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In early February 2021, Harris County, Texas, and many other jurisdictions began monitoring a Siberian Air Mass that threatened nearly all of North America. This was the genesis of Winter Storm Uri. In the week preceding the storm’s arrival, the Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management (HCOHSEM) monitored National Weather Service (NWS) forecasts, sent notifications to the public for them to begin preparation and mitigation, and opened communication with partners in anticipation of a hard freeze lasting multiple days.
In terms familiar to residents of Harris County, County Judge Lina Hidalgo compared the storm to a Category 5 Hurricane at a press conference as a way to succinctly communicate what HCOHSEM and partners were anticipating – loss of power and water and impacts to other infrastructure. Although residents of Harris County – the third largest county in the United States by population, with over 4.7 million residents – are used to preparing for hurricanes, a winter storm of this magnitude was unfamiliar. Preparing for something like this had not been done for many years.
Storm of Historic Proportions
On February 12, HCOHSEM began issuing warnings to help residents and partners prepare for the coming weather. Messages containing reminders about taking care of “the 4Ps: pipes, people, pets, and plants” were sent to county residents. For the first time in its history, NWS issued a Wind Chill Warning for Harris County and the surrounding region to inform residents that “dangerously cold wind chill values were expected or occurring.”
Two key lessons: Critical information must be disseminated using familiar terminology, and recovery is a team effort that begins before an event has ended.
Precipitation joined the cold air coming into Southeast Texas, and ice and snow made many roads impassable, causing much of the region to come to a standstill. The statewide power grid struggled, and the Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) eventually began rationing power to keep the power grid across the state from collapsing. This led to approximately 1.4 million customers in Harris County with no power, along with a list of cascading impacts to water systems, hospitals, schools, and the broader infrastructure within the county.
Due to the impacts of the storm, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a state-level disaster declaration for all 254 counties in Texas and requested assistance from the federal government. In response, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. issued a Major Disaster Declaration for Harris and 107 other Texas counties based on damage data received from those counties. This allowed federal resources to flow into affected areas. Other counties were added later as the extent of the damage became known.
Unprecedented Approach to Recovery for an Unprecedented Storm
Discussions for how to implement the recovery process began before the storm was over. HCOHSEM leadership and the recovery specialist worked together to determine how to approach recovery. They decided to implement the Recovery Support Function (RSF) model as outlined in the National Disaster Recovery Framework created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Winter Storm Uri was the first opportunity for Harris County to implement this recovery model. Previous iterations of recovery involved the HCOHSEM recovery specialist, members of the Planning Section, and office leadership coordinating with other county departments, local jurisdictions, elected officials, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and business entities in a somewhat ad hoc fashion depending on the disaster. This structure required HCOHSEM to be involved in the day-to-day work of recovery to understand how it was progressing and provide support.
President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Governor Greg Abbott receive briefings from local and state leaders regarding the impacts of Winter Storm Uri, February 26, 2021 (Source: HCOHSEM).
Utilizing RSFs allowed for a more structured approach and model for engaging partners and the whole community in the recovery process compared to a recovery process that generally focused on housing, social services, and public health. It also allowed HCOHSEM to take leadership of the process by being the recovery manager working with RSF leaders, who then worked to carry out the work of recovery through their respective groups.
Once the emergency operations center transitioned into recovery, establishing the RSF structure with partners was one of the first tasks. The RSF process is based on a whole community approach that ensures stakeholders’ involvement in each of the RSF areas:
- Community planning and capacity building,
- Health and social services,
- Infrastructure systems,
- Natural and cultural resources, and
- Housing recovery.
As leaders from various NGOs, county agencies, and other entities came together, the work began to identify recovery priorities. The recovery specialist, planning team, and other HCOHSEM support staff helped manage the process.
Recovery Support Function Benefits
The adage “many hands make light work” concisely describes the benefits of the RSF structure. As work began, it became clear that expanding the proverbial recovery tent to include a broad array of partners who fit into the various RSF areas allowed for a wider focus on recovery to support a whole community approach to recovery. The structure lent itself to a more inclusive version of recovery, which allowed for broader engagement with sectors outside of those related to housing, social services, and public health.
Evidence of this inclusivity is found through the learnings in the natural and cultural resources RSF workgroup. Before forming this workgroup, the cultural arts community, which contributes over $1 billion to the local economy (“$579.4 million by nonprofit arts and cultural organizations and an additional $538 million in event-related spending by their audiences”), was not directly engaged in recovery conversations. Through this work and their inclusion, HCOHSEM learned more about barriers faced by many artists who are often independent contractors or operate as small businesses. Contractors and small businesses do not have access to the same resources as larger entities. In addition, many members of the broader arts community did not receive recovery support in the past.
Harris County and City of Houston elected leaders update residents on the winter storm and urge residents to make necessary preparations for the arrival of Winter Storm Uri, February 12, 2021 (Source: HCOHSEM).
HCOHSEM implemented recovery situation reports to help capture new information gained through the process (e.g., like that related to the cultural arts community) and to ensure the expanded work stayed on track. These reports identified the progress of RSF workgroups and their needs, provided updates to county and department leaders, and ensured progress was being made. These situation reports also kept recovery at the forefront after the ice thawed and the power was restored.
Other entities considering adopting RSFs may want to evaluate how they can adapt the National Disaster Recovery Framework structure. Doing this in advance will allow for a smoother transition into the recovery process when it is needed. Utilizing the RSF structure allowed Harris County to identify gaps in planning and start work to adjust plans to prevent barriers to accessing mitigation and resiliency funds. This work with the cultural arts community brought this to the forefront. The Houston Arts Alliance, a local NGO, is now working with the community to map cultural assets across the county and letting the community decide what is an asset to ensure what is important is included. HCOHSEM can then help mitigate, protect, and restore those assets.
Data collection and sharing processes were revamped during this incident as well. Generally, windshield assessments are conducted to understand the impacts of disasters throughout the county. This storm was different in that most of the damage happened to the interior of homes through burst pipes. In response, Harris County, city, state, and several NGOs created surveys to identify residential damage. Not only did this duplicate the effort and prevent the formation of an accurate common operation picture, but it also asked residents to enter the same information into multiple unrelated surveys. In response to this, Harris County entered into an agreement with the Kinder Institute at Rice University to have them assist in data management and data cleanup. In addition, to prevent future data collection issues, Harris County, Harris County Long-Term Recovery Committee, Texas Gulf Coast Regional Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters, Houston, and an NGO called Connective developed a Damage Assessment Survey that will be sent to residents after a disaster. This single survey will allow for a common operating picture, prevent residents from filling out multiple surveys, and can be easily adjusted for whichever disaster strikes.
Ultimately, the success of the Recovery RSF structure is dependent on building and maintaining effective partnerships across levels of government and the private sector. With engaged partners, an emergency management agency can expand its capacity without increasing its budget or staffing. In the end, long-term recovery efforts are easier to manage and nimbler. For elected officials, community leaders, and other stakeholders, the level of coordination inherent in the system provides for a better common operating picture. For residents and impacted entities, better access to recovery resources leads to a faster, more equitable recovery.
Response partners attend EOC briefing during Winter Storm Uri activation, February 15, 2021 (Source: HCOHSEM).