As Hurricane Katrina bore down on New Orleans in late August last year, Robert Eckels was heading away from the Gulf Coast. As an elected official for Harris County, Texas — home to Houston and the third-most populous county in the United States — Eckels was scheduled to participate in a regional meeting on transportation issues in Dallas. But, by the time he arrived, Katrina's outer bands were hitting Dallas after making landfall in eastern Louisiana. Eckels knew that if the storm was monstrous enough to hit New Orleans and still dump rain so far away, the entire Gulf Coast was in trouble. As millions along the coast wondered how to escape, Eckels immediately headed back to Houston.

The extent of the hurricane's devastation quickly became apparent, and within a month, Eckels marshaled a team of government officials, private organizations and community groups to coordinate the largest shelter and evacuation operations in American history. With Eckels' help, the Houston Astrodome was transformed into a “mini-city,” housing nearly 30,000 New Orleans evacuees and serving as an Ellis Island-like processing point for nearly 40,000 more. In sum, Harris County absorbed more than 250,000 hurricane evacuees.

Three weeks after Katrina, Hurricane Rita was projected to make landfall in nearby Galveston and threatened the greater Houston region, placing new demands on local government leaders. Eckels coordinated with local and state authorities to evacuate nearly 3 million people within 24 hours. Although unexpected problems arose — including major highway logjams that left countless evacuees stranded and out of gas — Eckels kept the operation running.

For his leadership during the dual crisis, Harris County Judge Robert Eckels is American City & County's 2006 County Leader of the Year.

Regional planning

Local government is in Eckels' blood. His father was a county commissioner and served as president of the Houston school board, overseeing contentious desegregation battles in the 1960s and 1970s. “I grew up around politics and have been involved in local government my whole life,” Eckels says. “County government is a place where you can really affect people's lives. It's a place where you can quickly impact and influence the community.”

Entering politics at age 26, Eckels was elected to the state house of representatives and served 12 years before being elected Harris County judge in 1994. County judges in Texas preside over the county commissioners courts and are the only members of the courts elected countywide. Eckels' jurisdiction encompasses 34 municipalities, including Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city. More than 1.5 million people live outside the cities, relying on Harris County as their primary service provider.

In an area as sprawling and populous as southeast Texas, Eckels understands the need for regional partnerships. His primary responsibilities involve transportation, homeland security and healthcare. As chairman of the Transportation Policy Council for the Houston-Galveston region, for example, Eckels was a major author of the 2025 Regional Transportation Plan. Adopted in 2004, the plan is projected to save commuters $1.6 billion in travel time each year by doubling the use of public transportation, improving safety and reducing vehicle collisions, and limiting motor vehicle air pollution, according to Eckels. He also is chairman of the Alliance of I-69 Texas and the Texas High Speed Rail & Transportation Corp., both of which aim to ease transportation along the state and the region's most highly traveled corridors.

In his 12 years as a county judge, Eckels has helped phase in a region-wide radio network that allows government officials, first responders and law enforcement to communicate during emergencies. More than 450 agencies are hooked into the Harris County SmartZone radio system. The county also has mutual-aid agreements with 31 cities within its borders, and memoranda of understanding on cooperation during disasters with 15 surrounding counties. Whenever a storm crosses the Gulf, Eckels usually can be found at Houston TranStar, Harris County's emergency command center, which stands ready to respond to a range of disasters.

But Eckels admits that, in his early years, he learned many hard lessons about emergency management. In 1994 while he was campaigning for election as county judge, a major rainstorm flooded much of the Houston area, washing out pipelines and creating chaos throughout the county. Following his election, Eckels assembled a team of flood-control specialists to install a network of rain gauges and study regional rainfall patterns. “We moved from a model of response to a model of planning and mitigation,” he says, “which makes us better equipped for response and recovery.”

By 2001, the county had developed regional emergency response plans and was holding regular practice sessions, which led to further refinements. That year, the county faced its greatest challenge when Tropical Storm Allison walloped the region, causing one of the largest urban floods to date. The storm caused 22 fatalities and damaged 95,000 vehicles and 73,000 houses, at a cost of more than $5 billion. Out of the disaster came the Tropical Storm Allison Recovery Project, a joint effort by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Harris County Flood Control District to develop products — including a Web site and floodplain and watershed maps — that will help the community better understand and recover from floods.

“In some ways Allison was more difficult for us than Katrina, because we were the ones under water,” Eckels says. “We had hundreds of thousands of people who were forced from their homes into shelters set up by the Red Cross and faith-based organizations. All our exercises in the previous five or six years were implemented in the response. That's what we do. We plan, we practice and we execute.”

Getting the call

Allison's lessons would come to bear four years later when Eckels' phone rang at 3 a.m. on Aug. 31, 2005. At that normally quiet hour, Jack Colley, the state's director of emergency management, called Eckels to tell him that the New Orleans Superdome was no longer an effective shelter and that Katrina refugees were coming to the Houston Astrodome. About 2,000 people were expected to arrive at the Dome; but that number would eventually reach nearly 30,000.

