November-December 2017

Six days with Hurricane Harvey

Hans Nielsen

Assistant District Attorney in Harris County

On Friday, August 25, 2017, at 5 o’clock in the evening, a group of Harris County assistant district attorneys (myself included), investigators, and numerous support staff reported for what would normally be a seven-hour intake shift on the second floor of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center (CJC). Six days later, some of us were finally able to go home after Hurricane Harvey changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens in Harris County and devastated numerous buildings, including the CJC, which had housed 22 criminal district courts, 16 county criminal courts, the DA’s Office, and the Public Defender’s Office. The story of what happened and how many Harris County employees kept part of the criminal justice system going during one of the worst national disasters in the United States is one of many untold stories of the storm.

An office that runs 24-7
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office has a 24-hour, 365-days-a-year criminal intake system in which assistant district attorneys approve the filing of all class B misdemeanor criminal charges and higher. In addition, ADAs also screen, sign, and file those charges with the district clerk’s office, write search and arrest warrants, provide legal advice on criminal matters, and attend a probable cause court docket that also operates 24 hours a day. Anywhere from 200 to 300 charges are accepted every day, and even more than that are rejected or referred for further investigation.
    Every intake shift has at least four ADAs working (on some days it can be up to six), and in addition to them, two DA investigators print the computer-generated charges and run the criminal history of every defendant. Furthermore, numerous support staff type up those felony and misdemeanor charges and help officers enter them correctly in Harris County’s computer system (the Justice Information Management System, also known as JIMS). In addition to the staff from the DA’s office, there are multiple employees from the district clerk’s office on the second floor who also work 24-7, and there is a probable cause and bail hearing courtroom on the first floor that has multiple hearings all day and all night, which are conducted by Harris County hearing officer magistrates.
    With a population of over four and a half million people in Harris County, just about every intake shift can be extremely busy. Many times during a shift, we could be writing an arrest or search warrant for an officer who is sitting in the office while at the same time we’re answering a call from another officer at the scene of an arrest. Calls from officers rarely slow down, and it’s not unusual for one ADA to be on the phone for several hours during a shift. Being able to multitask is a must when you work intake.
    At present, the evening and night shifts of intake during the work week and all of the weekend shift hours are worked for overtime pay by ADAs who also work a different position during the workweek. As a result, intake and probable cause court never shut down, even for major holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving. However, on Sunday, August 27, intake did what it has done on only one prior occasion (during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001): It shut down for several hours when everyone was evacuated from the CJC and relocated to another building.

Prepping for another major storm
As Hurricane Harvey was making landfall in south Texas—and based on forecasts that it would head straight up the coast to Houston—the Bureau Chief of Intake and Grand Jury, Jim Leitner, made plans and assembled a group of intake workers to be ready to work on Friday evening and stay for the weekend if necessary. Among the many things Jim did to prepare was purchase a large amount of coffee, dozens of snacks, peanut butter and jelly, deli meat and bread for sandwiches, canned food, fruit, and numerous breakfast items for the possibility that we would be at intake for the whole weekend. His executive assistant and the intake division manager, Desiree Broadnax, made sure that there was sufficient administrative staff and investigators to work during the hurricane. In the past, the district attorney’s office has asked for volunteers to work intake (with pay) before a major storm has arrived and has asked those employees to stay and work for several days until the storm has passed. The employees who volunteered were notified by Jim and Desiree and organized into groups to work in shifts.
    As the outer bands of the hurricane started to hit Houston late Friday and early Saturday morning, county maintenance workers closed the building’s massive watertight doors in the basement. Those doors lead to an underground pedestrian tunnel system that had flooded during Tropical Storm Allison and caused enormous damage to the CJC’s basement. At some point, workers also closed the watertight half-doors on the first floor that rise up about 4 feet from the entrance steps of the courthouse—these half-doors were installed after Allison. When I saw that they were up, I knew that if the courthouse were surrounded by floodwater, we would be stuck in the building. The only way that any of us were getting out of the building once the floodwaters came was by crawling over those doors.
    As Hurricane Harvey hit Harris and surrounding counties, it dumped billions and possibly trillions of gallons of water on the many hundreds of creeks, streams, bayous, and rivers in the area. In addition, the many manmade lakes and reservoirs were starting to reach maximum levels, and a lot of that water was now draining into Buffalo Bayou, one of the major watersheds in Houston, and making its way downtown. Just one block away from Buffalo Bayou in downtown Houston lies the CJC.
    As the hours went by and the rain intensified, the ADAs who volunteered to work intake—Jim Leitner, Pat Stayton, Eric Bily, Brittney Aaron, Abbie Russell, and myself—worked in shifts of three prosecutors for six hours. We answered numerous phone calls and drafted search and arrest warrants, and one of us attended the probable cause dockets on the first-floor courtroom that the Harris County hearing officers were conducting. Once a six-hour shift ended, we did our best to find a place to nap before our next shift started. The support staff and investigators also worked in shifts, and soon the limited number of couches on the six floors of the district attorney’s office were serving as beds and were constantly occupied. Being able to sleep on the floor or in a chair became a vital and necessary skill.

