Heroes of Harvey

Let's Tip Our Hats to These Houston Officials

Nobody's perfect, but our local leaders deserve a thank-you for staying calm and clear-headed in the midst of disaster.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen October 2, 2017 Published in the October 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Top row, left to right: Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett andHouston Police Chief Art Acevedo; bottom row, left to right: Harris County Flood Control District Meteorologist Jeff Lindner and Houston Director of Housing and Community Development Tom McCasland

Image: Matty Newton

The 82 deaths that occurred throughout the region during Harvey were 82 too many. But compare that to Hurricane Katrina, which killed 1,833. Certainly, the efforts of regular citizens helped save lives here. But we should also be grateful for the steady leadership of local government officials.

When Governor Greg Abbott advised Houstonians to evacuate, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the county’s de facto CEO, contradicted him forcefully and in unison—and calmly defended and explained the decision for days in the face of national scrutiny. Their public updates were frequent, matter-of-fact and live-streamed on Facebook throughout the days-long disaster, with rumors addressed and usually debunked in real time.

Meanwhile, Turner made tough decisions about mandating evacuations in Memorial and imposing a curfew in a timely fashion, based on conditions on the ground, not pressure, optics or politics. The mayor also responded to community feedback on the curfew by being flexible and adjusting its hours.

HPD Chief Art Acevedo, a relatively recent arrival from Austin, showed Houston how he’d earned the respect of his officers, jumping into action alongside other first responders, working impossibly long hours during the height of the crisis, taking a hard line against looting, and speaking movingly of 34-year HPD veteran Sgt. Steve Perez, who tragically drowned on his way to work.

The storm made a hero of Harris County Flood Control District Meteorologist Jeff Lindner, whose calm, composed, near-constant presence in the media and on Twitter made him a trusted and valuable resource for Houstonians. As the days passed, Linder became more and more popular. His new fans even started a GoFundMe to buy him a vacation (he opted to donate it to flood victims instead).

When it came to housing and feeding evacuees, it was Houston Director of Housing and Community Development Tom McCasland who stepped up to handle the massive logistical challenge, scaling up from the planned 5,000 cots to house 9,000, virtually overnight. He also pulled together a team to handle the overwhelming donations and pivoted mid-storm to find a way to keep evacuees with their pets.

As we move forward, Houston can and should ask questions about what could have been done better. But we could have done a lot worse.

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