ed emmett on harvey
Houston's longtime hurricane head honcho Ed Emmett shares valuable lessons from Harvey
“I say it over and over and over,” Ed Emmett, former Harris County Judge, tells CultureMap in his signature, measured tone. “Harvey was not a hurricane. Harvey was a rain event — an unprecedented rain event in North American history.”
Hurricane or rain event, the maelstrom known as Harvey made landfall in Texas five years ago on August 25, 2017, technically as a Category 4 hurricane. Houston and surrounding areas were pummeled for days with endless rain and subsequent flooding. In the end, Harvey would be responsible for 103 direct and indirect deaths and cause some $125 billion in damage, making it the second-most costly hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland since 1900.
For days and weeks after Harvey dissipated, the city, nation, and even world watched Emmett and city officials — namely Mayor Sylvester Turner, who tells CultureMap that Emmett was nothing short of “masterful” in his dealings — navigate the treacherous terrain in the storm’s wake.
Five years after the disaster that displaced hundreds of thousands and caused irreparable damage to so many, Emmett is a fellow in energy and transportation at Rice University’s Baker Institute and a distinguished senior fellow at Northeastern University.
It is, to observers, a sudden career change for the decades-long local, state, and national public servant. In news that shocked many, Lina Hidalgo, a Democratic newcomer to major metropolitan politics, defeated Emmett in the general election for Harris County Commissioners Court Judge on November 6, 2018. Emmett and many politicos and experts (on both sides) cite the narrow win margin — little more than 19,000 votes — as proof that the bipartisan-minded and generally beloved Emmett was a casualty of straight-ticket voting, which ultimately ended in 2020.
Now, the man who guided Harris County through Hurricanes Ike and Harvey, and myriad storms, generally avoids the spotlight. But he makes an exception to share his memories, his thoughts on what we here dub the “Houston Way” of helping one another, and five lessons learned from the historic event with us. Emmett, in his own words, as told to CultureMap:
1. The piles of debris created by Harvey really represented people’s lives.
The first day I was out of the office of emergency management and had gone home to take a shower, my daughter and her family were working with a local church. They were giving away shoes in their Braes Heights neighborhood, which had flooded. People were trying to muck out their house — it was a term I’d never really heard before, mucking.
She asked if I’d come by and say hi to the folks. I was actually talking on the phone when I turned on her street and saw the piles of debris. They were eight and 10 feet high on both sides of the street. I told the person I was on the phone with, ‘you know, I'm going to have to have a minute, just to collect myself.’ I was doing pretty good until I saw this elderly couple come out of the house. I watched them and when they got to the pile, they were trying to sort through it and find things.
It’s at that point that I thought, ‘you know we’ve got to do better than this.’ We talked about debris contracts. We talked about dollar damage, in terms of dollars. But really, those debris piles were people's lives and that's my biggest takeaway.
People, not just in elected office, but everybody needs to always remember that these are people’s lives out there on those streets. These people are not going to talk about the dollar value, they’re going to talk about the memories that were lost and the heirlooms that were lost. The dollar value is one of the less-important aspects of it.
Now, when I see the floods in Kentucky or a tornado in Tennessee, my thoughts immediately go back to that elderly couple. I didn’t used to do that — I’d say, ‘Oh, look at all that damage, that’s horrible.’ But now I say, ‘I’m glad nobody died’ and I wonder about the personal cost. Harvey just seared that into my soul.
2. Floodwaters respect no boundaries.
Whether you’re rich or poor, black or white, it doesn't matter: Floodwaters don’t discriminate at all in that regard.
Also, in politics, we like to talk about counties, authorities, all these entities that have boundaries. Harvey was a regional event. What happened in Montgomery County impacted Kingwood and Harris County. In Conroe, they decided to open flood gates, and that flooded part of Kingwood. So, the water may fall in one commissioner’s precinct, but it's going to go downstream and impact another commissioner’s precinct.
