Interim city manager passes disaster-recovery test

AUSTIN, Texas — Interim City Manager Fernando Quintanilla juggled many duties as Hurricane Harvey ripped through Aransas Pass, Texas, but perhaps the most difficult was keeping up morale among his team.

About 30 city workers waited out Harvey in Aransas Pass so they could begin recovery efforts as soon as the storm passed. Quintanilla was one of 10 who initially holed up in the Municipal Court, but they were forced to evacuate and shelter in jail cells when Harvey showed its force.

“In the courtroom, the ceiling started falling on us, and we were getting flooded,” Quintanilla said. “The staff was losing hope, and it was hard to maintain momentum and encourage them to keep going. The world around you, pretty much, was falling apart, and you didn’t know what was going to happen.”

When the storm finally passed, Quintanilla’s first priority was to check on the other city employees, who had sheltered in the Public Works Department building. After a 40-minute drive through debris that normally would have taken 5 minutes, he pulled into the Public Works Department parking lot and found it unrecognizable.

“It was an eerie feeling coming into our yard and not being able to see a building,” Quintanilla said. “All you saw was branches and debris piled up everywhere.”

Behind the piles, he was relieved to find the building intact and all the workers safe.

Quintanilla said about 10 percent of the city’s 9,000 residents ignored the mandatory evacuation order and stayed in Aransas Pass through Harvey. Fortunately, none of the residents were seriously injured, but the town itself sustained heavy damage.

“When we first went out in daylight and really started seeing it for the first time, you were in awe to see the damage,” he said. “Trees were knocked over everywhere, tops of houses all over the roads, power lines all over the place.”

Quintanilla, the city’s public works director, had served as interim city manager since February and was preparing to turn over the reins to a new manager in only a few weeks. But after Harvey tore through, he had no choice but to step up.

“Switching roles was a huge undertaking,” said Quintanilla, who was learning the city’s budget process at the same time he was leading recovery efforts. “Managing that and still maintaining the public works director position was stressful at times, and once the storm hit, it was chaotic for a while.”

The city was able to get through that difficult time because of the dedication of its workers, he said.

“We had a very good team. Everybody knew what they had to do, and we were like a well-oiled machine working day in, day out to make sure our city got back up and running.”

For Quintanilla, a joyous milestone came a month after Harvey’s landfall, when he saw his wife and three children for the first time since the storm. Quintanilla had told his wife not to bring the kids to Aransas Pass before then, as they were too young to view the devastation.

“It was hard to hold back tears when I saw them,” he said. “Of course I was all bearded up because I hadn’t shaved, and they [hesitated and] looked at me funny. I said, ‘Just come over here and give me a hug!'”

By that point, the city had restored water and sewer service with the help of electric generators provided by FEMA and the Texas Division of Emergency Management, but residents would be without power for another two weeks. Nonetheless, the city was already beginning to recover, thanks to the selflessness and unity people displayed.

“It’s amazing how everybody comes together after a storm, and it’s contagious too,” Quintanilla said. “People were just coming in left and right and doing whatever they could to help out, whether they were local people or people coming in from other states or other areas. You see people doing it, and before you know it, it just grows and grows and grows.”