Scenes of Houston under water produced an outpouring of support from around the world —and then the donations poured in.
But what do you do with thousands of pallets of food, water, cleaning supplies, toiletries, housewares and clothing? The need was everywhere. The donations were coming in faster than they were going out to flood victims. So, a group of City of Houston employees pooled their community connections and knowledge of warehousing, distribution and logistics, and then the donations started flowing.
The employees and volunteers who ran the warehouses didn’t get accolades or media attention, but they played an essential behind-the-scenes role to help Houston recover.
Before the storm hit, Janice Weaver, Mayor’s Office director of community relations, got a head start planning shelters and distribution sites across the city by collaborating with an extensive network of local churches, community centers, relief and nonprofit organizations.
By Sept. 1, just a day or two after the rain finally subsided and donations began arriving, Weaver and a team of volunteers had a warehouse up and running on Ardmore Street. The contents were later transferred to donated space on Esplanade Boulevard. By Oct. 1, Weaver had been working 12-hour days for more than 30 consecutive days.
“We received donations from all over the world,” Weaver said. “We enlisted the help of our community partners from an approved list to set up donation sites around the city so people wouldn’t have to go downtown to the George R. Brown Convention Center to get supplies.”
Frank Carmody, deputy director for Administrative and Regulatory Affairs, and Public Works and Engineering and Housing and Community Development employees opened an additional warehouse on Navigation Boulevard. Weaver and Carmody worked together to meet the needs of flood survivors across the city.
“It all came together so quickly,” Carmody said. “We had a couple different warehouse sites working in tandem, and we wasted no time getting donations to people in need.”
What was once empty warehouse space soon buzzed with activity, the beeping of delivery trucks and forklifts and the hum of industrial fans – the only source of heat relief for people working without air conditioning.
“This operation has really been a group effort,” Carmody said. “We put together a pickup team of employees on loan from departments around the city as well as contractors and volunteers. We’ve moved more than 2,300 pallets in and out, and moved donations out of the GRB and the soccer stadium because they had events coming up.”
Carmody commended three members of the team — Felix Lugo, of the Public Works material services branch; Erik Vidor, a volunteer-turned-full-time temporary employee for the Housing and Community Development Department; and Nick Hadjigeorge, an ARA staff analyst.
“Felix Lugo is Superman. If it weren’t for Felix, this warehouse wouldn’t have gotten off the ground. He is tireless. I’m in awe,” Carmody said. “Nick Hadjigeorge established the inventory tracking system and posted it to an online site where stakeholders could track both the types and numbers of items on hand.”
As a Tier 1 employee, Lugo was assigned to report to the Houston Emergency Center, where he worked and slept during the storm. He worked 12- to 14-hour days with only one day off in more than two weeks, but he was still eager to get back to work.
“It’s hard because I have a lot of friends in other organizations who have been out helping people directly, and I want to be out there too,” Lugo said. “But I know I’m helping people indirectly, even if I don’t get to see the faces of the people.
“I have encountered little rays of sunshine like handwritten postcards and signs from children and organizations tucked into the pallets of donations,” Lugo said. “I found a pallet of teddy bears and thought, ‘Who needs teddy bears?,’ until I saw the bears were printed with ‘Texas Strong.’ That hit me right in the heart.”
A five-hour volunteer shift turned into a full-time temporary job for Vidor.
“The Sunday after the storm hit, I volunteered to go to help set up the shelter at the George R. Brown,” Vidor said. “Soon after that, Housing and Community Development Director Tom McCasland asked me to come help at the warehouse, and I’ve been working for the city ever since.
“The overwhelming kindness of strangers has been very heartwarming to see over the last month,” he said. “All walks of life came together to make sure everyone’s needs are met. Nobody is getting left behind.”
The remaining pallets at the Navigation warehouse were cleared by Sept. 29. Weaver closed the Esplanade warehouse in early October, but not before sending 55 pallets — or 55,000 pounds of supplies — with four City Council members on a United Airlines flight to Puerto Rico.
“From this experience, we learned how everybody could work together tirelessly with one common purpose. It’s all about the city,” Weaver said.