston Texans football team lauded him on Reliant Stadium’s 50-yard line and he later received the John C. Freeman Weather Museum’s Hurricane Hero Award. In 2005, ABC News singled him out as Person of the Week, and at the 2006

National Hurricane Conference in Orlando, Fla., he received the Special Award; Texas’ Response to Katrina Evacuees.  

He must have done something right.

Sloan mobilized more than 60,000 volunteers to get 65,000 evacuees from New Orleans into the Houston Astrodome. He got the job done using his “three Cs” principle: communication, coordination and cooperation.

His first steps were to: take a roll call of all agencies on the job; organize a basic incident command center; establish a communications section; and put in place a system for registering and credentialing volunteers. “You [needed] all of that to coordinate before you could tell
everybody to come on down,” Sloan said.

Communications continued almost nonstop in the following days, with briefings and planning meetings twice a day that brought together representatives from the 119 participating agencies.

Some of the most successful communications were also the most problematic, Sloan said. It’s great to get 1,000 e-mails per hour, for instance, but it’s also frustrating when you’re not yet
prepared to put those volunteers to work.

“I learned to be careful of what I send out. Before I hit the send button, I need to know the potential response,” Sloan said. Upgraded technology today lets him invite help from smaller segments of his database. “Now we can gradually increase our message based on the need.”

Katrina also taught him the value of flexibility, as his team worked swiftly to convert a sports stadium into a city. “There is never the same disaster situation twice,” he said. “Different areas
flood; you need to support the distribution for food, water and ice. But maybe the county is without power, maybe the water is not available.”

He’s found his flexibility in volunteerism. As needs shift, a volunteer force can often shift on the fly, moving from one task to another in a way that more formal agencies might not be able to.

Sleep helps too. Sloan went 30 hours without shuteye at the peak of the Katrina effort. “I looked at one of my staff members who was standing against the wall sound asleep, and I said, ‘That’s it, you have to get some rest.’”

Ultimately Sloan said his biggest Katrina challenge wasn’t logistical or technical — it was personal. Staring down suffering is part of any emergency manager’s job, but sometimes it’s harder than others.

“It was seeing the number of people who had lost hope in their eyes, seeing the kids who had left their homes and had no idea what the future held for them,” Sloan said. He credits his critical incident stress management education for getting him through. “I could understand that the goal and mission were first and foremost.”


Full Plate


It was 9/11 that drove this sports enthusiast
into the world of emergency management. At the time, Sloan was designing composite materials in the aerospace industry, a job that brought him into contact with government officials pondering the future of infrastructure and transportation in the post-9/11 paradigm.

Talks with those planners led him to believe that his past passions — coaching, mentoring and pushing hard — might be well suited to emergency management. As a result, Sloan now finds himself carrying the lessons of Katrina as he faces a new set of challenges and opportunities.

After all, his corner of the Lone Star State has its share of disasters beyond hurricane season. A big petrochemical industry can unleash tanker truck accidents and rail incidents. And there’s
always the looming threat of terrorism in a region vital to the national infrastructure.
Of course, hurricane preparation comes first, if only as a way to clear the decks. “We want
everybody to think about hurricanes because that’s six months out of the year,” Sloan said. “If we can get people to understand hurricanes, that helps us deal with all the other stuff on our plate.”

As for the other stuff, Sloan believes in sharing the load and asking citizens to take preparedness upon themselves. “Our focus has always been on the individual,” he said. “It’s up to each of us to take care of ourselves, our family and our property. Only if we do that can we then reach out to our neighbor.”

To make preparedness happen, Sloan’s 22-person department engages in more than 300 media contacts in an average year, as well as some 200 speaking engagements with corporations and civic groups.

High on the internal agenda right now is the $10 million expansion of the Emergency

Operations Center (EOC). “Our EOC has enough space for 40 people. During Hurricane Ike we had 525 people come through here in 20 days,” Sloan said. “We were sitting in the hallways; we packed them into any open space three or four deep.” The new center will hold 109 with breakout rooms to meet an influx in demand.

How to get it all done? Free labor. Sloan’s office relies heavily on interns from local colleges and universities. “It gives the intern a real-world view of emergency management in action. That’s something they might not see at the university level,” he said. “And it makes a huge difference for us.”

Adam Stone writes on business and technology from Annapolis, Md. He also contributes to Government Technology magazine.
 

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.