Local Agencies Still Responding to Ike

Red Cross tries to replenish coffers that were drained in 2008

Hurricane Ike may have come and gone but local agencies keep plugging away at this FEMA office at Highland Mall.
Hurricane Ike may have come and gone but local agencies keep plugging away at this FEMA office at Highland Mall. (Photo by John Anderson)

The winds of hurricanes Dolly, Gustav, and Ike have gone, and evacuees have returned home or moved into temporary housing. Now, as cleanup on the coast kicks in, Austin contemplates its response and its future commitments. Austin Independent School District emergency management coordinator Will O'Neill puts his view of the immediate reaction simply: "The plan worked. ... There were little inconveniences, but people's lives were saved."

AISD geared up for Gustav, which made landfall Sept. 1, and stayed on the alert through Ike. "In about a five-week period, the Delco Center held evacuees for four weeks," O'Neill said. At its peak, the city housed 6,100 evacuees, most of them spending at least one night in a Red Cross shelter in an AISD facility – half as many people who fled Hurricane Rita in 2005. "Rita's really our standard for saying, 'This is what's going to happen,'" he said. Lessons learned then were field-tested this year. "One of the consistently good pieces of feedback we got from the campuses is that the unified command structure worked well," he noted. Joint site evaluations held before hurricane season – with partner agencies including the city, the Red Cross, fire marshals, and animal charities – allowed for advanced planning. Having a seat at the city's Combined Trans­portation, Emergency, and Communications Center made real-time coordination much easier, and O'Neill called the joint information center (a one-stop media-briefing office) "really beneficial for getting people on the same page." Now this hurricane season's lessons have to be applied. "Things have changed over the years," he said, "so there will be a re-evaluation of what happens when you really put people into those areas."

During the initial response, many staff members at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Austin staging area (the old J.C. Penney at Highland Mall) joined rescue teams headed for the coast. Now employees from dozens of agencies, such as the U.S. Small Business Administration and the state insurance and work-force commissions, are stationed there, supporting the more than 40 disaster recovery centers in the affected zone. The scale is enormous: 702,000 households hit, $208 million paid in housing assistance, and $43 million in additional assistance. As for how long FEMA will be in Austin, spokesman Richard Scorza said: "It's impossible to conjecture. It's until further notice or until the governor tells us he no longer needs us."

Beyond government, local charities are assessing the long-term burdens they and their clients face post-Ike. Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, the city's largest homeless shelter, has seen an increase in the number of homeless evacuees from affected areas and is starting to build case files. The Austin Humane Soci­e­ty housed 160 evacuated pets, and on Oct. 21, a 12-vehicle convoy returned many of them and their owners to Galveston – but they also returned with 30 animals that damaged coastal animal shelters couldn't handle (mainly kittens – the island's escaped and feral cat population is soaring).

But the biggest local burden was and still is being shouldered by the American Red Cross of Central Texas. Its shelters held a fraction of the 25,000 maximum evacuees the Red Cross agreed to take in, but it was still a costly undertaking. Nationwide, the Red Cross opened 916 shelters in 17 states, said Central Texas board Chair-elect Marty McKellips. "We provided 14 million meals and snacks, 100,000 comfort kits, 100,000 cleanup kits, and at the start of the season, we had no money in the disaster relief fund."

While its last shelter in Austin closed weeks ago, the CenTex Red Cross is still cycling volunteers in and out of the storm-damaged areas, while its emergency-response vehicles are providing food and water. McKellips has seen heavy demand for counseling: both for hurricane victims caught in terrible conditions and for volunteers who willingly traveled to them and found wreckage and hardship even worse than they expected. "It's very traumatic to be in that situation, and one of the jobs of the Red Cross is to provide comfort," she said. "In modern times, that comfort comes from mental-health professionals."

That all costs money. Like any charity, the Red Cross depends on donations. While it's raised $30 million toward the expected $100 million the disaster response fund will require, McKellips worries that donors won't distinguish between national and local fundraising and that cash to cover its regular tasks and for responding to increasing pleas for help from military families will dwindle. In the midst of this, McKellips thinks of the charity's invaluable volunteers. She added, "We've got to figure out, without spending a lot of money, how do we go to each of those people and say, 'Thank you, and please be there when we need you again'?"

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