Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel helps drain water from flooded Jury Plaza in Houston after Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on the area.
As Hurricane Harvey came roaring toward the Texas Gulf Coast in late August 2017, word went out in Refugio County to evacuate. But County Clerk Ruby Garcia and her husband chose to hunker down at home because their dog gets carsick when he travels. By staying home, they had to ride out a perilous, frantic night. “Something I’ll never do again,” she vows, but it did allow her to be one of the first people back into the county courthouse when the storm passed.
What Garcia found was her front office “wiped clean.” Torrential winds blew out windows, which had been boarded up from the inside, and everything in that portion of the clerk’s office was destroyed. Broken windowpanes littered the floor.
Fortunately, Garcia and her two deputies had raced before the storm to move all paper records into a vault and put computers in a safe place, but the scene was devastating nonetheless. It would be two weeks before they could return to work inside the courthouse.
In Aransas County, County Clerk Valerie Amason and her staff of seven prepared for the hurricane by moving records and books from lower shelves and placing them up high, wrapped in plastic. “Our normal routine is to plan for a tidal surge, but that’s not what happened,” she says. Instead, rain poured in through the storm-damaged ceiling and soaked everything.
Flood water outside the Harris County Criminal Justice Center was knee-deep. Massive flooding inside required relocating major county functions.
By the time officials could re-enter the one-story county courthouse in Rockport, they found three to four inches of standing water in the offices. Within a few weeks, mold began growing on official documents. The damage was so severe that county offices were moved to other quarters and the courthouse had to be demolished. Of the county clerk’s soaked records, those not previously scanned were placed in two semi-trucks, along with books, binders and file cabinets, and delivered to a Michigan company that performs restorations.
Amason and her staff now operate out of a former Ace Hardware store in a strip mall — office space they expect to occupy for several years until a new courthouse can be built.
Unprecedented Storm Leaves its Mark
Hurricane Harvey proved to be a record-setter. The massive system made landfall on Aug. 25, bringing winds clocked at more than 130 mph. As the system moved north over five days, it triggered wide-scale flooding, leaving some $125 billion in damage in its path. The 60 inches of rainfall set a U.S. record for tropical cyclones.
In several Southeast Texas vicinities, the hurricane not only dealt severe damage to homes and businesses but also brought county government to a standstill, at least temporarily. When county offices have no other choice but to close, vital functions are suspended — everything from issuing deeds to conducting criminal trials.
District and county clerks serve many vital functions in local government because the clerk’s office is often the first place a county resident will visit to conduct business. District clerks are the custodian of all records for state district courts. They also collect filing fees in lawsuits, coordinate jury selection and handle funds held in litigation. County clerks record critical public records such as bonds, birth and death certificates, as well as issue marriage licenses.
“For a while we couldn’t even issue state birth certificates because we didn’t have anything to do it with,” recalls Amason. When her staff needed a notary or a copy machine, they would go downtown to see if any business could fill the need.
Coping with the Aftermath
After Hurricane Harvey, some district and county clerk’s offices were closed for days or weeks because of flooded buildings and loss of essential services such as electricity. Some clerks’ employees lost their homes or could not get to work.
In Harris County, officials believed they were well prepared for a hurricane. After all, the region had suffered through Hurricane Ike in 2008 and major flooding events in 2015 and 2016.
Planning for contingencies, the district clerk’s staff already had prepared for emergency intake for the district attorney by assembling “disaster containers” that hold computer laptops and peripherals, printers and scanners. They also have multiple Wi-Fi sources.
Harris County’s flooded jury assembly room was deemed a total loss.
“We do 24/7 DA intake, so we must be operational and able to enter cases on time. That way no defendant walks free because we couldn’t make the 24- or 48-hour deadline,” explains Tracy Hopper, director of technical services at the Harris County District Clerk’s Office.
But Harvey flooded streets throughout downtown Houston and dealt havoc with operating systems in the Criminal Justice Center, leading to a burst rooftop pipe that put the building out of commission. Also, floodwaters deposited 11 feet of water in the underground jury room.
Left without a jury room that once held 1,000 people, judges and the district clerk’s staff scrambled to find a suitable location large enough to hold jury service. By mid-September, they decided to stage jurors in the Harris County Administration Building, and employees mobilized to turn the basement cafeteria into a jury room. Hopper said that the move by mid-October meant replacing and relocating an entire department’s ruined operating apparatus. Technicians had to replace office equipment, telephones and computers, and then reprogram jury software. With the new, smaller jury room, the district clerk now holds three jury calls per day instead of two.
That conversion to new equipment, procedures and location still holds today. Prospective jurors sit in rows of chairs where diners once occupied tables and ate lunch. What used to be the salad bar supports an array of computers and printers.
The Harris County District Clerk’s Office, with about 500 employees, now operates out of several government buildings and has staff doubled up in offices or using conference rooms as offices. Officials expect a wait of a year or longer before staff can return to permanent quarters.
In Aransas County, District Clerk Pam Heard realized soon after the hurricane passed that notices had been issued for a docket call in a couple of days for a felony initial appearance. All of that was done when county facilities were intact. But with the courthouse in ruins and no telephone service available, “there was no way to send out a notice of postponement,” she says. “So what we did was we set up a folding table in front of the damaged courthouse. The bailiffs were out there with us.”
