Rebuilding Together Houston and the Evolution of Disaster Response
Depending on your point of view, I have either the worst timing in the world, or the best. I got an offer for my dream job as CEO of Rebuilding Together Houston five days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall in August of 2017. The hurricane ended up being the most devastating storm in U.S. history. Even though my start date was a month away, I was welcomed as a volunteer, and I sat in on some of the first planning meetings after the storm. “We have never been first responders,” someone said. But how could we sit on the sidelines? The ever-escalating scale and frequency of flooding in our region decided it—Rebuilding Together Houston had to jump in.
Harvey recovery has been a long and hard battle with an equal mix of challenges and opportunities. We developed a way of looking at our work that I call “the blessings of the hurricane.” Without Harvey, we would not have moved hundreds of families off our 500+ long waitlist. We would not have received funds to remodel our warehouse. We would not have been able to invest in our Salesforce database to manage every project and every house in real time. We would not have the partnerships we now enjoy with other housing nonprofits, local elected officials and many of our donors.
As CDC guidelines around the pandemic eased and we identified our last five Harvey projects in 2020, disaster struck again--the Texas Winter Storm. It felt 100% different. We knew right away that we had to act and were eager to get started.
Before the storm even struck, our most trusted nonprofit partners brought up the idea of another collaboration. On day one of the winter storm, several of our partners pledged their financial support. On the evening of day three, the scope of the recovery was forming in my head. Day four, our director of construction, Tim Rogers, answered my 7:00 a.m. call. “We know plumbing,” I say. “What do you think about extending emergency water restoration services to everyone we are currently serving, everyone we have served the last five years (2,500 families), plus all veterans in Harris County and anyone in our two target neighborhoods?” “Let’s do it,” Tim says. “We’ll start checking on all the houses in process right away.”
By day five, Jon Gibbs, our board member asked for a statement to share with his company, which resulted in another $100,000 and we were off to the races. On Saturday, six days after the storm, I got a call asking if I could make a recommendation for the City and County response fund on how best to provide repairs. I looped in my trusted nonprofit collaborative friends, and in 24 hours we delivered a plan that later became the standard for all organizations awarded from the City and County fund. Eight days after the storm staff returned to the office to handle phones in person for the first time in almost a year.
Eighty-three days later, Rebuilding Together Houston has restored water service to 116 families, with 39 homes in process and 29 homes pending repairs. We expect to serve over 250 families in total. I am beyond impressed with our construction team, who quickly figured out how to simplify paperwork, deploy plumbers and set clear parameters for them and keep their CEO happy with clear and constant reporting of results on Salesforce.
There is always room for improvement, but it is commendable that we got the services up and running so quickly for the neighbors.
We are still working to email all the previously served neighbors and let them know we can help. We are looking in to using an automated call for neighbors, letting them know to call if they need help.
We learned a lot from the Texas Winter Storm. Rebuilding Together Houston is in a position to plan more effectively so that next time EVERY part of the organization can respond more confidently and quickly. Because there will absolutely be a next time.