Hurricane Harvey: A Perspective from a DHS Disaster Responder
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By Randall T. Gelino
American Military University Ambassador and Department of Homeland Security Employee
A week and a half after Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast, certain areas of Houston are still under mandatory evacuation orders. This unprecedented disaster has shown the country and world the resiliency and spirit of Texans.
I am a Senior DHS Federal Agent who has worked for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) since its inception in 2002. I was called out early to assist in the response to Hurricane Harvey.
Establishing a Fuel Depot Is a Top Priority in Disaster Management
Fuel is a basic necessity during such disasters for government and employee vehicles to operate and respond quickly to emergencies. With gas becoming a serious scarcity, I was tasked with establishing a fuel depot for DHS assets.
Although organizing a fuel depot is not complicated, it is an essential part of the overall emergency response. A fuel depot gets airport infrastructure and operations back up and running, which is vital to the local economy. Fuel is also vital for moving people, cargo and essential goods and services in and out of the city.
Hurricane Harvey Is My 6th Natural Disaster
Hurricane Harvey was the sixth time that I have responded to natural disasters as a DHS agent. For instance, I’ve been involved in responses to Hurricanes Rita, Ike and Harvey in Houston.
During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, I was one of a few DHS representatives who worked at the Joint Interagency Operations Center in New Orleans. I saw firsthand how federal and state agencies worked together during what was one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history.
I also volunteered to go to New Orleans in response to Hurricane Gustav in 2008, three years after Katrina. Gustav was the second most destructive hurricane of the Atlantic season and did significant damage to Louisiana’s fishing and oil industry.
In 2012, I responded to Hurricane Sandy as a member of DHS’s Surge Capacity Force. The Surge Capacity Force is a group of volunteers from various DHS agencies who have specialized training in disaster management and can be quickly mobilized when the need arises.
Hurricane Sandy was noteworthy to me because as a Surge Capacity Force member because I was tasked with processing disaster claims. That was not my specialty, but the experience was particularly memorable because I was able to help a great many people.
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Preparing for Major Storms Like Hurricane Harvey Is Annual Ritual for My Family
As soon as it appeared that Harvey was headed in our general direction, I made plans with my family. When you live in a coastal area, especially one close to the Gulf of Mexico, hurricane planning becomes an annual ritual when the hurricane season rolls around.
We picked up anything in our yard that could become a projectile, and we looked for ways to shore up our property. We purchased the essential supplies, such as water, food and batteries. I checked on my neighbors to see if anything was needed on our street and we all hunkered down as Harvey hit.
As Harvey did the Texas Two-Step across the southeastern part of the state, the storm dumped an unprecedented amount of rain on us, more than 50 inches in some places.
One of Houston’s nicknames is the “Bayou City,” due to the many manmade bayous or expansions of natural topography for flood control. Fortunately for those people who live in my area, five retention ponds significantly helped with the runoff and kept our area from flooding.
Houston’s Geography and Dense Population Adds to Impact of Hurricane Harvey
Houston’s metropolitan area is a whopping 10,000 square miles. That’s slightly smaller than Massachusetts and a little larger than New Jersey. Also, Houston is flat, which makes flood planning and managing the watersheds a daunting task.
Harvey damaged or destroyed more than 40,000 homes and more than one million vehicles. Many people lost everything they owned, which is heartbreaking to witness firsthand.
Most tragic of all is the death toll, which has now risen to more than 60 fatalities. In one devastating situation, an entire family of six – four small children and their great-grandparents – was swept away in their van and perished trying to escape the rising waters. Even one of Houston’s finest, Police Sgt. Steve Perez, a 34-year veteran of the Houston Police Department, died in the floodwater as he tried to report for duty.
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Despite Deaths and Destruction, Texas Heroes Came to the Forefront
Even though this was a disaster of epic proportions, there were heroes who made Texas and America proud. First and foremost, I have to recognize the average citizen, who stepped up with boats, trucks or whatever items they had at their disposal to help their neighbors, strangers or anyone in need.
Then there was Houston icon Jim McIngvale, also known as “Mattress Mack,” who immediately opened his mattress stores to shelter citizens fleeing the storm. This unselfish gesture has further endeared to the public an already popular businessman.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner Is Commended for His Excellent Leadership
Also, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner should be commended for his excellent leadership throughout the Harvey crisis. Mayor Turner made the decision (the right one in my book) not to issue an evacuation order prior to the storm. He articulated two excellent reasons for this action.
First, Harvey was not expected to make landfall in Houston, which it did not. The storm made landfall in Rockport, Texas, 200 miles south of Houston.
Second, the city learned its lesson when local officials decided to evacuate the city during Hurricane Rita in 2005. More than 100 people lost their lives trying to flee the storm, mainly by being stranded in their vehicles and exposed to temperatures near 100 degrees.
Harris County Flood District’s Meteorologist, Jeff Lindner, has achieved almost-rockstar status for his tireless efforts to inform citizens with up-to-date information. Lindner was on television almost around the clock for five days straight, dispensing a wealth of information without missing a beat. There is now a GoFundMe account to give Lindner a much-deserved vacation.
Recovery from Hurricane Harvey Continues
Houston is not out of the woods by a long shot. Much of the repair work is going to take months, if not years.
Some Houstonians might never recover completely. There are many areas where the water is still receding, and any new heavy rainfall from future storms this year could cause additional damage. But if they do, you can be rest assured that the citizens of Texas will step up to the challenge.
About the Author
Randall Gelino is an experienced federal agent with a history of working in government administration. Randall earned his M.A. in security management with honors from American Military University in 2017.
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