Editor's Note: Today the National Democratic Institute (NDI) marked World Cities Day by launching the Women Mayors’ Network (WoMN), an international, nonpartisan peer network to support women who are running governments at the urban level and who are #LeadingDifferently. WoMN will benefit from the expertise of a growing number of current and former female mayors, like Annise Parker, former mayor of Houston, TX, who shares in this blog piece a recent experience that showcases the leadership skills she and other women from across the globe will bring to the network.
On the evening of August 25, hurricane Harvey began to move into the Texas Gulf Coast. The greater Houston area is east of where Harvey made landfall, on what is known as the wet side of the storm, with rain bands carrying water from the Gulf of Mexico. Usually, Gulf hurricanes keep moving inland, gradually losing strength as they move away from the coast. But Harvey did the unexpected, stalling just onshore. Very little wind, no longer a storm surge, just record-breaking amounts of rain. Parts of Houston received as much as 52 inches of rain over four days, leading to massive flooding.
When I was Mayor of Houston, Texas (population 2.38 million), I had the opportunity to touch thousands of people’s lives. Now, as a part of NDI’s Women Mayors’ Network (WoMN), I am able to tap into the reservoir of talent and ability that current and former mayors provide each other. My recent work on relief efforts following hurricane Harvey proved a timely reminder of this fact.
As you can imagine, dealing with a hurricane the size of Harvey posed a number of challenges to governance, keeping the peace and maintaining security. As thousands of people were evacuated from flooded areas, and the extent of the floods kept growing, people fled to any safe spot. Those temporary shelters had to be consolidated. The city converted its George R. Brown Convention Center into the first mega-shelter. When that convention center neared its 10,000 person capacity, Harris County converted its convention center, Reliant Hall at NRG Stadium, into a second mass shelter.
Four days into the emergency, on the morning of August 29, the Harris County Judge (who is the Chief Executive of the county) turned to BakerRipley, the community non-profit where I now work, to set up and manage that shelter. Our leadership team arrived on site about noon and six hours later we were functional, with site layout, MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat rations), water and volunteers in place. It took us a few more hours to locate and assemble a supply of cots, but we received our first guests at 10 pm.
Now, as a part of NDI’s Women Mayors’ Network (WoMN), I am able to tap into the reservoir of talent and ability that current and former mayors provide each other. My recent work on relief efforts following hurricane Harvey proved a timely reminder of this fact.
-- Annise Parker
While having never previously operated a shelter, BakerRipley staff has vast experience in disaster case management and operations, and our CEO has visited refugee camps in many parts of the world. I was part of a great team, with the top eight positions of authority all held by women.
For nearly 4 weeks I became co-manager of a city that grew to 7,500 people. I shared responsibility with another executive, a woman who had once worked for me at the city. Ultimately we had a medical bay, pharmacy and optometry clinic; dining hall for three hot meals a day; government service providers; beauty and barber shop; children’s zone; dispensary for clothing and necessities; pet kennel and much more. It was safe, clean, secure and welcoming.
During Hurricane Harvey, I was able once again to touch people’s lives and make them better. I miss the ability to do that, at that scale, on a daily basis. But I also know that there are many ways to serve and to continue my public leadership. I know that there are mayors around the world who have gained similar experience and knowledge of dealing with natural disasters. Sharing the lessons learned and best practices within the Network can only make us better leaders the next time we face an emergency.
Working with NDI to establish the Women Mayors’ Network will be an important part of my future, and I look forward to exchanging notes on the skills and experience that I share with the many other women around the world who have found a calling to lead their cities for the public good. By #LeadingDifferently, members of the WoMN have the opportunity to practice inclusive governance and strengthen democratic resilience at the urban level. If we do, the WoMN will be a force that makes our cities better places to live and work for everyone.