The third day
On Sunday morning, August 27 (our third day), I was sleeping on a couch on the fourth floor when my colleague Pat Stayton woke me up and said we were evacuating the building. I was groggy from a lack of decent sleep and did not understand him at first. A few hours before when I went to sleep, I noticed water on the streets in front of the building, but there was no standing floodwater. When I looked outside Sunday morning, though, I saw that the building was completely surrounded by water that went into the street and well past the sidewalk on the other side. I was very grateful Pat remembered that I was sleeping on that couch and came up to tell me we were evacuating because otherwise, I might have woken up to an empty building.
    When I made my way down to intake on the second floor, I noticed that everyone was being issued large trash bags to put our belongings in because we were likely going to get wet during our evacuation. Before my shift started on Friday, I had gone during my lunch hour to a nearby pharmacy and purchased basic toiletry essentials, and my wife had packed some food for me. My problem was that I forgot to bring extra clothes, and all I had was an extra T-shirt, gym shorts, and tennis shoes that I had had in my office. I quickly realized that what I was wearing—which was already in bad shape—was about to get worse.
    As we made our way down the stairwell to evacuate the building, I could see that the water was about a foot and a half from the top of the watertight doors, and no one knew how much higher it would continue to rise. I quickly went over to the probable cause hearing courts on the first floor and walked around. Water was already all over the floor, and it was unclear at first where it was coming from because the rainwater had not flooded over the doors. Unfortunately, I later learned that the toilets had overflowed from the water pressure.
    As the evacuation from the building began, we all lined up to stand on a chair and climb over the watertight doors. We then stepped into brown bayou water that was above my knee at one point. I am 6-foot-4 so many people who evacuated had water close to their waists. Harris County Precinct One constables were standing in the water assisting us as we abandoned the building. They had tied a rope from the building to a light pole across the street for us to hold onto because it was nearly impossible to see where we were stepping in the foul brown water.
    Everyone in the CJC, including the probable cause hearing officers, moved to the Harris County Juvenile Justice Center (the JJC), which is on higher ground and a block away. The JJC houses all three Harris County juvenile courts along with the Juvenile Probation Department, the offices of the Juvenile Division of the District Attorney’s Office (which included my office), and close to 250 juvenile respondents (inmates) in a detention facility that makes up about a third of the building.
    One of the unsung heroes of the Harris County DA’s office is the head of our IT division, Gary Zallar. He was with us when we arrived on Friday, and he stayed in the CJC in case there were any computer issues. He evacuated with us to the JJC and proceeded to set up intake on the second-floor offices that housed the DA’s Office Juvenile Division. This was not the first time Gary has done this: He also moved intake when Allison flooded the basement of the CJC in June 2001. Within a few hours on Sunday, he had transferred the intake phone numbers to the phones in the juvenile division so we could receive calls from police officers. He also got computers working, and we were almost back in business late on Sunday when the building’s power went out. When the emergency generator started, there was limited power available and only a few electrical outlets working on the second floor. We were now forced to find another location for intake.
    As the juvenile division chief, I contacted the executive director of the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, Tom Brooks, when the generator power came on, and I informed him that we did not have adequate power on the second floor. He immediately offered a large training area on the first floor that had multiple electrical plugs powered by the generator. This area was originally designated as an evacuation site for DA intake, but when we had arrived in the building, there were family members of juvenile probation employees sheltering in that space. They ended up moving to another area on the first floor, and once again Gary Zallar moved intake late Sunday evening. He and several DA intake employees and DA Investigators John Lemerond and Andy Lui took numerous phones, computers, and printers from the juvenile division and set them up on the first floor even though they were incredibly tired at this point. In fact, by the time they got things set up a second time, Gary and John had been up for 48 hours straight. Many of our critical administrative personnel, among them Desiree Broadnax, Draishona Sparks, Jason Nerie, Elsa Gonzales, Jean Leija, and Priscilla Barajaz, also worked through their exhaustion for many hours to get things up and running again. Gary and several DA’s office employees even helped the district clerks set up their computer equipment because their IT personnel were not present.
    Due to the disruption from moving intake and not having phone lines up and running right away, and due to the fact that many officers during the storm were rescuing people, there were only 44 charges filed that Sunday. Some of the outlying jails were flooded, and many officers who called us had arrested defendants but could not get downtown to book them into the jail. In fact, at one point there were several feet of water surrounding the Harris County Sheriff’s Office Inmate Processing Center, and officers who could get downtown could not book defendants into the Harris County Jail.
    To make matters worse, Jim Leitner took a call from a Harris County Sheriff’s deputy and was told that they were considering moving several thousand inmates from one of the two massive county jails adjacent to the bayou to the other in waist-deep water due to concerns that the jail was going to flood. (That idea was quickly shelved due to the many obvious problems it would have created.) In addition, because one jail in northwest Harris County flooded, officers had a problem jailing violent offenders they had arrested. One of us obtained help from a Montgomery County ADA who had called us (we found out later it was Philip Harris in the appellate division—thanks, Philip!). He helped those officers book violent offenders in the Montgomery County Jail during the height of the storm.

