On August 30, Ronnie DeVries put out a video for the Houston Chronicle website, calling for volunteers to work the graveyard shift at the George R. Brown Convention Center, the city’s makeshift downtown shelter for hurricane evacuees. He did it because there was a desperate need—well, that, and because he happened to run into his neighbor, Chron reporter Brian Rogers, who recorded his plea.
DeVries made the 60-second video on his way out to the convention center for the third night in a row. “We need people for the night crews,” he said, wearing an H-Town Navy shirt, blinking away sleep, and, at one point, accidentally referring to the GRB as NRG Stadium. “I ran out of people last night on the graveyard shift.”
The man isn’t the type to wait for instruction, or for permission to act; he just does what needs to be done. Which explains both that spur-of-the moment video, and how he ended up coordinating a team of volunteers through the chaos at the GRB in the hours after Harvey hit Houston.
A lifelong Houstonian, DeVries also assisted with volunteer efforts when evacuees were moved to Houston after Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005. “I knew from experience that people wanted to help, but it takes a while to get mobilized,” he said. He didn’t want to deal with any red tape. “I decided to just go in and act authoritative.”
He had a good idea of the layout of the GRB thanks to his job as manager for TXRX Labs, Houston’s “hackerspace,” which offers everything from jewelry-making classes to machine-shop instruction, in addition to assisting with events at the center, including Comicpalooza.
When DeVries arrived there Monday morning during a lull in the rain, “the number of people coming in was insane,” he said. “Not just evacuees but volunteers.” He skipped the line of helpers, instead entering the building through a loading dock. He then registered with the Red Cross. Another volunteer introduced him to Annise Parker, whom he shadowed for a few hours.
“That opened some doors for me,” he said.
Particularly as relief efforts kicked off, things were disjointed at the GRB, DeVries said, and scattershot. So, he and some other people decided to form a spontaneous leadership group to help get things organized, designating point-people for various tasks.
Soon, he and his cohorts started calling themselves the H-Town Navy, and the inevitable T-shirts, donated by a local print shop, followed. They weren’t just for show, though: The group used them to indicate their main coordinators.
According to other volunteers Houstonia spoke with, DeVries was instrumental in avoiding overlap in efforts, as well as miscommunication among the thousands of volunteers who showed up. Several people commented on his ability to recognize a need and fill it, as groups that would be providing support for the long haul, like FEMA and the Red Cross, established order.
As for his opinion on those groups, DeVries said it was complicated. The Red Cross was already on the ground registering volunteers when he first arrived at the GRB; they just needed some help. “I’m just some jackass off the street,” he said. “In my opinion, the ball wasn’t dropped. Because no one schedules a hurricane.”
A week after the storm first made landfall, DeVries had handed off his duties and decided to take a much-needed rest. He was brainstorming ways that TXRX Labs might serve the needs of Houstonians post-flood by, for example, offering free construction classes.
But a few days later, he was already back at the GRB, helping to provide necessary resources to people whose homes had flooded. “Apparently,” he said, “I just can’t keep my nose out of stuff.”