Dallas, Other Cities Playing a Familiar Disaster-Relief Role

Dallas, Texas

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Connecting state and local government leaders

As people leave Harvey’s disaster zone, Texas state officials ask that the Dallas Convention Center be ready to shelter 5,000 people by Tuesday morning.

Following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, a mass exodus of evacuees from New Orleans— including many by the busload—sought refuge in cities like Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Memphis and Oklahoma City. They also went to Texas, including Houston, which this week is facing historic, widespread flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey.

Many of those Houstonians, like displaced New Orleanians before them, are heading to Dallas, the third-most populous city in Texas.

Twelve years ago, on short notice, about 26,000 evacuees from Louisiana ended up in Dallas and other North Texas cities. One of the shelters included the Dallas Convention Center.

Sunday night, Dallas city officials announced that the Texas state government has requested that the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center be prepped to shelter 5,000 people by Tuesday morning. The American Red Cross has already opened three smaller shelters in Dallas.

“We have been advised by the state to be prepared for up to 5,000 evacuees, and we are committed to doing whatever it takes to accommodate our fellow Texans who may need assistance,” Rocky Vaz, director of the Dallas Office of Emergency Management, said in a city announcement.

According to that announcement, many city departments will be working along with the Dallas County government, Red Cross, Parkland Hospital, the Salvation Army, Children’s Hospital and many volunteer agencies and other organizations to figure out logistics to have the convention center ready to accept guests by Tuesday.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, according to KXAS-TV, has raised concerns about accommodating evacuees.

"We have approximately 740,000 people who live in this hurricane watch area of 30 counties, we have a maximum capacity, if we open all shelters—both private and public—in Texas of about 41,000 shelter spaces. So that's right at 700,000 people who we don't have shelter space for," Jenkins said. "So what I'm asking is that if your cousin who is a pain in the neck to you asks to sleep on your couch for a few days, let the cousin sleep on the couch."

As KERA Public Media reported during the 10th anniversary of Katrina two years ago, Dallas wasn’t prepared for the sudden influx of people needing shelter and assistance:

The Red Cross only had a couple thousand cots on hand. Nobody was sure who should be in charge of food. Nonprofits were duplicating services because a disaster plan hadn’t been established. Local officials and relief agencies had to scramble to come up with a roadmap, and Foster says, they had to do it fast.

Houston resident Lorrine Adamore, who was a New Orleans evacuee 12 years ago, ended up at a Dallas shelter this weekend, KERA reported. “When I came here and I saw the cots, I was telling my son I didn’t think I could do it because when we went through the Katrina, my husband was there, and he has since passed in 2013 of brain cancer,” Adamore told the station. “But he’s the one who put me on the boat in New Orleans. That’s how we got to Houston. So we all came to the shelter together, and just to walk in the shelter and see this whole thing again, and he’s not here is pretty traumatic.”

State and local officials in Texas have learned from the Katrina experience and subsequent hurricane evacuation situations affecting the Gulf Coast. In the Lone Star State, Dallas, along with other inland cities, are used as locations for staging relief supplies, resources and personnel heading into the disaster zone and serving as a refuge for evacuees leaving at-risk coastal areas.

As Red Alert, a blog for the American Red Cross in the Dallas Fort-Worth area, reported earlier this month, a recent multi-jurisdictional planning exercise in North Texas was used to test out an evacuee-tracking system.

[In early August] the Texas Division of Emergency Management hosted a hurricane evacuation training at Lake Highlands North Recreation Center using the new Evacuee Tracking Network (ETN). More than 80 volunteers participated in the disaster response training including the American Red Cross, Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and many other organizations that assist hurricane evacuees.

The training was intended to test the accuracy and efficiency of the new ETN system which was designed by the State of Texas to track disaster evacuees from their homes, to the shelter and back to their homes again. Personal information such as full name, address, gender, date of birth and last known location is stored on a wristband with a bar code provided by Emergency Management personnel. This wristband provides critical information to shelter provider to help serve evacuees.

The floodwaters inundating Houston and other communities in Texas will put those planning exercises to the test.

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Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Seattle.

NEXT STORY: With Harvey Parked Over Texas, Life-Threatening Flooding Will Continue in Houston

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