May 23, 2024

Foresight, Connection, Reflection

Last week at this time, I was preparing to open a meeting of a Disaster Roundtable, a milestone in an effort Mayor Whitmire had asked me to undertake the day after he was elected.

Mayor Whitmire had the foresight to seek out experience and knowledge of disaster response from a wide spectrum of leaders. When he asked me, in January, to lead this effort, I was eager to do so. An elected official thinking ahead, looking for insights! Wow.

On the morning of May 16th, after many interviews and casting a wide net, I assembled around 40 leaders from public, private, and philanthropic sectors. We were all gathered to hear speakers and provide feedback on key disaster questions that emerged out of my interviews. Here they are:

  1. How can we have better prepared, more disaster-ready residents? How do we educate individuals and families about how to be their own best “first-first responders.” Research shows that fewer than one-third of people have any form of planning or preparation for disasters, even in vulnerable regions like ours. How might we change that?
  2. How can we have a more data driven approach to long term recovery? How do we use available data to better align and coordinate deployment of resources in areas of impact over the long arc of recovery? Can we imagine a response and recovery organized more by neighborhood and community, from the ground up?
  3. How do we create an effective and efficient connection/handoff between the emergent and long-term response phases of disaster management and recovery? How do we build alignment between “T-shirt” and “uniform” responders?
  4. How might we create a multisector, multidisciplinary standing disaster leadership council for the region, to support collaboration between and during disaster response, and to transfer knowledge and lessons from one event to the next.

I thought, “if we just leave knowing who is ‘on point’ at each major institution, with faces and cell numbers collected, it will be a good thing.” I was already thinking about the next roundtable and how to widen the net.

American Leadership Forum hosted us in the spirit of their mission to bring leaders together for the common good.  Thank you, Nory Angel.

We were inspired by insights and best practices from Australia because Megan Stiffler, Deputy Commissioner of Fire and Rescue for New South Wales accepted our invitation to speak. Her range of disaster response experience coupled with the evolutionary nature of emergency response in Australia gave us a new look at the role of first responders, a glimpse of a better handoff between emergency and long-term phase of disasters.

Ed Emmett reminded us of the importance of expertise and letting those with the best information have the mic – and the necessity of checking egos at the door.

Bob Harvey, representing the year-old Greater Houston Disaster Alliance, reviewed what this united fundraising effort would mean going forward when disaster struck.

A real highlight was hearing Francisco Sanchez Jr.,  Associate Administrator, Office of Disaster Assistance for U.S. Small Business Administration, talk about the wholesale changes in their application processes and loan terms, and their improved response times. Just in time for Houston.

Then, just a few hours later, as I was hanging out with friends, relieved to have met this roundtable milestone, still talking about disasters, the rain began beating down.

At first, I ignored it. I needed the company of friends and I needed the wind down time.

“Please”, I thought, “don’t let this spoil our hangout”.

More people were on their way to my house —- and then our phones went off, one by one. I looked at the warning on my small screen and said out loud “to hell with that” and prepared to go on visiting.

Then I noticed my trees blowing in three directions at once and knew we were in something different than the usual spring deluge.

As the lights flickered, I gathered my flashlights, radios. I plugged in all devices to charge as much as possible and turned on the news.

Here we go again.

This past week brought the standard willingness of every regional leader to do what they could, to work together. FEMA showed up and Francisco Sanchez came back to spell out how SBA helps business recover.

United Way and the Greater Houston Community Foundation stood up a fund to collect support in record time. Thank you.

 Our favorite grocery store and the best prepared business around… H-E-B and Lisa Helfman responded with food and support and logistics help. Weird when the most responsive and prepared org is a forprofit grocery store chain. But, then again, HEB has always been more that.

Thank you to all of you.

So many people have helped. I find myself hoping that l helping is as inherently rewarding for you as it is for me.

I wrote this because I want you all to know what I am working on. There will be another roundtable soon to reflect on what we did well, what we learned from this past month of storms and floods.

The meeting made a difference. Fresh in our minds were the people we needed to call. The people we needed to work with. Connections matter. Recovery moves at the speed of trust. Relationships matter.



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