One of my frustrations — after the fact — has been that I’ve watched the elected officials get into these territorial debates. They say, ‘Well, I need more projects in my area.’ I say, if one neighborhood is improved, then that improves everybody. You can’t just pick and choose.
3. The best plans for dealing with disasters have to be flexible.
I’ve never been in the military, so I don’t want to imply that I have, but I've always read a saying in the military that battle plans are good … until the first bullet flies and then, everything changes rapidly.
We can plan for hurricanes, which we did. I never thought I would find myself saying hurricanes are ‘easy,’ but you know where the storm surge is supposed to hit and you know the areas you need to evacuate in advance. You know what the winds are going to do as they come inland.
But with Harvey, we didn’t know where the water was going to fall. The normal plans we have for dealing with flooding and storms, we just had to change. By the time the State of Texas pivoted after helping Rockport and tried to get the Texas Task Force One, and others, here to help Harris County and the surrounding counties, they couldn't get here. So we had to then suddenly say, ‘well we’ve got to rely on somebody else.’
So, Harris County had to set up a major shelter. FEMA couldn’t get here, the Red Cross couldn’t get here. And so we turned to BakerRipley, the nonprofit and they set up a 10,000-occupancy shelter that really became kind of the model for the rest of the world. Angela Blanchard, BakerRipley's president and CEO, now goes around the world telling people how to set up shelters. That wasn’t even their business. But, we knew it was a competent organization and that they cared deeply about the local community. So, we found new partners.
4. Leaders must ignore the critics and concentrate on the job at hand.
The group ProPublica criticized me heavily for not following my plan because we used BakerRipley instead of FEMA and the Red Cross. I thought it was a joke when I read that. My response was, ‘well, hell, Harvey didn’t follow my plan either.’
I really couldn’t even believe that they were being critical, because we had to set up a shelter and we had to find someone to do it and everybody said it worked great.
Then, General Russel Honoré, who had evidently done good work in New Orleans during Katrina, was on national television, on CNN, just blasting me and the mayor for not evacuating in advance. Anybody who was here knows that was ludicrous, because we had clear weather Tuesday and Wednesday, and you can’t just evacuate six or seven million people from the entire region. Nobody knew where the rain was going to fall, so you couldn’t say, ‘well, we need to evacuate the 1960 area, but not Kingwood.’
Unfortunately, Mayor Turner and I both had to answer way too many questions from people saying, well, he [General Honoré] says you should have evacuated. Our response was always, ‘well number one, we couldn’t have evacuated and if he was here, he would understand that.’
But, you can’t spend a lot of time on that, because you have other things you need to be doing. Something’s always going to happen in the midst of a disaster.
There’s always somebody in the media who asks, ‘Who screwed up? Who made the mistake?’ My attitude was always, we’ll work that out after the fact. Right now, we’ve got a job to do. We’ll get together and do the after-action, who screwed up, who needs to be retrained, or whatever. But, in the midst of the storm is not the time to do that.
5. Trust people to perform and work together.
Going way back to [Hurricane] Ike with Mayor Bill White: A certain statewide, elected official of the Republican Party once looked at me and said, ‘your job is to make Bill White look bad.’ I answered, ‘No, my job is to work with whoever is elected as the mayor of Houston.’
The general public, particularly outside of Houston and Harris County, know what a mayor is. They don’t know what the county judge is, necessarily. Yes, under state law, the county judge is the director of Homeland Security and emergency management for the entire county, including the city. But people are going to interview the mayor, and so when Bill and I were dealing with Ike, we always had joint press conferences. We alternated who went first, so there wasn’t any of this ‘he’s upstaging the other guy.’
Sylvester [Turner] and I had the same situation throughout Harvey. Sometimes we weren’t even together, because the floods were so bad and he couldn’t get to where I was, or I couldn’t get to where he was. But the last thing the public wants to see at a time like that is any kind of bickering among officials.
You mentioned the ‘Houston Way.’ Yes, we’re a very large city and county, but here, we take an interest in each other as individuals. I think that’s the key. That to me is the ‘Houston Way.’