In what has become a nightly occurrence, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner held a press conference to announce $14 million in donations to the city and county’s relief fund and allow for various agencies to give a public update on their status.
Off the bat, Turner declared, “Houston will be back in a year,” later adding, “Don’t bet against Houston, don’t bet against Harris County, we’re coming back and we’re coming back strong.”
Turner then announced $14 million in donations from Verizon, Walmart, Waste Management, and Les Alexander and the Houston Rockets. Alexander originally offered $4 million, but then upped the donation to $10 million and threw in the Toyota Center to be used as a shelter for good measure. The money will go into the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, a city/county partnership to help affected flood victims. None of the funds are intended to go to government entities, but will instead go to nonprofits which will then disperse them on a needs basis.
Though the city has opened the Toyota Center as a temporary shelter, Turner said they expect to consolidate those evacuees in the George R. Brown by the weekend.
After announcing the donations, other key public officials took turns updating the public on the state of their agencies.
Richard Carranza, Superintendent of Houston ISD, said that HISD will reopen for classes on September 11, but not without changes. Each one of roughly 200 buildings that the district has inspected has been impacted by the storm one way or another.
Though he wouldn’t give specifics of campuses, Carranza said that the damage to some was enough to force campuses to consolidate. Also, when students return, HISD will have crisis counselors from the district as well as from other urban school districts to aid with trauma resulting from the flood.
The 17 school districts impacted by the storm are, together, seeking waivers from the Texas Education Commissioner that would allow them to shorten their school years. “All of us have delayed school starting, so we’re working in unison to get those petitions in to the commissioner,” said Carranza.
Both HISD and the City of Houston have been working incredibly close with big-city colleagues for assistance. Turner had a 77-city conference call hosted by Mayor of New Orleans and President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Mitch Landrieu. The mayors wanted to help all cities affected by Harvey, particularly Beaumont and Port Arthur, so any assistance Houston receives will be shared with them. “We want to communicate with our surrounding partners like Beaumont and Port Arthur,” said Turner, “anything we get we will share with them.”
Fire Chief Sam Pena’s update was more optimistic. He said calls for assistance are significantly dropping and they have moved to the second stage of response – recovery. This includes wide-area searches in six of the areas hit the hardest. All of the door-to-door searches are expected to be completed by Friday, a week since Harvey made landfall.
The chair of METRO, State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), Commissioner Rodney Ellis, and Council Member Brenda Stardig also briefly spoke.
Though there is still flooding on the west side of town, where the controlled dam releases flooded subdivisions, most areas have started to slowly return to some form of normalcy. “Traffic is returning to our streets, and we are turning the corner,” Turner said.
Though the mayor is joyful in press conferences, he still can’t escape the criticism from some that he should have called for evacuation. Others have defended his decision, saying that attempting to evacuate over six million people would have created an even greater disaster.
There have also been questions regarding preparedness, or lack thereof, ahead of the storm. Though time for introspection and accountability will come, it’s best that the city get back on its feet as quickly as possible.
Turner ended the conference setting a high bar for himself, “The goal that I have set, a year from now, barring any other storms, when people come and they look at this city they are not going to see any signs of Hurricane Harvey having come this way. We are going to be stronger, more competitive.
“This is a city that’s always dealt with challenges, we deal with them in a positive way. The City of Houston is open for business, and quite frankly we are open for business right now.”