GRB Command Center


Let me start off by saying that most of this was written about a week after the storm hit and touched up in the last week as we approached the one year mark of Harvey. These recollections are in no way a complete - hardly - debrief of my experiences at the GRB post Harvey. There were so many people and organizations who came together that made the GRB work that it would be impossible to talk about them all.

Before the storm hit I was in a pretty dark place personally. I had been let go from a job a few months prior and I was an all around negative jerk to most of the people I surrounded myself with. In hindsight, losing that job was the best thing that ever happened to me because I was able to throw myself into this work without having to worry about punching the clock somewhere else. Through these experiences I was able to tap into a side of myself that I never knew existed. The bonds of friendship, both new and old, were made stronger because of our time at the GRB. I hope that you enjoy our story.

Saturday: Harvey Arrives

A little over a year ago, a group of friends were planning to spend the weekend in the Hill Country taking in the last days of summer at the lake. But that all changed when word of Harvey started factoring into our plans. We cancelled the trip deciding instead to stay in town to celebrate Matt Zeis’ birthday while we watched the Mayweather vs. McGregor fight at Sanjay Bapat and Melissa Arredondo’s house. Saturday night started off quietly but quickly turned into a increasingly serious situation which led to people at the party leaving early to get home safely. Little did we know that all of our lives would be affected forever - both mentally and physically - during the course of the next week.


As the rain continued to inundate Houston, a text message chain between a core group of friends - normally used to share funny memes and coordinate nights out - turned into a SOS from our dear friends Dan Joyce and Sarah Joyce who informed us that their house was beginning to flood. They needed help getting their 6-month-old Jack out of the chest deep waters surrounding their house. Immediately, the chain turned into a makeshift evacuation-planning group. Within an hour or so, Brian Trachtenberg and Lillie Schechter formed a plan, found a couple of kayaks and organized the rescue of Dan, Sarah and Jack. This was the point when many on our text chain realized that it wasn’t just our friends that would need help coping with the both the immediate and the long-term effects of Harvey.


The next day, while the city was still paralyzed with rising water, flooding houses and submerged interstates, we received word that our friend Tom McCasland was going to be leading the efforts as the ‘Incident Commander’ to stand up and help run the George R. Brown Convention Center as a shelter for our displaced neighbors. Tom is the City of Houston’s housing department director and an all around great guy and natural leader.

Some of us decided to head down to lend a hand. When we got there it was nothing short of chaotic. Drenched from the ongoing torrential downpours, people arrived to the GRB in the back of dump trucks and high water vehicles with the wet clothes on their back and nothing else. One of those dump trucks even carried some members of the Red Cross team that were doing their best to get to the shelter to help stand it up.

A few of our text chain friends had showed up to help do whatever needed doing. Sanjay, Lindsay Lanagan Zeis, Matt and I started moving stacks and stacks and stacks of chairs near the donated clothes sorting area in order to make more room for donations. Those piles of clothing would eventually grow so tall that they touched the ceiling. Meanwhile, Beth Lee took on the herculean task of sorting through all the existing piles and organizing the donations into more piles.

Because of my footwear choice - work boots - I quickly realized I would not be able to continue walking the halls of the convention center with the blister rapidly forming on the bottom of my foot. I left the convention center and headed home to change shoes. At that point, our friends Dan and Sarah pinged the chain to say they were going to survey the damage to their house as well as pick up food and baby items that they wished to donate to other less fortunate flood victims! I decided to tag along to help however I could. It was dark by the time we wrapped up so I went back to my parents to have dinner.

My roommate, Bill Kelly, had been up the GRB all day Monday helping Tom stand the shelter up. We’d ridden to the convention center together, in the same car, so I picked him up when he was finished and we went back home. It had become apparent to Bill that Tom was going to need a group of folks to come in and act as an ad-hoc executive staff to take on managing much of the operations and logistics of the shelter from the City’s side of the equation. That night, Bill sent a text message to the chain asking for volunteers to help Tom for a ‘couple of hours’. No one asked who, what, when, where, or why. It was just a chorus of people saying IN. We all agreed to show up the next morning and report directly to Tom. Carpools were organized and even my mom, Kim Kolenda Vidor, joined in, offering to help as a retired nurse.