The fourth day
As the hours went by that Sunday and into Monday, the JJC building started to become very uncomfortable. The generators did not produce enough power for the air conditioners, so by Monday afternoon the building was very warm. In addition to the heat, we were starting to put a significant dent in our food supplies. When we evacuated, we were not able to grab all of the food Jim had purchased, the constables would not allow us to go back into the CJC building, and restaurants were still closed from the storm so we were unable to order food from outside. Finally, though, by Monday the water had subsided and some in our group were able to go back to the CJC and get the food that we had left there.
    We were still working six-hour shifts at the JJC, but all of us were quickly running out of energy. Jim Leitner, Brittney Aaron, Eric Bily, Pat Stayton, and Abbie Russell are some of the hardest-working intake ADAs I have ever worked with in all my years at the office. The administrative assistants, paralegals, and investigators who stayed and worked are a credit to the office. One of our paralegals, Patricia Smith, even went above and beyond her duties by creating a spreadsheet of all of the looting charges we had filed after numerous media inquiries had been made about those cases. However, for all of us working intake, the hours and the days were beginning to melt together, and it was hard to remember what day of the week or what time it was. In addition, we had no idea what the future held for the CJC building and the courts that it housed.
    Intake workers who weren’t in the middle of a shift were sleeping on couches and chairs in the very crowded second-floor offices of the Juvenile Division. Once we finished sleeping, we would “commute” to work by walking downstairs to the first floor and work another shift. The chief prosecutor of the 314th Juvenile District Court even had her yoga mat confiscated and used as a (very thin) mattress on the floor in her room by one exhausted intake worker. The couch in my office was rarely empty during the night or the day. Because the county had so many flooded roads, it was extremely difficult for many prosecutors to get into downtown and relieve us. In addition, many employees or their friends or family had extensive water damage to their homes and were completely preoccupied with demolition work and cleanup. In fact, a county judge asked all county employees who could not get into work to do volunteer work in lieu of their jobs with the county.
    It cannot be emphasized enough that the employees of the juvenile probation department in the JJC went above and beyond in helping us adjust to the difficult conditions we were facing. In addition to their normal duties dealing with the safety and security of the juveniles detained in the building, they were able to offer some meals, blankets, towels, and help to a handful of CJC evacuees who had medical conditions that needed treatment. They even offered the use of the employee showers that the detention staff used. Dr. Olivia McGill, Assistant Deputy Director of Health Services, was instrumental in helping us out in any way that she and her staff could.

Relief at last!
By noon on Wednesday, our much-anticipated relief arrived, and most of us from the original group of CJC evacuees were able to go home after nearly six full days of being away from our families. Unfortunately, Brittney Aaron and Abbie Russell still could not go home due to the floodwaters (Brittney’s residence was flooded, and neither one of them could make it home because of flooded roads), so they volunteered to stay and continued working till noon on that Friday. I was lucky enough to go home on Wednesday to a house that had not flooded but that had nearly been struck by a tornado. When I made it home that afternoon, I took a much-needed shower, got a huge hug from my wife and daughter, and then took a two-hour nap. And when I went to bed later that night, I slept for 12 straight hours.
     Once it was all over, damage assessments began. The building that we had moved into, the JJC, had water damage from the air conditioning unit on the roof, which had leaked into the floors below and damaged several courtrooms. As of this writing, the estimated time for repairs to the JJC is anywhere from three to six months. One juvenile judge is using a small detention-center courtroom, and another juvenile judge and his associate are using a courtroom that was put together with tables and chairs and occupies a training room of the Juvenile Probation Department. The judge sits at the end of the room behind a desk in what looks like a classroom with multiple whiteboards on the wall.
    The CJC—where the DA’s Office is—was heavily damaged by floodwaters, and it appears that it will take at least nine months to repair. That building had about 1,500 employees working in it, and everyone has had to move into other county buildings. The jury assembly building, which was built underground, flooded and it will not be repaired or rebuilt. (A county judge made the comment that there is a reason we don’t build basements in Houston.) All of the felony district court judges and misdemeanor county court judges have paired up and share courtrooms in the old family law courthouse and in the civil courthouse. In addition, all the civil court judges have been forced to pair up and share a courtroom in their own courthouse. We were told that jury trials will not resume until mid-October and even then, it will be difficult to try defendants in custody because the civil courthouse does not have holdover cells; these may have to be tried in the old family law courthouse.
    Finally, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office was forced to move into at least nine different buildings around the county. Due to limited county building space, the employees of the DA’s Office are now sharing offices; in many cases multiple employees are sharing one office. Our IT employees have been doing incredible work setting up our office computers and printers in all the different buildings. And yes, Gary Zallar had to move intake one more time, from the JJC to the basement of the County Attorney’s Office. And his work is not finished because he will have to move intake again—to the first floor of the old jail adjacent to the CJC. It will take months, if not years, for Harris County to get back to normal. In the meantime, the justice system will move forward as best as it can with limited resources. But just like during Allison in 2001, I have no doubt that it will recover.