A Year After Harvey: A Look Back With Those Who Lived Through It — Francisco Sanchez

Francisco Sanchez in his office at the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management

Hurricane Harvey was a unique experience for all who lived through it.

For Francisco Sanchez, the Public Information Officer for the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, the unique nature of the storm was magnified.

“Our job is to be paranoid.”

As PIO, Francisco leads communications during emergency situations like Hurricane Harvey.

“About a week out from the storm, the forecast began to come into view and, unfortunately, kept getting worse. It was clear that Harvey was going to be a significant flooding event, which is much harder to predict and prepare for than a traditional hurricane. With hurricanes, there are predictable timelines, which makes regional planning much easier. That’s not typically the case with flood events, particularly those of Harvey’s magnitude.”

The Houston skyline during Harvey
“As we got closer to landfall, one thing was clear — this was going to be an event unlike any the region had ever seen.”

As the forecast worsened and the projected rainfall totals for the region continued to grow, Francisco and area leaders worked to grapple with the magnitude of the storm and — just as importantly — how to effectively communicate it to the public.

“How do we get the public to get their hands around the very real possibility of 50 inches of rain, when we are just barely able to get our heads around that here?”

Hurricane Harvey was a historic rain-producing event, setting the record for tropical cyclone rainfall measured in any place in the United States over the past 50 years. The water, damage, and impact of Hurricane Harvey far surpassed the region’s previous flood event barometer, Tropical Storm Allison.

Downtown Houston after Tropical Storm Allison

“Leading up to the storm, the term ‘Allison-like event’ was being used, because that was our previous high-mark for how much water a storm could drop in a matter of hours.

“A few days from landfall, it was clear that Allison would pale in comparison to the approaching storm.”

A week out from the storm, Francisco and the rest of the staff at the Harris County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management began working 16 hour days to get the region prepared.

“From the perspective of this office, the most draining part of any disaster — and a flooding event, in particular — is the days and hours before the disaster actually hits. It’s a combination of anticipation and dread that just weighs you down for however long the event lasts.”

Once the storm made landfall, Francisco wouldn’t leave the office for more than 12 days.

“I slept right there on a cot and brought enough clothes for 10 days. Something else I learned during Harvey — our office has a washer and dryer! I ended up needing to reuse some clothes after day ten, so that was a nice surprise.”

During and following the storm, Francisco was witness to a familiar phenomenon — the Greater Houston region’s overwhelming response to the disaster.

“Storms are social events and, because Harvey affected almost everyone, it was incredible to witness the scale of the response. It was neighbors helping one another. It was the community organizations jumping into action. It was the resiliency of our region which, frankly, is unique to this region.”

When asked what the storm means for the office and the region going forward, Francisco believes that Harvey has an opportunity for a legacy.

“Hurricane Harvey knocked us down, but we got up quick. A year out, that’s the true legacy of the storm.”
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