Overnight, with the help of the amazing staff at the GRB and Houston First, a command center was propped up on the third floor of the GRB which was quickly populated by various city departments along with the Red Cross and FEMA the next morning.


We all arrived by various means around 6am Tuesday morning and reported directly to room 370A. There we found the makeshift command center with multiple desks assigned to various city departments. Tom pulled us all together and told us what his needs were: people to help run the communications/PIO shop, someone to coordinate volunteers and food donations, another to work with the Health Department, and others still to figure out a way to get a handle on the mountains of donations that we were running out of room to store. He also asked for volunteers to stand up an additional overflow shelter at the Toyota Center down the street, and finally, coordinate GRB logistics.

Lillie and Beth both volunteered to take point on all things relating to communication. Annalee Gulley used her position at Mental Health America of Greater Houston to work with the Health Department in order to assess and facilitate mental health services for our neighors. Lindsay was tasked with all things medical. She was able to leverage her network to set up the on-site pharmacy for all the neighbors who needed their medication while at the shelter. Isabel Texas Longoria raised her hand and said she would manage the food donations for our volunteers and first responders. Sanjay quickly said he’d help Terrance Fontaine and Jesse Bounds stand up the Toyota center. James Cardona took point on donations and getting our friends at BBVA Stadium to act as a central sorting and drop-off point for individual donations. I reluctantly raised my hand to take on the GRB logistics. Little did I know what that task would eventually entail. Jenn Char was kind of the Jill of all trades so she ended up volunteering to be Tom’s assistant. Handling in all things media related, making sure he ate, got some rest when he could, and managing his responses to the hundreds of incoming texts/emails he got every day. Rita Lucido wanted to make sure people had access to legal advice so she decided to organize fellow attorneys and set up tables in the main concourse to offer free legal aid to anyone that needed it.

Immediately, we all went to work. The calls from folks wanting to help started pouring in. We were notified of big rigs full of donated supplies heading inbound and looking for a place to drop their trailers and get out of town. One of the first calls I received was from Mark at Wal-Mart up in Arkansas. He informed me he had 4 trucks packed full of supplies - water, food, baby supplies, toiletries, paper and cleaning supplies - but they had no way of getting to us because of the flooded roads. Thankfully, because we had our HPD and HFD desks set up in the command center, I was able to immediately walk across the room to figure out a way to get them to the GRB. I was given a contact for Lt. Alexander with HPD Traffic to see about a police escort to the GRB. Within an hour, we were able to get the caravan of Wal-Mart supplies moving with the help of police escort to the GRB. I’m not exaggerating here. Wal-Mart was one of the first semi-trucks to arrive at the GRB Tuesday morning. These calls would continue for the rest of the day.

I needed eyes and ears down at the loading docks to help get these trucks unloaded. Thankfully the father and son duo of dos Lance Gilliam and Lance McFaddin Gilliam were up to the task and I quickly set up another text chain called “Loading Dock” for all things related to the GRB loading dock. Later on that day, we had a bit of ringer arrive to help with logistics, Buddy Grantham - a veteran of Katrina response and the City of Houston fleet management department and all around badass. At this point, the loading docks were getting stacked up with semi-trucks waiting to unload. Buddy was able to whip the volunteers, Red Cross and GRB staff into shape overnight as my shift came to end around 10:30 p.m. That night, still restless from all the activity, I could not fall asleep until close to 2 am. This would become a recurring problem for the rest of the week.

GRB tops out at almost 11,000 neighbors
FEMA & DMAT Arrive on site
Toyota Center and NRG both open doors as shelters


We all arrived once again before the sun came up. I walked down to the docks with Matt to check in on Buddy only to see that the previous night’s chaos had been tempered by the experience and seniority of Buddy’s leadership. As we began to talk about the next steps and how to get him home for some rest, he informed me that he, too, was about to be a victim of Harvey’s rising flood water. His wife was ready to evacuate and he needed to go home to prepare his house for the coming floodwaters.

