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Who's in Charge During a Major Houston Storm?

Harris County residents should look for information from the Harris County Office of Emergency Management and Harris County meteorologist Jeff Lindner , as well as sign up for alerts from Ready Harris.

Downtown Houston surrounded by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Tuesday.
Downtown Houston surrounded by floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey on Tuesday.
(AP/David J. Phillip)
(TNS) - When the Houston area must contend with a major storm, countless city, county, state and federal employees work together to prepare residents for what's coming, rescue those in need and assist them through what can be a lengthy recovery process.

It's a good idea to understand ahead of time who represents you, which depends on whether you live within the city of Houston , one of the 33 other cities within Harris County, in unincorporated Harris County or in a neighboring county. More than 2 million people live in unincorporated Harris County, comprising the areas of the county that aren't part of a city.

In a disaster, overlapping jurisdictions share responsibilities, but here's a guide to who's responsible for making key decisions in your area.

Before the storm

With a storm approaching, agencies involved in emergency management are focused on communicating with the public about disaster risks and responses. They keep a close eye on which areas will be most impacted and coordinate resources in those neighborhoods.

Harris County residents should look for information from the Harris County Office of Emergency Management and Harris County meteorologist Jeff Lindner, as well as sign up for alerts from Ready Harris, the county's emergency communication system.

Residents within the city of Houston should follow the same communications that county residents monitor, as well as those from the Houston Office of Emergency Management.

Houstonians also are encouraged to sign up for AlertHouston, the city's emergency communication system.

Houston goes into emergency planning mode 120 hours before the storm makes landfall, said Brent Taylor, spokesperson for the city's emergency management office. The city's emergency management office will send out alerts during that time, telling residents when the storm is expected to hit Houston, informing them what resources to have in place and advising them when they might need to take shelter or evacuate.

Depending on where you live, the top elected officials will make the call about who has to evacuate. In Harris County, the decision on whether your neighborhood should evacuate will come down to County Judge Lina Hidalgo and the mayor who runs your city, Taylor said. In Houston, Mayor John Whitmire will work in concert with Hidalgo and the city and county's separate emergency management offices to make that call.

Evacuation routes are determined by the Houston-Galveston Area Council and the Texas Department of Transportation. Emergency management officials will use a zip zone system that will evacuate residents in the region based on what zip code they live in. The H-GAC advises residents to not evacuate unless they live in a zip code that is explicitly asked to do so.

Taylor said Houston's Office of Emergency Management may also have to work with surrounding cities and counties if they're asked to evacuate and have to use Houston and Harris County thoroughfares or stay at their hotels.

In a disaster evacuation, the Harris County Toll Road Authority is responsible for suspending tolls so residents can access toll roads for free.

When the storm hits

During the storm, the county and cities will prioritize rescues, shelters and evacuations, as needed. Those emergency responsibilities are typically handled in coordination with each other.

For instance, if you're in danger during the storm, it doesn't matter where you live — calling 911 will connect you with all of Harris County and Houston's first responders, including the Harris County Sheriff's Office, Harris County Fire Marshal's Office, constables, the Houston Fire Department and the Houston Police Department. State agencies sometimes assist with water rescue efforts, too, such as the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which has fleets of boats.

During Harvey in 2017, the Harris County Fire Marshal's Office worked with over 50 local fire departments, local law enforcement agencies and the Cajun Navy to coordinate water rescues.

"The list is nearly endless of people we bring in to help coordinate in a major disaster," Harris County's deputy emergency management coordinator Brian Murray said.

Generally, the county is responsible for the flooding along bayous, while cities are in charge of managing and preventing street flooding. For residents in unincorporated Harris County, their precinct commissioner's office and the Harris County Engineer's Office are responsible for street flooding.

If roads are impassable, county commissioners can send teams to set up barricades to close roads. That responsibility can also fall to cities or TxDOT, depending on which type of road it is.

Based on the location and intensity of the storm, Houston and Harris County will make the decision to open shelters in emergencies.

In a major disaster, the county judge will request to set up a shelter with resources. After Harvey, Harris County opened a shelter at NRG Center that was run by local nonprofit Baker Ripley.

In unincorporated Harris County, emergency management officials will designate locations to take people who are rescued by first responders.

During a hurricane, the city's shelters are not announced until after the storm blows over so residents do not put themselves in danger trying to get to them, Taylor said. The city works with the American Red Cross to make sure everyone has what they need once residents make their way to the shelters.

The city will also have set shelters, called refuges of last resort, available to those who have nowhere else to go to escape the hurricane. Those shelter locations will be announced in the final hours before a storm makes landfall. They only exist as dry spaces for residents until the storm passes, and they do not provide food or other amenities.

Once the storm is over, the city will help residents at these shelters find the resources they need if they don't have homes to return to, Taylor said.

Taylor said any interruption with a city service will need to be reported to the city's 311 line, and any calls relating to social services will need to be directed to the city's 211 line.

To find out which roads are closed during a hurricane, residents who live anywhere in Harris County should look to Houston TranStar's traffic map.

"That traffic map is really good as far as being able to see especially freeways. Some of the major side streets are there," Murray said. "It does get a little dicier when you get into neighborhoods because even we have a hard time collating that information."

Emergency management officials will use reports from individuals in the field to add information to the TranStar map. But due to the vast quantity of streets in the county, it's impossible for the map to be completely accurate, Murray said.

After the storm

Once the major rainfall has ended, officials will work on clearing roads and debris, as well as assisting in damage assessments and recovery efforts.

Depending on where you live, major trash pickup could be the responsibility of the local municipal utility district, city, homeowner's association or management district.

County commissioners' teams can assist with clearing major debris, such as tree limbs. In a major disaster, they also can activate on-call private contractors to assist.

Harris County residents are encouraged to report damage through the state's self-reporting damage assessment tool. Those reports help to determine if the state and federal government will issue disaster declarations. Depending on the collective scale of the damage, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will determine which level of federal assistance counties receive.

If Harris County meets the damage threshold to receive individual assistance, residents will be able to report their damage and get help from FEMA, Murray said. If the damage is of a smaller scale, residents will only be able to report damage to their flood insurance company. In each county precinct, commissioners will help residents coordinate with federal emergency financial assistance.

Houston's Solid Waste Management Department will be the primary party responsible for clearing big trash and tree limbs for city residents following a hurricane, with assistance from the city's Public Works Department, which will provide clean up equipment. The city will also work to clear main thoroughfares of trash and debris that lead to shelters.

Flood damage in Houston should be reported to the city's Office of Emergency Management, which will begin to assess damage with Public Works and the Department of Neighborhoods shortly after a storm blows over, Taylor said. Like the county, the city of Houston will also refer residents to the state's self-reporting tool.

Taylor always tells residents to notify their insurance company as they're notifying the city and state about damage to their property or home. Houston's emergency management office also partners with volunteer organizations, which will deploy volunteers to homes to help residents with cleaning up damage or beginning a demolition project.


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