Here She Comes to Save the Day

Last week, we linked to a May 31 Houston Chronicle story--and the letter it spawned--kicking Dallas in the junk for insisting the city wouldn't be able to accomodate 40,000 Harris County folks who might need temporary shelter should another hurricane threaten the Gulf Coast. The Chron quoted Kenny Shaw, director of Dallas' office of emergency management, as saying that taking in that many people would be damned near impossible. "We are not going to be able to house anywhere near a 40,000 special needs population," he said, referring to the elderly or infirm who might come north seeking assistance. And echoing the city's sentiments was Robie Robinson, Dallas County's director of security and emergency management--the very same guy who failed to apply for a Homeland Security grant for this year, which seems a more jarring oversight on the part of the man whose job is to prep for...uh... emergencies?

All of this seems very familiar: Last year, we chronicled in the paper version of Unfair Park how the city hemmed and hawed about taking Hurricane Katrina evacuees, eventually finding space in Reunion Arena and the convention center, while the county stepped up under the leadership of County Judge Margaret Keliher to find room for as many folks as was possible, going so far as to clear out jail cells to deal with the emergency. And while Robinson's backing his city counterpart on this one, Keliher's having none of it: Late Friday afternoon, she told Unfair Park that while she doesn't know where the state came up with the number 40,000, she is not only confident the county and surrounding counties could handle that number, but if need be she'd accept any Harris County resident with the welcoming smile of a gracious host--which is easy to believe, if you saw Keliher in action last summer, as Katrina washed thousands to Dallas.

Keliher defends Shaw and Robinson's comments by insisting they didn't say Dallas wouldn't take as many people as necessary, only that it couldn't with existing structures. Problem is, nobody even knows if that's true, since there hasn't been a property inventory taken, by the city and the county, of where people could be put if the need arose. Zachary Thompson, the head of Dallas County's Health and Human Services, has offered to do that for the county, says Keliher; no one has made such an offer from the city.

"During Katrina, the Loows Field House was one of the places we looked at, and it didn't have the shower facilities necessary," Keliher says of the Addison structure used as Dallas Independent School District's swimming facilities. "But out of this next round of money, Loows put a request to get that up to shelter standards. That's what we should do with this money: Look what we can do to get places up to shelter standards...We should prioritize those facilities, and we haven't. The state is right to ask us, because we all know, based on the predictions, if you had to evacuate Houston, shame on us if we're not prepared to do it."

Fact is, Dallas and the surrounding counties took in some 43,000 Katrina evacuees with almost no notice; 40,000 from Harris County should be significantly easier, if the city and county--and surrounding counties--began preparing now. After all, Keliher says, Richardson could offer its convention center, as could Plano and other Collin and Tarrant County digs. All someone has to do it ask them--"which would be a good exercise for us," Keliher says. I told the judge I was surprised something like that's never been done. She said, "Me too."

"We did a bioterrorism exercise in August 2005, and when we did that we went through the exercise as a health issue: Would you quarantine buildings if people got sick in neighborhoods or buildings, or take those affected people and move them to Reunion? What we did was take them to Reunion, but we never [dealt with] more than what Reunion and Parkland would house. And we never talked about evacuating those kinds of numbers, but we should."

If she keeps talking like that, like a pragmatist rather than a pessimist, Keliher might stave off more pieces like this one that appeared in the Houston Chronicle only yesterday, in which the paper's editorial board proclaimed, "Dallas official's reluctance to accept 40,000 hurricane evacuees from Houston contrasts with this city's open arms for Katrina survivors," which pales to a headline that ran in that paper on Saturday: "Big D will be doing its hair that night." That particular piece also spoke glowingly of Keliher, as have many in Houston in the past week. Fact is, if you're going to Houston any time soon, do not tell 'em yer from Dallas, whatever you do. Unless your name is Margaret Keliher. --Robert Wilonsky

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