At this point, I was at a loss. What was I going to do now? How was this monumental endeavor going to succeed without Buddy’s help? I turned to Matt and remembered that he worked for an oil and gas trucking company. We quickly decided that he was getting drafted into the “hard dock life.” Little did I know a future DOCKSTAR (thanks Char for coining that phrase) was in the making. We quickly got to work finding additional forklifts and pallet movers to help with the massive amount of supplies that continued to arrive. Donations flowed in for the rest of the day, as did additional forklifts that helped to alleviate the overflowing docks. Thankfully, Gareth Morgans with Councilmember David Robinson’s office arrived at the GRB and was immediatly put to work filling in the gaps at the dock as needed.

Showers arrived this day. With the help of Ryan Slattery and his future wife Kate Black, we were able to double the capacity of showers for our neighbors thanks for our friends at All American Waste who sent down 3 12-stall shower trailers. Salvation Army also added to that number by dropping two additional 8-stall trailers for our MEDICAL staff from DMAT.

Joshua Sanders was able to get his client, Lyft, to start a dispatch system that provided Lyft rides free of charge to the displaced residents when they wanted to leave the GRB and head to a relatives home or hotel. It was a pretty great system that didn’t require the residents to have a credit card, money, or even a phone. Since Tom was practically living at the GRB, he needed some down time so both Kris Banks and Alex Triantaphyllis took on the overnight ‘incident commanders’ rolls.

The rest of this day is a blur. I don’t remember much of the specifics other than describing it as landing a plane without a runway in the middle of an unprecedented downpour of emotions, supplies and neighbors without a place to call home.

Thursday thru Saturday

To be honest, Thursday on was pretty much a blur. The only thing that kept us going was the ever-present need to make sure that the GRB guests were taken care of properly. We were properly fueled by the never ending pots of coffee our GRB hosts provided for us in the command center. By Friday, our teams had begun to transition out of the “hurry up mode” and into the “let’s get back to normal” phase. The Astros were back in town and came to visit some of the kids in our ‘kid zone’ at the end of the GRB, which was set up and run by the amazing Marie Arcos. It was great to see so many Astros players stepping up and making the lives of the displaced neighbors a little better.

Houstonians had a team to root for during the darkest timeline of our city. We were given a couple hundred tickets to both the double header games on Saturday to hand out to residents, staff, LEO, volunteers and pretty much anyone in the GRB that could walk the couple blocks to the game.
As a group, we decided to go to the afternoon game at the end of our shift. As we were packing up to head to the game I got an urgent call from a woman doing dispatch all the way from California for relief supplies in East Texas. At this point in the week, Houston was slowly getting back to normal (if there was such a thing). The roads were clear, restaurants and bars were, for the most part, back in full swing but our friends to the East were still cut off and drowning in the floodwaters. A woman in California named Kimberly was many folks’ guardian angel that day. She had somehow managed to get my phone number and called to ask for help. She said there was an entire town, Lumberton , that was out of food and supplies and needed help. She informed me that they had a Army helicopter ready to head our way to pick up MRE’s, baby formula and other badly needed supplies. This stopped me in my tracks and I quickly forgot about the game. Matt stayed back to help and we began to reach out to HPD, HFD and the National Guard folks to help secure a sizable landing area for the twin-rotor Chinook that I had been informed was on the way. WE HAD NO CLUE HOW TO HANDLE THIS. But we persisted.

With the help of HPD, we were able to shut down an entire city block for the landing zone. At this point, it was getting late and the sun was already setting. After all that wrangling, we finally got word the pilot was not comfortable landing after dark with all the hazards in the area so they called it off until the morning. I just wanted to get the supplies to the people of Lumberton. I called up our friends at Wal-Mart and asked if they had a driver who could make an attempt at driving the supplies to the town. In the meantime, while I waited for Wal-Mart to find a driver, I needed to find a route that they could take to get there. It just so happened that Chris Newport, our ‘Incident Commander’ at the time, was standing next to Senator Cruz and a few of his staffers in the main hall. I walked over, explained the situation and asked the Senator’s staff if they could make some calls to DPS and find a suitable route for the truck. A few minutes passed and the staffer returned with a route that would work. Bingo!

