Lt. Col. Rick Noriega – The Shelter Manager

Lt. Col. Rick NoriegaLt. Col. Rick Noriega, 49, served as Site Manager for one of Houston’s mega-shelters, the George R. Brown Convention Center. He recently served a year in Afghanistan. He was only home one week before Mayor White asked him to manage the shelter. In addition to working for CenterPoint Energy, Lt. Col. Noriega is a Texas state representative. The interview took place on March 6, 2006 in his state representative office in Houston.

Coming Home

Before Katrina, I was deployed for fourteen months. I spent twelve months and one day in Afghanistan. I was a battalion mentor for the new Afghan army. Later I was made the Garrison Commander for the Kabul military training center.

Afghanistan made me realize how precious every day is. I realized how much I appreciated the little things that before may have been overlooked. I was in a barren environment. You don’t see a lot of birds. Or flowers. Some of the kinds of things we take for granted. The richness. The color. The beauty that we’re surrounded by everyday. When you’re placed in kind of a fifth-world environment, a thousand years back in time, you become more aware.

When I came home, I tried to get back into the swing of things. The pace is different. People drive much faster. You see the abundance we have. Or looking at it another way, how wasteful we are. The portions of food we eat. The things that we perceive that we have to have. We debate whether we’re going to have Evian or some other type of water, and in other parts of the world, they’re trying to make sure that they have water. Those types of disparities are so radical. So coming back and seeing those things, of trying to adapt back into this environment, was…it takes a little bit.

God works in mysterious ways. Being the site manager for the George R. Brown allowed me to flip the switch again back into more of a military framework and operational tempo. Getting thrown back into there, versus I don’t know…I could have gone on into some other types of binge behavior, trying to adapt back into a modern society. In a weird way, it was therapeutic to be put into that situation.

“Sue Us”

I went into a meeting at the Mayor’s office at 8:00am, the Friday before Labor Day. The mayor decided, with Harris County Judge Eckels’ concurrence, that I would be assigned site manager at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

By 10:30am, I was at the George R. Brown. I found the manager, Dawn Ullrich. She was having her own staff meeting. There were still some reservations among the staff: “Well, what do we tell this group that’s coming in for a convention, or that group that’s coming in, etc.” I reiterated the Mayor’s words from the earlier meeting. The Mayor said: “If we are going to use [the George R. Brown] as a shelter and other organizations have problems with it, sue us.” Those were his words: “Sue us.”

We resolved that we would operate for thirty day increments. In other words, those commitments that the George R. Brown had for thirty days would be set aside. Once we finished that period, we would look at the following thirty days, and so on. Once Dawn and her staff came to that decision, then it was a function of what room we were going to use as our operations room, and establishing the matrix for staff organization, and starting to get resources in there.

Have you ever kicked over an ant pile? When all the ants start running and scattering? It was a very challenging time. We had tasks that had to be accomplished before buses rolled in. We had to maintain some sense of command and control, and stay focused on those immediate tasks that we had to accomplish. We also had to establish our organizational structure. Those things had to happen in pretty quick order.

Marathon Oil, CenterPoint Energy, and Continental and some other organizations came forward with resources. About 6:00pm, approximately two thousand mattresses and cots were laid out. CenterPoint and the staff at the George R. Brown were engineering the bathroom facilities and the showers. They started that night. They figured out how to make the first one, and once they made the first one—all the particular pieces were pre-cut, and so then it was just throwing them together. They worked around the clock all night long. By noon the next day, they constructed 80 showers.

By 6:00pm, we were operational.

By 9:00pm, we received our first buses. The Red Cross wanted to consolidate some of their shelters into the George R. Brown. We said OK, let’s go ahead. We were in an enviable position because we had the opportunity to exercise our in-processing procedures. We had the tables set up one way, where they faced the doors. We were able to say no, we don’t need it that way. You’ll have people wrapped around outside, and we want to bring them all inside the building. Little things like that, to tweak the system. Unlike other facilities where they were just you know, wave after wave, without really having the opportunity to respond, we were able to get it set up pretty much how we wanted. Before the buses started rolling in.

I think I finally got to bed Friday night, very late. I stayed at the Hilton next door. Some rooms were set aside for a couple of us to stay there, so we could just go next door, shower, and come back. Get a few hours sleep, came back in.

The first seventy-two hours was critical to get everything established. I didn’t get a lot of sleep those first few nights.

The following day, they diverted buses over to our location.

Operations

Our operation at the George R. Brown consisted of three phases.

The first phase was the immediate care, safety, and welfare of the persons that arrived, including the medical piece, dry clothes, meals, etc.

The second phase of was social service delivery. This meant by Tuesday we were enrolling kids for school. By Wednesday, we enrolled kids too. By Thursday kids were going to school. First, parents went with the kids. Once parents were good to go there, the kids went on their own. I think we wound up with between 400 and 700 kids going to school from the George R. Brown.

