Post-Harvey Review: HFD problems, with no effective plan for vulnerable neighborhoods

Rescue boats fill Tidwell Rd. as they help flood victims evacuate as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)Aug. 28, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

In the post Harvey world many Houstonians are interested in the details of what happened and who among our H-Town leaders performed at a high level, and which were a failure. It’s not enough to just pat the City Hall administration on the back and say, well, we could have never dreamed of such a disaster. As pointed out by the Houston Chronicle’s editorial team, we knew, so did our leaders, and while there were some bright spots, they mostly performed below par.

First, consider the reporting by St. John B. Smith (and Mike Morris) about the response and performance of the Houston Fire Department. The story is based on weeks of investigation and provides an interesting look into the leadership of Chief Pena.

As I remarked previously, I believe there was a back-of-the-envelope calculation made to low ball HFD overtime by not calling in a second shift when it’s standard protocol. This was a huge error, as was the decision made by Turner regarding evacuations. More on that in a minute, as we are not talking about the movement of 6 million people out of Harris County during Harvey, but more localized actions that were obvious.

The Mayor can point to Pena as the decision maker, but in our “Strong Mayor” system, Turner is 100% accountable for any failures, and as the reporting reveals there were many:

Harvey laid bare lack of resources, training at Houston Fire Department

SNIP– The Houston Fire Department’s limitations quickly became clear as Harvey’s floodwaters rose.

Just one high-water rescue vehicle. Decades-old evacuation boats. Sparse training for swift-water rescues. And limited staffing after an 11th-hour decision not to call in major reinforcements to face the catastrophic storm.

The department had been warned. Lethal flooding two years ago exposed shortcomings and prompted sweeping recommendations to improve future responses.

And yet, when firefighters rushed fearlessly into Harvey’s currents in late August, they were again hobbled by a lack of resources, old equipment and a shortage of manpower ready to go when the storm hit, according to a Chronicle review of internal reports and emails, and dozens of interviews with firefighters and other officials.

The review found a department – and a city – that failed to follow the hard-earned lessons of previous storms, even as one of the worst in U.S. history descended on the region.

“Civilians had to step up – which was a great thing – but that’s not their job,” one high-ranking fire official said. “It’s our job to protect and serve the public. We couldn’t do that because we didn’t have what we needed.”–/SNIP

Read the full story.

We’ve been talking about the lack of boats, training, and high-water vehicles for years now.

The reality though, even given equipment challenges like engines beyond their useful life, when you do call 911 for the fire department, HFD responds quickly and is prepared to do whatever they need to do. We generally feel immune from the years long inattention to HFD issues and only feel the pain when the entire system is overloaded, like with the Tax Day Flood or Harvey.

But it’s now obvious to almost everyone, the situation is not acceptable and you can’t just blame it on rising pension costs and the revenue cap. We’re painting traffic signal boxes and subsidizing luxury apartments downtown. We have the funds and it’s time to get it right.

In comparison, Houston neighborhoods have spent the better part of twenty years hiring extra security like off-duty Deputy Constables, Deputy Sheriffs, HPD, armed security officers, and now private security with K-9s, all in vain as HPD has long response times for priority one calls. We’ve known for a long time we don’t have enough HPD Officers, so some neighborhoods hire extra patrols, but you can’t just hire off-duty Firefighters to watch your neighborhood. It doesn’t work that way.


It’s pretty clear at this point the forecast for rain was spot on, and leaders surely understood the seriousness of the situation. We did not expect, nor did we get high winds and storm surge in the Houston Metro. We did get forecast rain exceeding anything that seemed reasonable.

Maybe the Governor was right, all that water would be devastating. When Abbott made the statement about Houston evacuating he was roundly ridiculed by Turner, Judge Emmett, and the politicos who beat the drum for the administration. Listen to local leaders, said Turner and his staff.

Coast Guard in Bonham AcresCoast Guard pulling stranded residents from high water – Bonham Acres – SW Houston

Well Turner was wrong and we’re very lucky many lives were not lost during the high water rescues that occurred days in to Harvey. Without USCG Helicopters along with State and Federal resources the unthinkable might have occurred. Make no mistake, HFD leadership wasn’t even in the game before, during, or after. The firefighters, paramedics, and rescue crews of HFD were remarkable in their efforts and accomplishments, in spite of poor planning and execution by Commanders.

The Turner Team at City Hall did little at the beginning beyond setting up a small shelter in Greenspoint (which flooded right away) along with one in SW Houston at the Chinese Community Center (which closed due to street flooding).

The NWS predicted up to 50 inches of rain, and they were right on the money, while Mayor Turner and Chief Pena sat paralyzed, maybe hoping the forecast would be wrong.

What might have happened is that the City  (& County) Emergency Operations planners could have easily identified low lying areas that were very likely to flood, like the Brays watershed, Westbury-Meyerland, Greenspoint, Kingwood, and the South Houston corridor. Residents might have been urged to leave low-lying areas in time to seek shelter with family or friends away from the Bayous and watersheds that were almost certain to flood.

In Southwest Houston the college campus at HBU stayed high and dry throughout the storm. Maybe that location or an HISD campus on higher ground could have been a gathering spot. Perhaps not a full shelter with cots, clothes, and food, but out of the danger of flood waters so lives were not needlessly risked retrieving seniors and the disabled by boat.

One thing is for sure, it wasn’t just the lack of resources that caused HFD leaders to struggle with the last three major rain events. Let’s hope this time the community will take a minute and ask the hard questions, and expect more.


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