Express-News Business Writer
Within 36 hours, volunteers transformed a vacant Montgomery Ward’s building into a Hurricane Katrina relief shelter that also later served Hurricane Rita evacuee.
Graham Weston, who owns the Windsor Park building, which had been vacant for five years, called assistant city manager Chris Brady Friday afternoon on Sept. 2 to offer it as a shelter.
Brady and District Fire Chief Nim Kidd showed up at the building a half an hour later and said they wanted it. To get it ready, dozens of volunteers from Weston’s companies, Rackspace Managed Hosting and the Weston Centre, worked around the clock to take down retail displays, remove hazardous obstacles, install desks and computers and set up cots. Weston also called in electrical engineers who worked nonstop to get the generators running, fix the escalators and correct other electrical problems.
A cleaning crew of 65 people worked by flashlight until 11 p.m. when the power finally came on, said Garry Miller, a friend of Weston’s and a volunteer who worked on special projects at the shelter.
Rackspace brought in a recreational vehicle to set up outside the shelter for the workers to take brief naps and clean up in between jobs. Weston had bought the Windsor Park property for Rackspace’s new headquarters, but at the last minute he chose to relocate Rackspace’s operations from downtown to the former headquarters for Builder’s Square on Datapoint Drive. That left him with the vacant building and when he heard about the hurricane he wanted to help out.
Weston called a lot of friends to help outfit the shelter. Charles Butt of H.E. Butt Grocery Co., sent 1,000 milk crates for people to sit on and to use for storage. Time Warner sent more than half a dozen trucks to wire the building for high-speed Internet access and phone service. SBC Communications had crews install a bank of telephones.
When the first buses began to arrive Saturday, the shelter was ready.
“The biggest challenge was trying to get the paperwork done when in the back of your mind you know they haven’t slept for days,” Weston said.
Edwin Grubbs, co founder of Rackspace and three other programmers created a database to contain information on all the evacuees staying at the shelter. They also created a search engine to compile all missing persons data from more than 50 Web sites into one easily searchable site. Several reunions have taken place since the program, http://search.sasafelist.org, went live.
“Private individuals filled the gap that government didn’t,” Weston said.
Rackspace donated computers, printers, fax machines, tables, a public announcing system, radios – whatever the shelter needed, Weston said. It also provided similar equipment to the city’s other major shelters at KellyUSA and the defunct Levi’s plants.
The Windsor Park shelter, which processed more than 3,000 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina evacuees and 3,000 evacuees from Hurricane Rita, is one of the few privately owned shelters. It’s a great example of the private and public sector working together during a crisis, said Ramiro Cavazos, the city’s economic development director, who worked as a volunteer manager there. He also spent time last weekend volunteering at a defunct Wal-Mart on Highway 151 to help out with the Hurricane Rita evacuees. City employees pitched in after they completed their regular duties at the office, Cavazos said.
“People doubled up when they needed to to help others,” Cavazos said.
The leadership of Mayor Phil Hardberger and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff also contributed to San Antonio’s ability to manage the dual crisis of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, Cavazos said. It also raised San Antonio’s profile nationwide as a city that can respond quickly, compassionately and effectively, he said.
The federal government and nonprofit organizations like the American Red Cross and the San Antonio Food Bank also played a vital role.
On Sept. 5, Don Whittemore, head of the Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team, took over the Windsor Park shelter under a contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He normally fights fires, but he says it’s the same set of skills to react to a crisis. He created an organization chart and put people in charge of operations, logistics, planning, safety and he even putting a public information officer in place. He used many of the same people Weston had already put in those kinds of positions. But he also brought in his own team of firefighters and emergency workers.
“Everyone has brought their skills to the table,” Whittemore said. “It’s not about us it’s about our residents.”
The Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team did a great job, but they showed up too late, Weston said. The federal government lagged behind state, local and private businesses in responding to the needs of the hurricane victims in a timely manager, he said.
“You can’t wait for a disaster like this to build the systems needed for a tragedy,” Weston said.
To deal with a crisis, companies and government need to anticipate in advance what might occur and then prepare on how to deal with it and then respond, said William F. Crittenden, professor of strategic management at Northeastern University in Boston. Some of those relationships broke down during Hurricane Katrina, he said. Local government leaders need to spearhead the contacts among the nonprofit, business and government communities, he said.
In San Antonio’s case, the response worked out very well, Cavazos said. Everyone worked together, he said.
One of the things companies and governments need to consider in a disaster is who are they key stakeholders and who is most fragile among those stakeholders, Crittenden said.
“As we saw with Hurricane Katrina, the citizens who lived in some of the poorest neighborhoods were in fact the most vulnerable and those were the folks we weren’t reaching out to in a fast enough and efficient enough manner,” Crittenden said.
Yet San Antonio responded to take care of the most fragile citizens in a heart-warming way as hundreds of volunteers spent time in the shelters and donated money, clothes and other items for the evacuees. Businesses also donated goods and services and money to help out.
On the fly, Weston and his team developed a mini-village, which some dubbed “Windsor World” in just a few days. They decorated an entire wall with a chalkboard for children’s artwork. They erected basketball hoops and closed off a play area for kids. In the garden center area, they created showers complete with blue shower curtains and they installed washers and dryers for resident’s laundry. They also set up a makeshift childcare center, a medical center, an eyeglass center, a job center, a cafeteria and even a beauty care shop complete with pedicure and manicure treatments and hair grooming – all staffed by volunteers.
“We wanted to give back to the community,” said Veronica Beckmann, a senior at Roosevelt Cosmetology school, who volunteered to do pedicures and hairstyles.
More than 150 Rackspace and Weston Centre workers volunteered at the shelter for six-hour shifts to do everything from data entry to setting up cots. City officials, such as Cavazos, volunteered for shifts at the shelter. The different management and personnel skills drawn from the private and public sectors helped make the shelter run smoothly.
When the shelter opened, Weston’s wife drove to Toys-R-Us and bought a vanload of new toys for the children’s play areas. Weston also bought blankets and pillows at Wal-Mart. The shelter had 2,000 cots but no blankets and no pillows. Procurement was one of the most time-consuming tasks, he said.
“We each spent money out of our pockets that bridged the gaps,” Weston said.