Houston officials struggle with post-Katrina outreach

HOUSTON: As emergency officials complete the final evacuation of New Orleans, authorities in Houston, which has taken in tens of thousands of evacuees, are facing their own communications challenges.

HOUSTON: As emergency officials complete the final evacuation of New Orleans, authorities in Houston, which has taken in tens of thousands of evacuees, are facing their own communications challenges.

Phil Morabito, CEO of Houston-based Pierpont Communications, noted that PR inside the Astrodome is an "ad hoc effort" by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the local and national chapters of the Red Cross, and the many social services agencies providing information to evacuees.

Pierpont is working on-site with the Harris County, TX, Housing Authority to move displaced residents into more permanent housing.

It is also working with Hibernia National Bank, one of the largest in the region, to develop messages about issues ranging from mobile ATMs to loan deferments.

Those messages are distributed through daily press conferences, as well as hand-delivered details in Texas and Louisiana. "We've gone back to the Pony Express days of delivering information," Morabito said.

Andrew Biar, owner of Houston-based lobbying firm Strategic Public Affairs, is helping to coordinate daily FEMA press briefings inside the Astrodome.

Carolyn Mayo, president of Vollmer PR, noted that PR has been somewhat "chaotic" at the Astrodome, Reliant Center, and the Houston Convention Center. "There is a system, but it's as you would expect it to be when you have that many people converging," she said.

Vollmer clients the University of Houston and the DePelchin Children's Center have also been on-site at the shelters.

"It's a combination of both media relations and grassroots [that] includes web and e-mail campaigns," Mayo said.

She noted that DePelchin's experts have served as spokespeople on how to help children cope with the trauma.

News broadcasts have been a mixture of the how-to and more sensational stories.

"The media's in a big rush," Morabito said. "Everyone's trying to tell the next big story on the evacuees."

In Louisiana, communicators are similarly using grassroots and word-of-mouth outreach to relay messages.

Cheron Brylski, whose firm, the Brylski Company, represents government entities, noted that phone service is unreliable, and gas shortages and safety issues have hampered travel.

"Our main projects at this time will be to get medicines to those who need them," said Brylski, who represents Louisiana's Women's Health Access Project, a coalition of about 400 groups. "We're doing a lot of networking to reach those who need services."

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