Recovering from Harvey and losing count of the hugs

Hurricane Harvey devastated the lives of thousands of Houston’s residents, including many of its most vulnerable. Homes, property and jobs were lost. In the most tragic cases, loved ones were lost.

But even as Harvey visited the worst on Houstonians as individuals, it has brought out the best from Houston as a community.

When Hurricane Harvey began dumping what would end up being more than 50 inches of water on our community on August 25, 2017, it quickly became clear that this was going to be a disaster of historic proportions.

People — both official and civilian — immediately rushed to help. Obviously, during the storm, our priority was rescuing folks from the flood waters. And it didn’t matter if the flood victims were your neighbors and friends or complete strangers, we all came together to do what we could to get them to safety.

But after people were rescued, they needed shelter. Where were we going to put all these people?

I decided to open up the George R. Brown Convention Center as a shelter. Working with the Red Cross, we housed thousands of families and their pets. They were provided food, clothing, showers and laundry services, health care and mental health counseling. We also set up a missing persons center to reconnect flood victims separated from their families.

We thought we would house about 5,000 people; we ended up with more than 10,000.

I lost count of the hugs. As mayor, my job was to set up a vast bureaucracy to keep people safe. But as a human being, I was doing a different job. In every corner of the shelter, people reached out — for a smile, a handshake, a pat on the back or a friendly hug. It all mattered.

And Houstonians continued to open their hearts to these flood victims. Volunteers spent thousands of hours checking in people, finding them clothing, helping with their children. Folks brought clothing, baby items, food. The lines of people showing up to volunteer and the lines of cars with people bringing donations were amazing to see. I could not have been prouder of my city seeing all the individuals, non-profit organizations, city employees, corporations and more who contributed to this effort.

In the end, the Red Cross and partner facilities sheltered 37,000 families after Hurricane Harvey.

And volunteers? We asked folks to register their volunteer hours to use as a match for recovery funds. The result: 256,845 volunteer hours were reported.

As Houstonians returned to their homes, they found that many of their belongings — such as furniture, clothing, appliances and personal items — had been destroyed by the flood waters. All those items plus debris from replacing floors and walls had to be removed from homes and disposed of.

In all, 575,000 tons of debris were removed from neighborhoods impacted by Harvey. City employees alone worked 379,000 hours on debris removal with the assistance of private contractors and help from the cities of Austin and San Antonio and the Texas Department of Transportation.

To start the recovery process, City of Houston departments and 50 partner agencies created the Neighborhood Restoration Program. Fourteen Neighborhood Restoration Centers were set up across the community to provide outreach and assessment, disaster recovery information, workshops and direct services to 16,000 residents.

Rescue, shelter, debris removal, urgent disaster assistance. These activities were our priorities in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. This could not have been done without the incredible generosity of Houstonians. They gave their time, their knowledge and, sometimes what was needed most, a hug.