Along with the county clerk, Heard and her crew now work out of offices created in the old hardware store. With several months to reflect on all that happened, Heard thinks there are valuable lessons to be learned from the Harvey experience.
Staff initially used the floor for filing in Aransas County.
First, clerks must communicate with their county leadership “long before you think you might have a disaster,” she says. “With us, it was a hurricane, but anyone could have a flood or tornado come out of nowhere. You find the bottom has dropped out and all the sudden you have to figure out what you can do with what’s left. What do you do if you have no water, electricity or Wi-Fi, or you can’t even get into the building? How do you keep the courts running?”
For her office, employees initially adapted by working on folding tables and sitting on the floor to do their filing. “Try using a file stamp and see how that folding table shakes,” she laughs.
Soon after the disaster, Heard called the Office of Court Administration, which operates under the direction of the Supreme Court of Texas, and obtained laptops so that staff could work from any location. Then, while court hearings were suspended for several days, a neighboring county helped Aransas County to go paperless by conducting a large-scale e-filing effort to prepare for resumption of courts in mid-September. Instead of looking at indictments on paper, judges in the courtroom look at laptops.
In planning for the unthinkable, Heard also urges county officials to consider how to keep government functioning when county offices have no light, water or restrooms and many employees are dealing with flooded homes and cars.
“Ask how are you going to get back together; where are you going to meet? Have everybody considered essential personnel so they will be allowed back in the courthouse” by local law enforcement or the State Guard. Finally, she urges, ”Have a good relationship with your judges and neighboring counties.”
And don’t hesitate to ask for help. Heard recalls: “We were dependent on the kindness of strangers, and they sure came through for us.”
Expect the Unexpected
Fort Bend County Clerk Joyce Hudman agrees that communications preplanning is essential. Even though Hurricane Harvey spared the courthouse in Angleton from rising water, Hudman said she learned about disaster planning after the previous hurricane.
Bailiffs and Aransas County Clerk Suzy Ward at the first docket call in Rockport after the storm. The district clerk’s office had to set up outdoors in front of the damaged Aransas County courthouse.
“The last time we evacuated we had only a few cell numbers for staff, and it was hard to reach them,” she recalls. “Now we require four numbers for each of our 50 employees — numbers for spouses, family members, friends, neighbors, whatever. That way, we’re sure to get hold of our people.”
Also, have a re-entry letter already prepared for elected officials and essential staff, Hudman said. “That way, if everyone had to leave, they can get back to the main offices after a disaster” by showing the official letter to anyone guarding county facilities.
While communication is important, Refugio County’s Ruby Garcia said the chief lesson she learned from Hurricane Harvey had more to do with common sense. “The next time you hear that a hurricane is coming,” she says, “board up the office windows from the outside, not the inside.”
All photos courtesy of Aransas County and Harris County staff.
TAC Risk Management Pool Promptly Assists Hurricane Harvey Victims
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, the TAC Risk Management Pool (TAC RMP) and TAC Risk Management Services (TAC RMS) staff worked quickly to assist affected member counties.
“We immediately reached out to our members to see how we could help,” said Michael Shannon, Director of Risk Management Services. “TAC RMS staff, as well as the partners we work with who provide remediation assistance and damage assessments promptly, met with county officials and staff to survey and assess their damage and to help them move quickly toward recovery.”
As Harvey was retreating from southeast Texas after making its first landfall, TAC RMS staff visited over 12 counties within 72 hours to assess damage and visit with county officials. In the days that followed, TAC RMS staff continued to visit other counties to deliver non-perishable items to those in great need.
So far, TAC RMP has received hundreds of claims from 32 counties adversely affected by the storm. Member counties have reported damage to 58 vehicles, damage to more than 400 buildings or other structures and filed 25 workers’ compensation claims.
Chambers County was one of the counties hit hard by Harvey. George Barrera, county purchaser, said floodwaters started to rise on Saturday, Aug. 26, and within a couple of days, homes and buildings were flooded across the county. The water did not recede from county buildings until the following Sunday.
“In all, 24 Chambers County buildings were flooded — from community buildings to a sign shop and everything in between,” Barrera said. “We also lost two sheriff’s office vehicles and one truck and had damage to a Gradall excavator that totaled $100,000.”
The county also lost three shipping containers of health services supplies stored due to the flood.
“At the end of the day, we could be close to $1.5 million dollars in flood losses,” Barrera said. “It could have been much worse. We’re grateful that it wasn’t.”
Barrera said the county is grateful for the service they received from TAC RMP and its partners in the wake of the storm. This has included prompt visits to inspect and assess the damage, frequent and continued check-ins by staff to see what the county might need and prompt delivery of a $100,000 check to help them make purchases early on in the recovery process.
“It’s simple. Without them I don’t know where I’d be,” he said, adding that he’s been through a hurricane-related flood before, but he is relatively new to purchasing, and that his staff buyer/risk coordinator had never experienced a flood. “They were able to help guide an inexperienced purchasing agent and not-so-experienced buyer/risk coordinator.”