By dawn, Eckels had mobilized a team of public and private officials to open a unified command center at Houston's Reliant Park Complex, which included the Astrodome and the Reliant Center. There, federal, state and local agencies, along with non-governmental organizations such as Aramark Food Services, Contemporary Services Corp., and the Red Cross, provided shelter, food, drink, medical supplies and comfort to displaced New Orleanians. The first group of evacuees arrived in a school bus at 10:30 p.m., followed by a motley assortment of vehicles soon after.

“Until Katrina hit, there was never a plan to use the Astrodome and these other mass shelters. But, there was a plan to work together to do whatever we could as a community,” Eckels says. “We have 34 mayors in the Houston area. We're a 13-county regional planning organization. We know how to collaborate.”

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the county created Citizens Corps to organize volunteers and work with faith-based groups and other nonprofits to respond to emergencies. During Katrina, the Corps went into action, organizing more than 60,000 registered volunteers and working with countless smaller groups that showed up to help.

“People who came from the New Orleans Superdome were so stunned that we had fruit on tables and snacks that they were hoarding them, not realizing that we had made arrangements with local vendors to provide plenty of food,” Eckels says. “People were in bad shape. We had a full hospital operation there that saw 750 people per hour. Some had been stranded on the roof of their house. They were medically compromised and had special needs.”

For more than three weeks, the Astrodome was home base for thousands of evacuees, who were fed and clothed, offered counseling, jobs and federal aid, and were eventually placed into hotels, apartments or houses. Coast Guard Lt. Joe Leonard, who worked with Eckels, said that the success of the shelter operation was “directly attributable to the strong personal relationships developed long before the hurricane in Louisiana.”

Heading out of town

Less than three weeks after Katrina, another early morning phone call to Eckels announced the imminent strike of Hurricane Rita. Strengthening across the Gulf of Mexico and becoming the third-most powerful storm on record, Rita initially looked like it would barrel directly into Houston and Harris County. Along with Houston Mayor Bill White, Eckels immediately coordinated with local and state officials and the U.S. Coast Guard to help evacuate more than 1 million people from the coastline. More than 3 million people responded, making it the largest evacuation in American history.

By 3 a.m. the next day, White called Eckels to say that Rita had made a turn, heading instead for Beaumont, Texas, 90 miles northeast. Immediately, Eckels and his team made the tough call to ask Harris County's remaining residents not to evacuate. It was a risky decision, because no one could predict the exact location where the hurricane would make landfall. But keeping more people off the road would allow the response teams to deal with those stranded on the highways. County and city officials directed diesel refueling trucks to deliver gasoline to stranded motorists. When the trucks ran short of gas cans, Eckels publicly appealed to residents for help and soon received hundreds of gas cans.

The Astrodome was called into service again as well, serving as a staging area for response vehicles — including 300 ambulances, 55 fire trucks and six search and rescue boats. When the hurricane made its turn toward Beaumont, the equipment was deployed to southeast Texas and western Louisiana.

Through it all, Eckels says, the operation ran fairly smoothly across city and county lines, and political lines. Eckels is a Republican, and Mayor White is a Democrat. “A number of problems arose with Rita,” he says. “But you didn't see the judge point the finger at the mayor and the mayor pointing the finger at the governor. Instead, we look at how we could all do better next time. In the future, we might develop a better fueling system plan and ensure better communication along the roadways. We've adapted and learned from that storm already.”

Coming together

But Eckels is quick to add that regional cooperation is not easy and requires a clear head, a willingness to compromise and a commitment to finding solutions. He also stresses the importance of having partnerships in place and building trust among different agencies in advance so that during a high-pressure crisis, people remember they are on the same side. “It's not that we all sit around and sing ‘Kumbaya,’” Eckels says. “But in the end, we get together and make it work. We don't just work together when a disaster happens. We do it every day.”

Esquire magazine recently hailed Eckels as “an island of competence in the face of catastrophe,” for his leadership during Katrina and Rita. But Eckels would argue that he was not an island at all, but a part of a multifaceted team of governmental and private organizations, faith-based and volunteer groups and concerned residents who wanted to help both strangers from a devastated city and frightened residents of their own hometown. Eckels says that the Katrina and Rita crises were transformative for many people in his community, who appreciated the chance to help. Clearly beaming with pride, Eckels relates the story about his own daughter's role in the crisis. After she insisted on donating her Barbie dolls to Katrina refugees, a grateful child gave her a book in return.

As for future aspirations, Eckels says that, for now, he wants to stay in county government. “State and federal officials often talk about the services they provide, but in the end it's usually the local governments who are on the ground providing those services from the beginning,” he says. “People who worry about what they're running for next forget about what they're doing right now — and right now, this is exactly where I want to be.”

Kim A. O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.