Natural disaster plan approved, ignored

Seven months before Hurricane Harvey inundated the Houston area with a trillion gallons of water and led to widespread criticism of the Red Cross, Harris County adopted a disaster-preparation plan whose key assumption was that the Red Cross would be slow to act.

“In a major disaster where there is widespread damage, the local resources of the Red Cross may be overwhelmed and not available immediately,” stated the plan. “It may be upwards of 7 days before the Red Cross can assume a primary care and shelter role.” The 17-page document, titled the “Mass Shelter Plan,” was unanimously approved by the county’s governing body on Jan. 31, 2017. ProPublica (an investigative news source) obtained the plan, which until now has not been public, as part of a public records request.

The plan described the Red Cross as the county’s “lead partner” but was unequivocal in assigning responsibility should a calamity occur: “In the event of an emergency that requires evacuation of all or any part of the Harris County population, Harris County is ultimately responsible for the coordination of the evacuation, shelter and mass care of displaced local residents.”

The goal, according to a county spokesperson, was to provide shelter for up to 10,000 displaced residents. [Harris County’s population is 4.5 million; roughly half of those people live in Houston.]

The plan proposed that county employees be trained as shelter volunteers, outlined specific roles for shelter staff and indicated the county would identify and survey buildings that could be used for emergency housing beyond those already identified by the American Red Cross [ARC].

But in the seven months between the plan’s passage and the landfall of Harvey, the county took few steps to implement its strategy. Indeed, when dire flooding forced thousands of people from their homes, 3,036 emails obtained in a public records request suggest officials didn’t even seem aware that a plan existed.

“Harris County had the forethought to identify – and rightfully so – that the Red Cross might not be able to be there for upwards of seven days depending on storm severity, and then they didn’t follow through on their plans,” said Meghan McPherson, an adjunct professor of emergency management at Tulane University, who reviewed the plan at ProPublica’s request. “It doesn’t seem they made a connection between what they promised the public and what they did.”