I think we all have those moments that both give you memories for a lifetime and a lesson you will take forever. In the late summer of 2005, I had one of those moments. I was an Assistant Director at Stephen F. Austin State University and I was essentially tasked with coordinating student involvement and engagement on campus. So, my main job was to advise student leaders and produce events. And myself and my staff were very good at both. We have taken a rather small student activities program when I got there in 1997 and had transformed it into a program where we produced over 200 events a year. From major concerts to homegrown game shows we had a great staff and had a lot of fun.
That changed in the late summer of 2005. The Louisiana coast had already been devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Then came Hurricane Rita and she looked like she was going to be a monster. When she started her turn north in the Gulf of Mexico and trained her sights on Texas, Rita was the strongest hurricane ever recorded. Even more than Andrew in 1992. This prompted the Governor Rick Perry to evacuate Houston. To this date the single largest domestic evacuation in U.S. history. This was just after the second largest evacuation in history in New Orleans. While most people in Houston found their way to family and friends there were many in southeast Texas who had nowhere to go. That is where we came in. The Governor ordered William R. Johnson Coliseum to be used as an evacuation site and we were rated to house nearly 2,000 people in our basketball stadium. But who was gonna run it? Well, myself and my Program Coordinator Charlie Hueber volunteered.
Together we set out and got to planning and doing. There was no time to consider if we were even the right guys for the job. Evacuees were coming and will be here tonight. As the roads clogged literally thousands of cars pointed north and the traffic jam lasted 24 hours. But by 10PM our first night our first residents checked in. For three days we tracked the storm and brought people in. We had a nice set up. The breezeway offered a spot for catering, the floor for residents, there were showers, laundry facilities, and we had lots of volunteers. Then the storm hit. Quickly the forecast called for over 30 inches of rain and guess what, our building was below the water table. That much rain would flood the floor. So, we quickly mobilized 2,000 people in a mass move to another gym on campus with similar facilities and away we went. Rita was a category 2 when it hit, and it was scary. Many of my staff got trapped in their homes, the power was out for days, and we were full. My only solace was at night when things settled down, I had the show Lost on DVD and watched season one.
During the storm and after we set up a community since we really did not know how long we would be there. The local school district enrolled kids in school, our student volunteers helped with the kids by showing movies, playing games, and keeping them busy. We set up computer banks for the adults to fill out their FEMA forms and to connect with loved ones. Some residents left, others checked in, we were always full. Nighttime was the strangest time. A woman had night terrors and would wake up screaming every night, the local sheriff’s office would catch wind a resident with a warrant was there and come in and do a search. And the residents had personality, we had the ice lady who had a rolling ice chest who just yelled, “I gotta get ice for the babies!” even though she had been shown where the ice machine was. There was Sleepytime, a resident who was always asleep but somehow in a different spot than when we last saw him, but we never saw him awake or moving. There are so many bizarre and funny and interesting stories that this post does not do it justice. But here is where I learned my greatest lesson.
Running a hurricane shelter taught me that I had the skill to meet any challenge. If I had the right people with me. Charlie and I made a good team. We complimented each other’s skills and were both willing to do the work. I also saw the importance of a college campus in these times. We became a place of refuge and safety. 2,000 people were safer because we were here. It also showed me that I can make tough choices. One day we were presented with two busloads of evacuees who had very specific medical needs. We had to assess the situation and make sure these folks got a hot shower and a good meal, but we did not have the capacity to have them stay. So, we worked with their people to find a landing spot in Texarkana and got the job done. I learned a lesson on knowing limits. Sometimes you have to say no but do so with kindness and empathy.
But most of all, I learned that even when I think a challenge is great that does not mean I am not ready to give it a shot. Also, I learned the value of accepting that last line on your job description, “other duties as assigned”. Nowhere on my job description did it say, run a hurricane shelter, but it felt more important than any of the other stuff. It is what drove me to take a chance on getting my EdD, to take a job at UCF, and to find myself as the Florida Consortium Executive Director. Because, if I can figure out a hurricane shelter, then the rest is cake.