As home to 29,600 U.S. government workers, Houston ranks as a major federal center. Think “Houston”, many people think “NASA”, but just about every agency has people there. Including some agencies you might not expect to be there.
Houston is also big. It is the nation’s 4th largest city and covers 596 square miles. For comparison purposes the District of Columbia is 69 square miles.
Houston is a lot of things including, most recently, the near-bullseye for Hurricane Ike. Ike smashed into the gulf coast with Galveston taking the major hit. Houston got it starting on a Friday afternoon. Because of that many agencies didn’t implement their COOP plans until they could assess the damage. Turns out there was a lot. But with an area that big, some places took a bigger hit. Downed trees, broken glass, power failures were widespread. Some offices have been out of commission since the 19th and, if they are lucky, will reopen this week.
Mike Mason, executive director of Houston’s Federal Executive Board said his house is 55 miles from downtown and he still lost electric power. Many other residents not only didn’t have power, but they couldn’t drive to work because of downed trees and power lines. Or they didn’t have any place to go until their off-site centers were activated.
Generally speaking, non-emergency employees whose agencies closed were put on administrative leave (meaning they continue to get paid). Those whose agencies were open, but who couldn’t or didn’t want to come in, were expected to take annual leave.
Feds with offices in the downtown area, the Galleria section, should be back on the job today. GSA and contract crews have been working overtime ripping up carpet damaged by heavy rains and cleaning up the mold.
Individual federal and postal workers, in conjunction with local charities and religious groups, pitched in to help disaster victims get drinking water, batteries, sanitary supplies, food and cash. And to help with the cleanup which, after flooding, presents one of those where-do-we-start? nightmares for victims.
FEEA, the Federal Employees Emergency Assistance fund, said that as of last week it had given emergency assistance to 519 VA workers, 117 Agriculture Department employees and 73 Postal Service workers in Houston.
Blue Cross-Blue Shield came through with an eye-popping $100,000 donation to FEEA to be used in Hurricane Ike-Gustav relief. BC-BS did the same thing, donating $100,000 to FEEA relief efforts, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, again in 2005 for Hurricane Katrina relief and again in 2007 to help victims of the California wildfires.
At a time like this, it is hard to oversell the importance of the feds-helping-feds FEEA operation. Whenever disaster strikes a FEEA representative, often executive director Steve Bauer, hops on a plane (sometimes a truck) and rides to the scene of the disaster. After one hurricane he boarded a commercial aircraft with a suitcase stuffed with cash. Yes, it was a carry-on.
After food and water, the most important thing disaster survivors need is cash. ATMs and gasoline station pumps often don’t work for a long time after a major fire, earthquake or especially a flood.
FEEA, with the help of lots of federal-postal donors (and very generous corporate friends) has been there done that. If you are looking to help members of your federal family, check it out: http://www.feea.org/