Disaster Management Expert Emphasizes Flexibility, Communication

Flooding from Hurricane Harvey
Rescue boats fill a flooded street in Houston during Tropical Storm Harvey in 2017. (David J. Phillip/AP)

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Managing crises such as the coronavirus pandemic requires communication, planning and flexibility, said Ed Emmett, senior fellow at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

Emmett made the comments June 10 during a webinar hosted by the Eno Center for Transportation.

He formerly served as judge of Harris County, Texas, in the southeastern portion of the state, encompassing Houston.



He specialized in homeland security and emergency management, and dealt with disasters such as Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Hurricane Harvey’s devastating flooding in 2017.

Emmett said from Hurricane Harvey he learned the importance of flexibility. For example, he said he worked with freight companies and a furniture store to arrange for trucks to haul material for setting up shelters when a previous partner didn’t have the necessary transportation equipment.

Robert Puentes, president of the Eno Center, agreed that remaining flexible and communicative is important in a time of crisis.

“Make sure that you’re being as transparent and open as possible with the folks that are impacted and that you’re communicating as much as you can,” Puentes said.



Emmett described the COVID-19 pandemic as a “seminal event” that, like major natural disasters, will influence the way government agencies respond to future crises and change the way people do business.

Drawing from lessons from previous disasters, Emmett urged leaders to maintain a communication network, which can benefit government officials and company executives. Prior to any event, he said officials should know who their leaders are and empower them to make decisions.

“Don’t try to micromanage once you’re there,” Emmett said. “They’ll take pride in their work.”

Emmett also emphasized the importance of careful evacuation planning. He said that Houston welcomed the people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, only to be hit about three weeks later by Hurricane Rita. He described the associated evacuation efforts as a “nightmare.” He advised transportation leaders and emergency managers to ensure that there are fuel stations available on evacuation routes.

“You can’t let the evacuation itself become a bigger disaster than the storm,” he said.

Emmett also stressed the importance of making sure assets are in safe places and usable conditions, citing the fleet of empty school buses that sat in flooded yards during Hurricane Katrina.

The webinar marked the first session in the Eno Center’s Road to Recovery webinar series. Subsequent webinars, scheduled over the next couple of weeks, will cover the federal role in COVID-19 recovery and a behavioral scientist’s views on people’s transportation decisions in a post-pandemic world.

In terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, Emmett said it’s too early to identify what all the lessons are. He recommended leaders share as much data as possible, noting that full information is better than partial information.

Emmett said that the virus will likely have a negative effect on transportation funding. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials projects the pandemic to reduce state transportation revenue by about 30% (approximately $50 billion) over the next 18 months.

“Transportation funding is going to be in trouble,” Emmett said. “To say we are in unusual times is a real understatement.”

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