By Crystal Simmons
Mark Sloan didn’t see home for 21 brutal days during Hurricane Harvey. He spent mornings and nights shoulder to shoulder with command staff and afternoons and evenings crowded into Harris County’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC). By the end of the 2017 storm, the center had swelled from the usual 44 people to more than 500.
Those were the old days of disaster management.
When the coronavirus pandemic reached Harris County, Sloan cleared out the EOC and sent half his staff home on rotating schedules.
“One of the biggest things that came up is that I couldn’t have 525 people sitting in the EOC,” he says. “I had to tell people they couldn’t come, and we have to do this on Zoom calls.”
Bringing Partners Together
As the coordinator of the Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management (HCOHSEM), Sloan has led responses for nearly 174 emergency activations since 2008, averaging two per month, plus many smaller incidents.
Most of his work takes place inside Houston TranStar, a multi-agency campus built to withstand hurricane-force wind, with three backup generators and a 30,000-gallon water filtration system.
During activations, Sloan is second-in-command only to the Harris County judge, who is constitutionally charged as the emergency management director. It is Sloan who brings together emergency operations staff, first responders, and partner organizations to work as one unit, capable of addressing significant emergencies and disasters. These incidents range from chemical spills and water main breaks to catastrophic hurricanes and pandemics.
No response is ever the same.
“Even if they are all hurricanes, there’s a difference between Imelda and Ike and Harvey, Rita, and Katrina — they’re all different, and we have to be able to react to them,” says Sloan. “The same goes for a pandemic.”
For many Americans, watching the coronavirus devastate Italy was a turning point. Anxiety and fear gripped the nation as friends, family, and coworkers traded tales of martial law and armed soldiers patrolling the streets of Italy. Supply shortages and long grocery store lines became the norm as panicked shoppers stocked up on water and toilet paper.
Seasoned emergency managers like Francisco Sanchez, the deputy coordinator with HCOHSEM, also carefully studied the behavior of this novel virus.
“One of the things that informed our approach was that we weren’t the first, second, third, fourth, or fifth community to deal with it,” says Sanchez. “We saw what happened in China. We saw what it was doing in Europe. We saw what it was doing in Italy, Seattle, and other parts of the country. We watched very closely what they were doing, and we wanted to avoid that here.”
Harris County’s first two COVID-19 diagnoses came in early March, not long after a Fort Bend County man tested positive. Harris County Public Health (HCPH) epidemiologists discovered that all of the infected residents had traveled overseas together. They deemed the disease isolated for the moment.
But more were soon to come. Reports started pouring in and by March 11, the City of Houston and Harris County had declared public health emergencies. Sloan and his team moved to Level 1 activation – maximum readiness.
A bevy of restrictions soon followed, each more severe than the last. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner canceled the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, and County Judge Lina Hidalgo set in motion a series of stay-home orders, eventually requiring masks in public. Public health officials began the scramble to secure tests and open testing sites. With materials in short supply, experts pushed handwashing, social distancing, and face coverings.
Keeping local leaders and the public informed also became a priority. Emergency operations staff sent out regular alerts and called local leaders and their liaisons daily, passing on infection rates, testing information, and threats. This information, along with guidance from Gov. Greg Abbott, helped shape policies across the county.
Without the public’s cooperation, though, the virus would continue spreading. The communications departments at HCPH and HCOHSEM’s Regional Joint Information Center embarked on a public information campaign promoting coronavirus safety tips and combating misinformation.
“Communication is probably the single most crucial factor that determines our success,” says Sanchez. “We can do a great job in the Emergency Operations Center, do all the right things, coordinate all the rescues, get everything our first responders need, and make sure they have all the information they need to do their jobs. But if we don’t successfully communicate to the public what they need to do and what we’re doing, we have failed that incident.”
Although the public’s response to those messages varied, Sanchez believes strict measures were necessary to save lives.
“Mitigation is probably the most effective way to address a disaster, and it’s also the hardest sell because we’re asking people to invest right now in something that’s not happening but has the potential to happen,” he says.
Precinct 4 Responds
As news of the worsening COVID situation spread, all four Harris County commissioners canceled programs and closed community centers.
Precinct 4 Commissioner R. Jack Cagle redirected staff to areas most in need. Employees sorted food for the Houston Food Bank, conducted welfare checks on vulnerable seniors, distributed masks and hand sanitizer, and organized a mask-making program among community members.
He also notably kept all parks open, a rare bright spot in an otherwise dark situation. With most residents confined to their homes, the parks offered an escape from what was for many a mundane disaster. Parks staff worked on the front lines sterilizing offices, equipment, and restrooms up to four times daily and sectioning off high contact areas like playgrounds and picnic tables.
Precinct 4 staff stationed at the EOC reported on county needs multiple times a day. Clif Edwards, the precinct’s director of logistics, played a crucial role in providing Precinct 4 resources for the COVID-19 response effort.
“My job is to find out what they (emergency operations) want and bring that back to our people,” he says. “Our Road & Bridge Department has been helping with things like directing traffic, cone setup, and providing equipment at the testing sites.”
Emergency managers also studied hospitals to understand their limitations and how they responded to surges in infection rates. In the early days of the virus, those uncertainties spurred Commissioners Court to approve a satellite hospital at NRG Park. When it became clear hospitals would not reach capacity, court members disbanded the facility.
As more tests became available, county health officials deployed mobile testing sites across the county and began aggressive contact tracing.
Jan Sexton, Precinct 4’s director of Encore! senior programs and community centers, used her experience in disaster management to work with health officials to bring additional testing sites to Precinct 4, including Mangum-Howell Center, Barbara Bush Library, and the Lone Star College Creekside Center.
“Precinct 4 Encore! has partners across the precinct that provide venues for our luncheons, dances, and bus trip pick-up locations,” she says. “They graciously provided some of these locations to us as testing sites.”
Meanwhile, the uncertainty of the situation challenged leaders at every level of government. The novelty of the virus, paired with a lack of widespread testing and dubious information from other countries, left epidemiologists debating infection rates, fatality rates, and the reproduction rate of the virus. With data in short supply, leaders turned to the only clear indicator available: hospitalization rates.
“There are known viruses that we have medication for and know how to treat, and there are viruses that are evolving, and we don’t know how to treat them,” says Sloan. “And we have to adapt to that until a vaccine is developed. That’s the type of event we’re dealing with for COVID — the unknown.”
Sloan says emergency managers and the public now have a better understanding of how to fight the virus. Masks, handwashing, and social distancing are now second nature.
“As we’ve seen, restaurants and other activities can begin to open as long as we understand the risks and take precautions,” he says. “But we didn’t know that when we activated. There were things we had to learn and understand.”
As recently as mid-July, Harris County’s more than 4.7 million residents were continuing their battle against the worst of the pandemic and searching for a way to cope with the virus. Sloan remains hopeful that the public has the tools to recover.
“As people have said, it’s an invisible killer,” he says. “There’s an invisible war that’s ongoing against the coronavirus. But now we are more on the offensive than the defensive.”