Unemployment insurance. Issues dealing with Medicare and Medicaid. Housing. Anything that you can think of that’s social service delivery–that was our second phase, too.

Lastly was living placement and independent living. You had three options really. We were going to try and find you independent living of some type. Hotel, apartment, or whatever. You always had the option to find your own, whatever you want—you might have family, you may find your own place you wanna live, or whatever. Or you may move somewhere else. Whatever your own decision was.

This was a temporary shelter. This was not to be the newest downtown high-rise in Houston. That was not its goal.

We had two staff meetings a day, one at 8:30am and the other at 2:30pm or 3:00pm. We had an order for reporting different areas of responsibility. We were matrixed out to where we had operations, logistics, transportation, volunteers, security, health and human services. Red Cross or FEMA, whenever they did arrive, would report as well.

We were running a 24-hour operation. In the command center we established shift work. With the CenterPoint persons in particular, who wound up almost exclusively in the command center, we were able to set up twelve on and twelve off shifts. Terrence Fontaine and I split duties. It worked out well.

The other piece that we had, in terms of the operation cell, was current ops and future ops. The CenterPoint people ran the current ops, meaning our enrollment operation downstairs—just what’s happening in real time. I asked Joe Tarter, who runs the Parks Department for the City of Houston, to run future ops. Joe’s responsibility was to paint me a picture 72 hours out. What do we look like in 72 hours? What do we look like 72 hours from there? I said, “Joe, we’re going to have folks here through Labor Day, kids as well, we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got these kids decisively engaged.” Within that weekend, Joe was able to set up three ballrooms of activities for children. That Sunday, we had church services, too.

Our in-processing computer systems were phenomenal. As people checked out or checked-in, up in the operations center, our bedcount changed. It was real-time. We were able to do a daily headcount. That usually occurred between three and four in the morning. Actually, physically, our volunteers would count who we had there. Then we had a nightly curfew. Kids were going to school. We didn’t want folks coming in and out of the place, creating an additional security risk. For folks that didn’t want to, or couldn’t sleep or whatever, we had TVs in the dining area. We did the best we could with what we had.

Visiting the Astrodome

I was able to leave the George R. Brown on Saturday. I went over to the Astrodome. They looked like they had their hands full and the last thing they needed was for me to be over there. I quickly left.

I learned that you can’t have too many fingers in the pie. They had a lot of chiefs, and to eliminate a lot of confusion, you need to limit access to some of the operational areas, because it just creates confusion. We were in an enviable position to manage our set-up. I don’t know if they were in quite that situation. They just kept getting hit with buses. That’s why I wanted to get away as quickly as possible.

On Managing and its Challenges

Most of my career in the military has been to set-up operations centers. I’ve done it for twenty years. It came to me instinctively to set up that kind of structure.

I tried to manage our staff meetings in a way that kept us focused and on-task. The anxiety level gets pretty high. When the first buses started rolling in, I mean, you think you’re ready for it. But people get real anxious about that. “So, look, everything’s going to be fine, we’re going to do it this way…”

In different meetings, people would stray off-task. I would tell everybody to “stay in your lane.” In other words, if someone whose in charge of a particular area says well, the Red Cross, you know, this that or the other, or FEMA, they’re getting ripped off, I say, wait, that’s not your lane. Stay in your lane.

The other thing that would occur is what I call the “Good Idea Fairy.” Good Idea Fairies are prevalent in a lot of organizations. “I think we should, or, wouldn’t it be great if we could…” At one point, we had someone mention–and maybe just not having enough to do–but saying you know, these are over twenty foot ceilings in the George R. Brown. You know, we could actually come in there and build a platform, and we could double the size of the George R. Brown in housing more people. Part of the challenge is keeping everybody on-task and not running down these rabbit trails.

Closing the Shelter

We were very forthright with people that lived there. We established a drop dead time: by this date, we’re closing down. We planned on closing the Tuesday before Rita hit. We were not going to throw people out in the street, obviously. But we would find another shelter environment that they would move to, or be moved to, which most certainly would not be as nice as the George R. Brown.

I think there was an initial fear. Many guests had gone through a lot of very disturbing experiences, and so here they were finally in a safe place. There were some initial inhibitions about knowing “where am I going to go when this place closes?” which is understandable. We made sure that folks knew that they were still going to be taken care of, that we’d find a place for them, that there were still going to be support services available. Our medical people did a great job tracking people that needed help.

That Tuesday, I really didn’t know what to expect. But surprisingly, before noon, we had our last guest leave the George R. Brown. They had an apartment for him. So that was cool.

You asked about Afghanistan, but I’ll tell you, this experience was equally moving. I couldn’t control myself much when the first buses started rolling in to the George R. Brown. You had all these people that looked like they had been through hell. You had all these volunteers that were clapping for them, and cheering for them as they got off the bus. I had to walk away. It was very difficult for me. Everyday was another episode, or incident, of something that was just really powerful and moving. The only thing I could think of was that I had spent fourteen months away serving these same persons that were now coming in on buses. And I was still serving them.


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