We had a way to get there, now if we could only get the supplies to people. Another few minutes passed and our friends from Wal-Mart called back to inform me they had a driver on the way to pick up the trailer and head to Lumberton. I was ecstatic! The next task was to load up a 52-foot trailer with supplies. Luckily, we had an abundance of empty trailers and plenty of supplies so Matt started rallying the troops (literally the National Guard) and loading up the trailer with all the supplies Lumberton needed. By 9:30 that night we had a Wal-Mart truck and driver on the road to re-supply the hard hit town of Lumberton. I got a call from the driver around midnight letting me know that he had dropped the trailer off and all was good. Mission Accomplished.

Sunday was the end.

We were nearly a week into the recovery effort and well over 100 hours into our allotted ‘couple of hours’ of volunteering at the GRB - and I was beat down. Working that many hours, with so much on the line, takes a massive toll on the mind, body and spirit. While I was lucky enough not to be a victim of Harvey, I had a front row seat to the devastation that happens to a city after an unprecedented weather event like Harvey. It got to the point where I couldn’t go without tearing up and crying every 15 or 20 minutes. I needed to be strong, but Harvey had taken its toll. While my situation was not unique, I was certainly the one who wore it on my face that day. I got pulled aside by one of the FEMA folks and handed a card of one of the DRT (Disaster Relief Team) chaplains and told to call him. At first, I hesitated and thought that I’d be fine and that I didn’t need to talk to anyone about anything. That lasted an hour or two but the emotional stress continued to build.

I finally called Danny Leonard of North Carolina and asked him if he had a few minutes to talk. He came right upstairs to find me hiding in the corner of one of the GRB hallways balling my eyes out. He immediately asked me about the Astros - that lightened the mood - then he got to work. We talked about what we had been doing for the last week and how our team had come together last minute. He said something that has stuck with me ever since: ‘What you and your command center friends did was nothing short of extraordinary.’ He told me it was ok to feel good about the work we were able to accomplish and that I shouldn’t be ashamed for feeling that way. We ended up talking for almost an hour. I hadn’t talked to someone like that in years and it felt so good to finally release those raw emotions. I immediately felt like the weight of the collective Harvey world had been lifted off my shoulders. I felt relieved.

Sunday was my last day at the GRB in my volunteer capacity.

That evening, we all got together and broke bread at Canopy in Montrose. The core group of the GRB command center was there - our text chain. Mayor Sylvester Turner got word that we were having dinner and graciously called the restaurant and paid for our meals. It was a nice gesture from the man who kept it together for us while his city was drowning, a true testament to his leadership.

Getting back to normal

After my tour of duty at the GRB ended, I took a temp job at the City of Houston to help facilitate and run one of the Harvey relief warehouses that received and distributed donated supplies. This lasted for two months but we won’t get into that here. It was a very fulfilling job that allowed me to continue helping in the relief efforts. I eventually wrapped that project up and went back to the political world.
I guess this exercise was intended to put pen to paper and help document my Harvey experience. A year later, the Astros are the defending world champs; I’m still working in the same place I was when I finished the warehousing project; our text chain is still firing away; a few celebratory Astros babies have been born; our friends Dan and Sarah are back in their house and things have returned back to the new normal. Together, we found hope and determination in the midst of destruction. We came together as a city and region and it made us even more resilient.

I feel as though I learned more about myself during that week than I had in a lifetime. Thriving under the incredible pressures of those 100+ hours made me a better person. My friendships are stronger, my city is stronger and we continue to remember that Houston is one of the greatest places to live in the world. Houstonians are more determined than ever because of Harvey, but there is still so much more work to be done. So, we continue to rebuild and we will be forever #HoustonStrong
Thank you to the amazing Command Center Crew:

Marie Arcos, Kris Banks, Sanjay Bapat, Kate Black, James Cardona, Jenn Char, Annalee Gulley, Bill Kelly, Sarah Labowitz, Lindsay Lanagan Zeis, Beth Lee, Isabel Texas Longoria, Rita Lucido, Abbie Kamin, Gareth Morgans, Chris Newport, Tom McCasland, Joshua Sanders, Lillie Schechter, Ryan Slattery, Alex Triantaphyllis, Matt Zeis


Erik Vidor


GRB Command Center


personal narratives


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george r brown

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start=2017-08-26; end=2017-09-03; scheme=ISO 8601;