Judge Ed Emmett reveals lessons learned following Harvey and stroke

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It was all hands on deck when Harvey hit Houston, including those of Harris County Judge Ed Emmett who worked around the clock despite suffering a stroke days before the storm hit. 

So, how do you prepare for something unlike anything you’ve seen before?

Emmett says that’s easy when you have a team like he does at the Harris County Office of Emergency Management.

It might not be in his official job description, but managing chaos is part of what Judge Ed Emmett does.

In his years as a Harris County judge, he managed the response to disasters like the Memorial and Tax Day Floods. But the forecast for Harvey was hard for even Emmett to believe.

"At first, 24 inches of rain. Then 30 inches. Then they started saying, ‘Some counties west of here could get 50 or 50 inches of rain,' " said Emmett. "We all thought, ‘No, that’s not possible.’ But we prepared for it."

To do that, he had to get the Office of Emergency Management up and running bringing in a crew of law enforcement, medical personnel and logistics teams.

"You know any time you have a battle plan, it’s going to go wrong in the first 30 minutes," said Emmett. "You have to adjust. The key is having good people who know what they’re doing and are empowered to make decisions."

Those people, the ones manning these desks, suffered losses like so many Houstonians.

"There was a point when there were two tornadoes going parallel in northwest Houston.," said Emmett. "One of the deputy constables in there was watching it go right at his house." 

Emmett’s family feared they might lose a lot too.

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As KHOU 11 was the first to tell you, the father of four and grandfather of 13 suffered a minor stroke just more than a week before Harvey showed up on the radar.

"My doctor called me almost every day and said, ‘Aren’t you supposed to be resting and getting some sleep?, " said Emmett. 

Sleep was in short supply during the six nights Emmett spent camped out at OEM as he provided round-the-clock updates on rapidly changing conditions. Even, at one point, calling on neighbors to help neighbors.

We all saw the result. Hundreds, maybe thousands of people stepped up to rescue those trapped by the flooding.

What he didn't expect came later after he left OEM for the first time driving to his daughter’s house.

"When I turned on her street and saw those piles of debris, I just lost it. I said, ‘You have to give me a minute,’ pulled over the curb and just lost it," said Emmett. "It’s whole lives. You see whole lives on the sidewalk."

A vivid reminder of that chaos Emmett feels responsible for managing.

Emmett says if he had it all to do over again there are a couple things he would change, including organizing volunteers better and taking a different approach to coordinating shelters.

His priority now is looking at how flooding like we saw during Harvey can be prevented in the future.