Tuesday, 23 June 2015 20:27

From HEC to high water, Walter keeps the information flowing

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Spend a day on the job with Michael Walter, public information officer for the Office of Emergency Management, which coordinates information and resources across city departments and emergency response agencies.


On May 24, Sunday morning's calm at the Houston Emergency Center was shattered by reports of a collapsed apartment complex roof and a possible tornado.

What they got was a historic flood to cap off the wettest May on record, said Walter, who spent the days following the tornado and flood in a frenzy of activity. 

“After an exhausting day working at the tornado site, everybody thought that was as bad as it was going to get,” said Michael Walter, emergency manager and public information officer for the Office of Emergency Management (OEM). “We went home, knowing there was a chance of heavy rainfall overnight, but we had no idea we would get so much rain so quickly.” 

He was among the thousands of city employees who burned the midnight oil to help Houstonians prepare for and recover from the recent severe weather.

Though Walter didn’t predict the weather, rescue stranded motorists, or collect refuse from damaged homes, he updated the city, nation and world about what was happening in Houston and how the city responded.

In an emergency, OEM coordinates information and resources across city departments and emergency response agencies.

The Memorial Day flood was the highest level of emergency he has experienced since joining the city in 2011, said Walter, who worked about 94 hours that week.

But like many city employees, Walter couldn’t drive to work the morning after the flood. Naturally, emergency management has a plan for that: WebEOC, a crisis communication portal accessible from anywhere.

Even when he wasn’t onsite at the City’s Emergency OperationCenter, Walter still issued dozens of weather warnings, posted to social media sites and updated the OEM website, which got 10,000 hits in one day. And he was on television. A lot.

“This weather emergency drew international media attention,” Walter said. “All eyes were on Houston. Media wanted constant updates and interviews about the flooding. I talked to all the major market newspapers, local TV stations, Univision, NBC’s "Today" Show, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and I did a FaceTime interview with Canadian media.”

City Savvy spent a day on the job with Walter the week after the Memorial Day floods. By June 1, the emergency had passed, and recovery had begun. Coincidentally, it was the first official day of hurricane season, and his schedule was packed.

Easing into his day was not an option. Phone calls, updates from colleagues and Web revisions were stacked up. Even with all that, Walter said the office looked like a ghost town compared to the previous week. He completed tasks as he prepared to hit the road for three meetings across town.

First was a community volunteer meeting at the Housing and Community Development Department’s offices at 601 Sawyer St. HCDD was coordinating the nonprofits volunteering with flood recovery.

“OEM works with city, county and state agencies, but we also collaborate with nonprofits like the Red Cross because they usually provide much better information and a lot more effective response than if we were trying to do it on our own,” he said. “I need to have a better understanding of what’s being done in the community because people will often come to me with those questions. As recovery efforts require resources like dump trucks, barricades, police, or health monitoring, OEM operates 24 hours to help facilitate those resource requests.”

Walter dashed from the volunteer meeting to TranStar for a meeting with Mayor Annise Parker, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, local emergency managers and local TV meteorologists.

“It’s one of the most important events I attend every year. We always meet on the first day of hurricane season,” Walter said. “We go over changes, evacuation procedures, update the weather media on the city and county’s plans, and make sure everybody's on the same page.

“Facing hurricane season right after this flood should be a wake-up call for Houstonians to be prepared,” he said. “Our message this year is that even if it’s a quiet hurricane season, it only takes one to create widespread damage.”

Finally, Walter met with the city’s Legal Department to discuss implementing a communications board designed by New York City’s emergency managers.

“I work a lot with my counterpart in New York. There are probably four people in the country who understand what I do, being an emergency manager and being a PIO, and she’s one of them,” Walter said. “We learned a lot from their Sandy after-action report, and they learned from what we’ve done. We want to adopt their communications board that allows you to communicate nonverbally with people who have a disability or a language barrier. Using a series of pictograms, emergency personnel pinpoint whether the person needs food, medicine or shelter and to assess a pain scale.”

As that meeting ended, Walter was off to put in even more hours keeping Houstonians informed about what’s going on.

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