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How do you spell relief? H-O-U-S-T-O-N
When disaster stuck, city employees answered their neighbors' call for help

Left: Health and Human Services nurse Edna Ratler immunizes an infant evacuee at the George R. Brown Convention Center shelter. Health provided 7,264 immunizations to evacuees. Photo by Porfirio Villarreal. Middle: Mary Hammond, Library, baby-sits a sleeping toddler while the child’s mother uses a computer in the impromptu GRB library to search for lost family. Right: Minerva Alba, Human Resources, answers phones at the mental health clinic at the GRB. Photos by Dave Schafer.

Story by Dave Schafer

Valerie Stewart and her three children left New Orleans in her rundown 1989 Lincoln Towncar just before Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore. They were looking for shelter and knew Houston was offering it.

Unsure of where that shelter was, they drove slowly through the downtown streets.
An off-duty police officer pulled Stewart over and offered help. She bought gas for Stewart’s car, food for the family and diapers for the youngest child.

Then she took the family to the George R. Brown Convention Center, where Stewart and her family stayed for nearly two weeks.

Stewart said she’ll never forget the officer, whose name is Angel.

“She was my angel,” Stewart said.

Stewart’s not the only one to find an angel in Houston. When the hurricane struck the Gulf Coast, Houstonians came to the aid of their neighbors in need. City departments and workers, on the clock and off, led the effort.

“It’s been hard,” Stewart said. “I’ve lost everything, and that’s frustrating. But the city of Houston has been wonderful. Other than not having a home, I’ve got no complaint.”

No single story can convey what happened in Houston in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina and its flood of evacuees. But below is a sampling of stories that show how the city and its employees reacted.

Extending a helping hand
On Aug. 31, two days after Katrina hit, 33 Aviation employees delivered 16 trucks and SUVs and three trailers loaded with light towers, light plants, generators and containers of gasoline to New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport. They also took wet vacuums, carpet extractors, submergible pumps and fire hoses to remove floodwater, clean up the airport and restore service.

In Houston, Mayor Bill White arranged for prescription and nonprescription drugs to be available at CVS, Walgreen’s, Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club pharmacies. Donation warehouses were set up to receive and distribute basic necessities to shelters. The city and Harris County established the Neighbors 2 Neighbors program to match displaced families with schools and families providing transportation.

The Police Department provided security and comfort to the evacuees at Reliant City. Without prompting, telecommunications supervisor Terry Hodgkins developed a plan and set up phone and data transmission for the command post at Reliant Park.

The Solid Waste Management Department and the City Wide Club sponsored a four-day food and clothing drive for Katrina victims. They accepted donations at several service centers and depositories, and garbage truck drivers picked up curbside donations while they ran their neighborhood routes.

Using their automated bottling facility, water production employees in Public Works and Engineering produced 16-oz and 5-gallon bottles of treated Lake Houston water for the Red Cross and evacuees housed in Houston.

The Houston Public Library issued three-month Power Cards to evacuees and offered free use of computers. In cooperation with Xerox Global Services, the library provided free copies and printouts of Federal Emergency Management Agency applications and other information for Katrina evacuees.
 
A shelter from the storm
In all, officials estimate 245,000 evacuees relocated at least temporarily to Texas. Harris County opened the Reliant Astrodome, Reliant Center and Reliant Arena. When those filled, the city housed the overflow.

On Sept. 2, White opened the GRB for evacuees. Previously, the city was supporting Harris County and other sheltering agencies.

“We want to use our resources in any way we can to help our neighbors through one of the greatest natural disasters in our nation’s history,” White said.

Housing and Community Development employees, with Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club, raised $5,000 to purchase materials for the GRB. Employees moved about 3,000 air mattresses, cots, and sleeping bags into the center.

Within 12 hours, Convention and Entertainment Facilities staff had the GRB ready for up to 2,500 guests.

That night, the first 200 evacuees arrived. They continued coming over the next several days.
Dorothy Papallion, a senior accounting clerk in Finance and Accounting, worked Sept. 3 helping evacuees get settled in their new temporary home.

“I knew they needed a lot of help,” said Papallion, one of 18,300 volunteers, according to CEF, who kept the GRB going day and night. Hundreds of city employees volunteered at the GRB and Reliant City. “Watching the coverage on TV made me sad, so I wanted to help.”

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