Crisis Management Judgments

Effective crisis management and leadership is about making the best judgments possible in the midst of chaos. Harris County Judge, Ed Emmett, has been in the hot seat many times as the crisis leader for the nation’s third most populous county. Judge Emmett was at the helm last year when Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas and then opted for an extended stay. Harvey was like the crazy cousin who came to visit and then wouldn’t leave. People in 54 counties were at his mercy for four days as Harvey morphed into a tropical storm that pounded the area with an unprecedented 60 inches of rain.

Harris County Judge, Ed Emmett, and Houston Mayor, Sylvester Turner, lead a news conference during Hurricane Harvey.

Most crisis leaders will never deal with a Moby-Dick sized crisis like Harvey, but the crisis management principles are the same. An ineffective crisis response can drop an organization to its knees, and studies show that organizations are more likely to face crises today than ever before in history. This is why we reached out to Judge Emmett – to glean fresh ideas on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. The hope is that your organization can use the lessons learned to strengthen your business plans and crisis strategies.

Hurricane Harvey – A Moby-Dick Sized Crisis

 “Sprawling” is usually the word that comes to mind when people visit Houston. The city’s tentacles spread across six-hundred square miles, an area as big Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia combined. Houston is nestled in the center of Harris County. The county is home to more than 4.6 million residents, making its population greater than 24 states in the USA. Located near the Gulf of Mexico, the area has seen its share of crises involving flood waters. Judge Emmett led the county’s crisis response when two, 500-year floods slammed the area in 2015 and 2016. After Hurricane Harvey, Emmett told the New York Times this means Houston is either free and clear for the next 1500 years, or something is seriously wrong.

Judge, Ed Emmett in the Harris County EOC, a state-of-the-art crisis response facility.

Several years ago, Harris Country invested in a new, state-of-the-art Emergency Operations Center (EOC). The Center is equipped with 98 workstations that allows county officials to effectively coordinate resources and information with response groups anywhere around the state or nation. But, as Judge Emmett explained to us, you can have great facilities, experienced people and crisis plans – and things can still go wrong. The Judge shared his four major take-aways from the Harvey crisis response that can improve your organization’s preparedness level and business plans.

Takeaway # 1 – Have backup plans because your response is only as effective as your weakest link

“You must have solid backup plans, because you will discover weak links in your crisis response strategies. This will sound harshly critical of the Red Cross and I don’t mean to be, but the Red Cross was the county’s weakest link during the Harvey response. They were almost dysfunctional because their volunteers were stranded like everyone else and could not be counted on to help. When we asked the Red Cross to start setting up shelters, they informed us they didn’t have drivers, trucks or people ready to man the shelters. We were astonished!

Their volunteers were stranded in their homes and they had moved their trucks out of the area. Our team had to scramble and come up with a quick Plan B. We turned to BakerRipley, a local organization that helps immigrants and low-income families in Houston. BakerRipley’s director told me they could set up a shelter for 10,000 people in six hours at the city’s NRG Convention Center, and they did.”

Takeaway # 2 – Develop “out of the box” partnerships

“Think outside the box about the partnerships you need to succeed in your crisis response. Do not count on typical groups like FEMA or the Red Cross. We had to act quickly when the Red Cross told us that they could not provide the trucks, drivers or people to set up shelters. Thankfully, we were able to tap unconventional partners like BakerRipley to take on that role. BakerRipley then turned to other partners like HEB, the large Texas grocery chain, to provide food to the shelters. We tapped other unconventional partners like UPS and local furniture store owners (Jim McIngvale, known locally as Mattress Mack) to get the trucks we needed to deliver shelter supplies. Houston’s Metro provided the drivers for those trucks,” says Emmett.

With Harvey’s unprecedented scope of flooding, Judge Emmett quickly realized that FEMA was not in a position to help with high-water rescues. “That’s when I went on television and asked for people with boats to load up and head to Houston to help us rescue people out of their flooded homes and neighborhoods. We will never know the names of all the heroes who showed up with boats to save countless flood victims,” recalls Emmett.

Other unconventional and unplanned partners also came to the rescue. “The Texas Baptist Men had the resources and expertise to come in and provide hot meals around the clock for flood victims and responders. A group of military veterans known as Team Rubicon helped with high-water rescues, along with the Cajun Navy and similar groups. Housewives and others who were stranded in their homes also got involved; they used social media apps like Zello to guide rescuers to the flooded victims. Numerous animal rescue groups were instrumental in saving pets and animals,” says Emmett.

There were more than 95,000 high-water rescues in Harris County alone. The majority were made possible by citizen volunteers with boats.

Takeaway # 3 – Have a fresh team ready to take over recovery efforts

 “You need to have a fresh team ready to take over once the initial response phase is over. Once the skies cleared and people were safe, it was time to move on to the recovery portion of our crisis response. Those of us who had manned the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) for days were wasted and worn out. So, make sure you have a fresh team who can take over,” Emmett advises.

Takeaway # 4 – Act on the “lessons learned” to improve your response

“We learned some valuable lessons from this storm, and we are making key changes to improve our response going forward.

  • First, we are going to institutionalize a program around people with boats. The Harris County Sheriff will most likely head this effort; we will ask anyone with a boat to register with Harris County, so we will have their contact information in a database. They can be activated to certain areas to help with high water rescues in the future.
  • Second, we will supply these registered boaters with RFID chips to give to the people they rescue. These radio frequency identification chips will allow us to track storm victims, so we can easily locate them and send someone to take them to a shelter.
  • Third, we are going to identify many more local partners to help us, so we are not relying on the conventional groups like the Red Cross or FEMA.
  • Fourth, we are also going to put a program in place to assist smaller counties impacted by this type of storm. Harris County is big with many, many resources and we need to have plans in place to help those around us get through difficult times,” Emmett says.

Preparing for Your Crisis “Storm”

Crises come in all shapes and sizes, and many of them are not as obvious as Hurricane Harvey. As Elon Musk and Roseanne Barr have learned, crises can erupt over a single Tweet. We live in a world where a seemingly minor problem can quickly morph into an event that defines a company and its leaders for years and even decades. In this environment, it is shocking that 60% of organizations admit they do not have crisis management plans in place. Another 62% confess they have not provided their employees with proper crisis training.

The time for crisis preparation is now – before your storm hits! You can use the crisis lessons shared by experienced crisis leaders like Judge Emmett to challenge your team to think outside of the box and create a more robust crisis plan. Remember, effective crisis leadership is about making the best judgments possible in the midst of chaos. Sound crisis judgment is possible with experience and preparation.


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Crisis Management Consultants & Crisis Experts 

Benchmark Communications’ crisis consultants have helped Fortune 500 groups and others address a range of issues: food contamination, class action lawsuits, activist protests, government investigations, competitor meddling, mass killings, union issues, environmental disasters, E coli outbreaks, industrial accidents, oil spills, regulatory issues, chemical releases and much more.


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