Remember the people: Lessons from Hurricane Harvey on preparedness and compassion

Texans living and working on the Gulf Coast understand that hurricanes are part of life. Though major storms don’t pose a threat every year, residents know that the key to survival is preparedness.

Many of our own colleagues here at TCEQ have intimate experience with the storms, including Corpus Christi region director Susan Clewis. As Hurricane Harvey approached the Texas coast in August 2017, she and her staff prepared both their homes and their workplace. And in the end, they emerged with some valuable lessons learned.

What kinds of preparation for the storm had you implemented before Harvey made landfall, both at home and in the office?

It is important to note that we first became aware of the potential for a storm on the late afternoon of Monday, August 21, 2017. I was traveling back from Austin with another manager and we had a call with the rest of the management team to begin planning. The tropical depression didn’t form until 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 23. We closed the office at noon on Thursday and Hurricane Harvey made landfall at 10:00 p.m. on Friday the 25th. As I was holding one final meeting with staff before we all left, I received this text message from Toby Baker: “Stay safe down there.  Prayers for you and your team.” I was able to share his message with the staff. There was very little time for planning and implementation. At Region 14 we review our plans annually with staff and have the ability to secure the office and assets in a very short period of time.

As far as preparing my home, I headed home as soon as we closed the office at noon on Thursday. I immediately went home and worked with my family on boarding up all of the windows and doors on our home. We also secured all loose items in the yard. I live directly on Oso Bay, so we were concerned with not only wind and rain damage but storm surge as well. We opted to ride the storm out at home due to the short window for evacuation. We always maintain a bottled water supply as well as nonperishable food items. We checked the generator and ensured we had fuel. We also pulled out the camp stove and had it ready to go. Needless to say, we were pretty busy!

How effective was that preparation?

The power went out as we were trying to cook an early dinner on Friday afternoon, so we broke out the camp stove.  The winds continued to increase into the evening to the point that you couldn’t walk outside.  The wind continued all night. You could hear the house groaning.  Water was coming in around the sliding glass doors (which had plywood over them) and was dripping from the living room ceiling.  The wind made a wailing sound all night.  It’s a sound I’ll never forget.  We were lucky.  Harvey made landfall approximately 25 miles up the coast.  The devastation in Rockport and Port Aransas was very real.  We came out the other side with some minimal damage, no sleep, and no power.

Once I was able to check on the office a couple of days later, we discovered numerous roof leaks, some water intrusion under one wall, and a lot of wet carpet. None of our computers, equipment or vehicles were damaged.

How soon after the storm, were you able to return to work? Or, did you keep working in some capacity through the entire experience?

Port of Corpus Christi Incident Command

I maintained contact with some of the region staff and central office staff throughout the event including during landfall.  I never lost cell phone signal, so I was able to maintain continuous communication. I was also provided a satellite phone for the event.  Saturday was spent checking on staff and contacting water systems. The first temporary debris management site application was received on Sunday. By Tuesday we were reassembling the office and reopened the office on Wednesday.  We then worked nonstop on recovery efforts for weeks including weekends and holidays.

How did surviving Hurricane Harvey affect how you do your job now, how you lead your staff, and how the office responds to emergency situations?

I now have a more personal perspective on Hurricanes and other natural disasters. Even though I’ve lived my entire life on the Texas Coast, I have never experienced anything like the magnitude of Hurricane Harvey. Now, when I look at a debris pile, I don’t see a pile of garbage…I see people’s lives. Going through a Category 4 Hurricane makes you realize how fragile life is. People located less than 25 miles from me lost everything they owned while we were just inconvenienced with some cleanup and no power for a few days.

In the weeks following Hurricane Harvey, I spent quite a lot of time in Rockport and Port Aransas. One lady just asked if she could hug me. She had lost her home. Another gentleman explained that he had lost his trailer home and was ineligible for assistance so all he had was his bike and the clothes on his back. There were so many stories and people who just needed someone to listen. Probably the main lesson I learned was compassion. It was amazing to watch the community come together and rebuild.

I’ve always encouraged staff to have personal preparations done at the beginning of hurricane season. Hurricane Harvey really drove home how important that is. It went from nothing to a Category 4 landfall in less than four days. That preparation also applies to the region office and ensuring all of our agency plans are in place as well.

Hurricane Harvey also taught all of us compassion for the people in the community. This is important to remember as we respond to an emergency. We have the ability and responsibility to add a human element to the work we do. I expect all of my staff to remember the people when responding.

What is the biggest lesson you learned as a result of surviving Hurricane Harvey?

BE PREPARED FOR HURRICANE SEASON! Make sure your car is full of fuel, your generator is in working order, have plenty of water, and have a plan! Follow all of the good guidance that is out there and be ready for this hurricane season.

Susan Clewis is Regional Director for the agency’s Corpus Christi Region, a position she has proudly held for the past 16 years. She was born and raised in Houston, Texas where she received her Bachelor’s Degree in Biochemistry from the University of Houston. Following her passion for environmental protection, Susan began her career with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in 1989. Beginning as an Environmental Investigator, she was later promoted to Team Leader then Section Manager over the Waste Program and Emergency Response. Susan and her husband of 31 years raised two daughters in Corpus Christi where they enjoyed many weekends in the family boat, cruising the waters of Corpus Christi Bay and the Laguna Madre. She still enjoys spending her spare time in the great outdoors with her two golden retrievers, attending University of Houston football games, and researching her family genealogy.