Rebuilding Houston: Tech Tools Connect a City to Shelter, Food, & More

Houston—The storm waters from Harvey have nearly receded. Now, the painstaking work of rebuilding lives is underway.

As the storm made landfall, Houston’s tech community—anchored by civic tech group Sketch City and the Station Houston co-working space—jumped in quickly to build tech tools to help rescue people from flooded homes and connect them to shelter and supplies. Now that the chatter on the #harvey Slack channel is down to a handful of messages, many of the city’s techies have shifted gears. They’re adapting websites, Google documents, and textbots into portals that can offer more long-term assistance.

Namely, this means connecting the displaced with the millions of dollars in aid and donations that have come in from around the country. People without homes don’t have laptops and Wifi to complete FEMA’s online application for assistance. Hotel vouchers for temporary shelter must be printed. Evacuees living in shelters in other parts of Houston or in other cities wonder which school district should their children be enrolled in?

“There is a big pile of aid that we have right now,” says Denise Hamilton, founder and CEO of WatchHerWork in Houston. “But if you’re someone who’s looking for help, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack to find what you need.”

So Hamilton—along with Enventure co-founder Will Clifton and fellow members of life sciences group Enventure—created my.harveyneeds.org, a website through which a displaced person can request help and volunteers and donors can offer it. A group of counselors and sociologists respond to each online request, calling people to figure out each individual’s situation and directing them to agencies that can help, Hamilton says.

The technology here is not what would be described as cutting edge. Still, Hamilton says, for many people—especially those in poorer neighborhoods—the site is a crucial connection to the millions of dollars available from the Red Cross or funds raised by Houston Texan J.J. Watt and Dell founder (and Houston native) Michael Dell.

“What this is is an on-ramp and connection tool to resources,” she says. “We don’t take any money; we’re not collecting goods.”

Those with flooded-out homes have lost nearly everything; there have requests for glasses and contacts, orthopedic shoes, or a ride to the Texas Department of Public Safety office to get a new ID card. Hamilton says a local company adopted a pregnant woman and her five kids; their home was already sprouting mold just a few days after Harvey passed through.

Another woman, who had to evacuate from her home, sent her children to live with their father so they could avoid staying in a shelter. She asked Hamilton for legal advice: “Am I going to lose custody of my kids because Harvey made me homeless?”

So far, they have heard from 1,900 displaced people. Hamilton says she and the other tech volunteers want to pass the baton on to four or five local nonprofits that can continue this work in the months and years to come.

That’s what’s happened with an effort called IHaveFoodINeedFood.com, a website where commercial kitchens could donate food to evacuees, first responders, and volunteers. The Midtown Kitchen Collective sprang up as Harvey made landfall in Houston to receive donations and prepare food that, toward the end, was being delivered by Lyft drivers.

Matthew Wettergreen, a Rice University lecturer and founder of product design firm Data Design, helped to develop the site, citing the Chicago Board of Trade as an inspiration “Somebody has frozen OJ and someone else needs frozen OJ,” he says.

More than 250,000 meals later, the group—which included Rice University colleague Amy Kavalewitz, PR consultant Jonathan Beitler, and Claudia Solis, an events consultant—turned the website over on Monday to Second Servings, a Houston nonprofit that accepts uneaten food from hotels and other venues and gives it to nonprofit meal providers that serve the hungry. Barbara Bronstein, the charity’s founder, says the effort has introduced them to both new donors and new groups that need help.

The Kitchen Collective’s work is already having an impact beyond the Texas Gulf Coast. The “Disaster Plan for Restaurant Communities,” a Google document they created that illustrates step-by-step how to set up a similar operation, is being used in Florida in response to Hurricane Irma.

One of the major tasks post-Harvey is getting displaced people into housing. Kasita, an Austin-based tiny home builder, is talking with FEMA to see how the startup could help. “There’s going to be a huge need for units similar to ours,” says Mike Martinez, Kasita’s public affairs director and diversity advocate.

In fact, he says the startup has already been in talks about developing the next version of FEMA housing—picture the trailers seen in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005—with the federal agency for the last year. “We are designing a very specific unit for them at a lower price point that is not as high-tech and gadget-y as our usual units,” Martinez says. “This recovery effort is going to be years in the making. We plan on being a part of rebuilding throughout the process.”

While all this is going on, Blair Garrou, managing partner of Houston venture firm Mercury Fund, says he’s fielding requests from investors, founders, and others in the innovation community, who want to support their Houston counterparts. “They have either already given to a relief effort or they can’t give to relief efforts but they can give to entrepreneurial efforts,” he says.

So, on Monday, a group called Entrepreneurs for Houston launched a campaign to raise a $10 million fund. That money will be directed to both fund projects like Sketch City’s as well as potentially provide fellowships to individual entrepreneurs taking time away from their startups to help. Created in response to the disaster, the group was founded by Garrou, as well as John Reale, Station Houston CEO; Jeff Reichman, founder of Sketch City; Carolyn Rodz, founder of the Circular Board; and Erik Halvorsen, director of the Texas Medical Center’s Innovation Institute.

“People who have been volunteering, they have to go back to their day jobs,” Garrou says. “And the work isn’t done—we have months of recovery left.”

As Houston digs in for the long haul of rebuilding, Sketch City’s Reichman says he would steer volunteers to one more website: reportyourhours.com. These hours, considered “donated resources’ by FEMA, are eligible for federal funds that would go to the city of Houston for rebuilding projects.

“I would like to thank Sketch City, Station Houston, and all the civic technologists who generously and quickly joined our effort to spread accurate information during the storm,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a press release Tuesday about the website. “As we work through the weeks and months ahead, we look forward to continuing to benefit from their creativity and partnership.”

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