- Houston has created a new position within its Office of Emergency Management to better serve vulnerable communities during emergencies.
- The inaugural role announced Wednesday will help integrate the needs of people with disabilities, access and functional needs into the city’s emergency plans; educate these communities on disaster preparedness; and serve as a liaison with the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.
- Houston has appointed Julian Ochoa, most recently the Office of Emergency Management’s community engagement coordinator, to the post.
It’s been six years since Harvey, a devastating Category 4 hurricane, hit the Houston area. In the aftermath of the storm, the city received large amounts of federal funding, some of which was used to update the city’s various emergency plans, said Brent Taylor, chief communications officer for Houston’s Office of Emergency Management.
“Before, the plans were rigid and they didn’t really communicate with each other very well,” he said. “As we renovated them, we made them so that they’re all kind of talking to each other.”
Part of that refresh was making sure vulnerable communities are better accounted for during an emergency, Taylor said.
Limited emergency preparedness communications, outreach and community education have in the past prevented Houstonians with disabilities from accessing emergency shelters, transportation and evacuation plans, said Thomas Muñoz, Houston’s emergency management coordinator and deputy director for the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security, in a statement.
Research shows that vulnerable communities, such as non-English speakers and those unable to transport themselves, tend to suffer more during and after a disaster. They are more likely to lose homes, be separated from family members, be overlooked by relief volunteers in shelters, have limited access to healthcare and die, according to a 2019 report by the Texas Division of Emergency Management. That report recommended the creation of a state-level position to integrate disability groups’ needs into emergency management — similar to the position Houston just created.
The big challenge Ochoa said he faces in this role is “the communication.” Ochoa’s team designs outreach and engagement plans based on factors such as people’s language, nationality and culture. Currently, Houston’s online disaster preparedness guide exists in six languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, French and Arabic. Ochoa’s team also collaborates with city council members and faith and nonprofit leaders in Houston’s neighborhoods.
Ochoa plans to work with Houston’s many international consulates to connect with community members. Hundreds of people may come to a consulate looking for services, Ochoa said, and “it is an opportunity that we can use to engage those communities.”
Ochoa’s position will be paired with an action plan, which is still in the draft stage, Taylor said.