With several district offices damaged and some almost completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) last week activated an emergency management center put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to ensure that even in the midst of crisis, Members still have a place back home to do their jobs.
Based in the Ford House Office Building and composed of representatives from several House committees and administrative offices, the House Recovery and Operations Center has been in operation around the clock since the storm hit providing Members and their staffs with everything from satellite phones and laptop computers to entire mobile office units. Those tools allow Congressional offices to remain open and effective even in the districts hit hardest by the storm.
According to House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), some 10 to 12 Members have made use of HROC to varying degrees.
Two trailers that can be set up as temporary office space were dispatched to Rep. Gene Taylor’s (D) Gulfport, Miss., district, while other offices sought help with Internet and technical issues and computer programs to track constituent movement. Mobile phones, chargers and other communication equipment that had been pre-stockpiled by HROC has already been dispersed to district offices, and staffers manning the center in Washington are working to address the short- and long-term needs of individual districts.
“They actually reached out to us and we were thankful for that,” said Brian Perry, press secretary for Rep. Chip Pickering (R), from his central Mississippi office on Tuesday. “They’re helping us with a lot of our office Internet and HR capabilities that went down. We’re expecting to have it up next week.”
Rep. Richard Baker’s (R-La.) spokesman, Michael DiResto, echoed those comments.
“I wanted to get across that I guess how generous Congressman Ney has been, I wouldn’t even call it responsive, it’s been more progressive than that,” DiResto said.
“The first day we were back in the office after the storm last Wednesday he personally called our office in Washington letting us know that they were prepared to assist us with whatever equipment we might need,” added DiResto, whose district office hosted staffers for Rep. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) during the first few days after the storm. Jindal’s southeastern Louisiana office could not be occupied after Katrina moved through.
Initially Members were requesting communications equipment to get up and running again, Ney said. But a week after the storm, the requests have tended more toward manpower to assist exhausted staffers.
“Now we’re hearing more from people that they need help answering telephones,” Ney said. “I think that it’s amazing that under the stress and strain and the trauma, these Members and staffers didn’t miss a beat and worked with our structure over here. They really kept their heads and focused. These are not easy times.”
This past week’s crisis represented the first time the House Recovery and Operations Center has been put into use since it was formed as part of Congress’ continuity of government operations in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Ney attributed much of the success so far of “H-rock” — as the emergency management center is known — to the fact that “we didn’t have to sit around and debate this for five or six days, this was pulled together immediately after it was activated” by House leadership.
September 11 “taught us a lot internally in the House, it taught us that we didn’t have a cohesive structure in place” for keeping district offices working during emergencies, Ney said. In response, laptop computers, phones and other essential office supplies were stockpiled and the new center was formed with representatives from the House Office of Emergency Planning Preparedness and Operations, House Sergeant at Arms, Chief Administrative Officer, Capitol Police, House Administration Committee and House Appropriations Committee.
Representatives from each of the offices have met daily in House Administration offices since HROC was activated and Ney said the 24-hour operation would continue to run “as long as the offices continue to need it.”