image of employees looking at white board in oem
The Houston Office of Emergency Management hosted partners from the city, Harris County, the region, and state partners, including non-governmental organizations, to exercise the hurricane sheltering plan on April 30. The exercise raised important questions about each partner’s responsibilities before, during and after a storm. Together, the team addressed best practices and identified vulnerabilities where processes can be improved. And it was given heightened relevance in light of the deadly and damaging May 16 windstorm in metro Houston. | Photo courtesy of Office of Emergency Management

Emergency response officials in the Houston and Harris County region conducted a Disaster Readiness and Resilience Clinic on May 4 at the West Gray Multi-Service Center specifically addressing people with disabilities and distinctive challenges to prepare for emergencies. 

That training from the clinic was immediately put to the test as Greater Houston Area residents were slammed with a violent windstorm called a derecho on May 16, resulting in millions of residents without power and killing eight people. A derecho is typically characterized by straight-line winds but tornadic activity was confirmed in the one that hit the Houston area. 

“Houston has a high risk of all kinds of disasters, which could include hurricanes, tornados and just flooding. But we also have heat and other emergencies, so we cross over the whole risk levels for all kinds of things,” said Jackie Miller, community programs manager for the Mayor’s Office for Public Safety. 

Hurricanes often get people’s interest, she said, but there are other types of disasters Houston area residents need to be prepared for, such as chemical spills from area refineries and train derailments. “If people are prepared, they will be prepared for any type of risk,” Miller said. 

“The recent no-notice derecho storm reminds all of us how important it is to do the work, make your plan and be prepared ahead of time.” 

Addressing the local media, Mayor John Whitmire said things were “looking better after a rough few days,” but he called on residents to limit their travel around the city to allow workers to continue cleanup operations and restore power in the area. Workers were also busy clearing shattered glass and debris in the exclusion zone downtown from Louisiana to Travis streets and from McKinney to Polk streets. 

“We still have severe challenges with our streetlights and our traffic lights, and there are still dangers downtown due to broken windows and glass,” he said. 

The mayor also thanked Houston Police and Texas Department of Public Safety for managing access at intersections and keeping everyone safe until the streets reopened. 

Miller co-chaired the work group for the May 4 readiness clinic, a first of its kind regional collaboration of emergency management offices, the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, Houston area health departments and state and federal agencies to name a few. 

“We have been putting on these kinds of training programs for many years that falls under the Getting it Right workshop series, which is an all-inclusive approach to emergency planning,” she said. “It is critical that we include people from the whole community when we are making plans involving an emergency of disaster.” 

Miller said in-person training had been shut down during COVID, and the group went virtual for about 18 months. The goal was to return to in-person training, she said. “The virtual training worked beautifully, but it was time to get back and do more in-depth preparedness.” 

Instead of just having a fair where people would come to booths and pick up information pamphlets, Miller said the clinics were set up like disaster centers, where residents could ask specific questions to subject matters experts on site about matters like insurance and filling out FEMA paperwork. 

“We decided to put the clinics up at the front end and those people that needed specific questions answered would have those resources available,” Miller said. “We wanted to create a workbook to use in the clinic that would walk them through the process and have them think about what things would they need if they were in an emergency disaster situation, such as medicines and a list for utilities support.” 

Miller said the intent was to help residents with disabilities think ahead of time about their needs. 

“Even a young couple with the newborn baby are thinking differently about their needs during a disaster,” she said. “It’s the same thing with a person with a disability.” 

“I think as we train everyone on preparedness, the whole idea is for you to take control of your situation during a disaster. The only way to do that is to plan prior to a disaster and not run around trying to figure out what to do.”