Russell Price had lived in Houston for forty years when he participated in this interview. Price lived in Michigan before coming to Houston, trading in ice and snowstorms for tropical storms and hurricanes. Price is an alum of the University of Houston and Rice University, later working at Rice as Assistant Vice Principal of Facilities. His experience in electrical systems saw him responsible for crisis management, emergency management, and tropical storm and hurricane preparations. With Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, Price learned how to restore power at Rice in a natural disaster, motivating him to prepare for power outages and other errors before a storm hits. In addition, he helped create a prevention program for Rice’s critical areas, those with dorms for students and those with electrical importance. While the prevention plan helped Rice in future storms, Price admitted that the campus stayed relatively undamaged during Tropical Storm Allison due to a construction hole in the ground that collected most of the rainfall. Price had retired from his Rice position when Hurricane Harvey struck, but his preparation plan granted minor university damage. Unfortunately, Price’s home flooded and required help from an emergency crew that removed the damaged portions of the house and debris in the yard. Finishing up his interview, Price discusses adapting his preparation plans post-Harvey, as well as advising every homeowner in the Houston area to invest in flood insurance.
Read on for the full transcript of the interview:
Interviewee: Russell Price
Interview Date: October 4, 2019
Interview Location: WALIPP Senior Center
Interviewer: Tyler Ruffeno
INTERVIEWER: Today is October 4, 2019. I’m Tyler Ruffeno, and I’m here with Russell Price at the WALIPP Senior Center to talk about Hurricane Harvey for the UH Center for Public History’s Resilient Houston: Documenting Hurricane Harvey project.
TR: That’s what we’re here for.
TR: So if you could, start by stating your name and telling me a little me a little bit about yourself — just where you grew up, where you’re from, and stuff like that.
RP: I’m Russell Price. My Twitter name is @RussellJPrice. I’ve been in Houston for 40 years. I can’t believe it. But I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. And I came down here in 1979. And Detroit, you know, we had to worry about snow and ice storms. Come down here, you worry about, you know, wind storms and, of course, flooding and tropical storms and hurricanes. I was — I’ve been a member of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church right down the street here for a number of years — about 25 years [0:01:00].
I — since University of Houston is doing this project, I’m a University of Houston undergrad. I graduated from Civil Technology and Construction Management. And then I worked at Rice since ’79 — started off as electrical supervisor and worked my way up — ended up — before I retired four years ago, I was Assistant Vice President of Facilities. A lot of that was based on getting my education at U of H along the way. And I got my MBA at Rice University while I was there. So I’m alumni at University of Houston and at Rice University.
At Rice University, I was responsible for beginning all the electrical energy systems, but I worked my way up and got promoted — eventually responsible for all the campus maintenance and renovations. And part of that responsibility is crisis management, emergency management, hurricane prep, tropical storm prep. [0:02:00] If I can go back a little bit, a little experience before Harvey?
TR: Of course, of course.
RP: Okay, my first — my major experience with the hurricane here in Houston was in Hurricane Allison [sic, 0:02:10]. And I lived in Spring at the time. And I got a call — you know, I knew the hurricane was coming in. This was back in the day before we started preparing, you know, before the storms. I got a call. Rice didn’t have any power. So I jumped in my car. I’m in charge of electricity — jumped in my car, rode down. I got downtown here to 59 and 45. And water was just rushing down the freeway. Like I said, I’m from Detroit. I’m used to snow and ice. I didn’t know what water would do.
I drove through the water. And I finally got to the campus. I went through several feet of water getting to the campus. I had to park on high ground to keep from flooding my car on campus. Well, I was able to restore the power to the campus, so I became a hero from that point on. And that’s what kind of triggered my promotion from that point on. I returned the power. And since that time, we started having preparations before the storm [0:03:00] — not wait until the storm hits. So I’ve gone through, like I said, Allison.
Along the way, we had several other hurricanes, but since that time, we decided to have a prevention program. When a storm comes in, have a hurricane preparedness plan. And that includes having a ride-out crew, you know, to ride the storm out. We allow those employees to go home and take care of their homes first and come back to the campus and ride the storm out. And before the storm hits, we review all the essential areas, critical areas to keep safe. Of course, Rice is full of students — lot of residents, so we make sure they’re safe. Because they ride the storm out, too. So we make sure that they’re safe, so we board up critical windows that could blow out. And we have all our windows marked — all our supplies for all the colleges and dormitories marked — and critical facilities. So in future hurricanes, we can go in those buildings, pull out those sheets, and know exactly where they go [0:04:00]. So that was part of the plan. So that went very well.
The only time we had a major problem was not a hurricane. It was Tropical Storm Allison. Allison, yeah. And that’s when it surprised everybody when it rained for a long time — rained for several days. And I actually had left the campus, thought everything was okay, and got about a mile away and got trapped. That was in a car. So I had to have my employees come in a big truck and rescues me that time from that. And I went back to the campus, and we rode the storm out. During that Allison storm, what saved Rice — because Rice didn’t have that much damage. You know, medical center is right next door. We had a major construction project. We had a big hole in the ground for a new building — a big hole in the ground. You know how the — a lot of that water went in that hole. And that saved — that saved us.
So since that time — and we were back online within two, three days after that. And since that time, we’ve had, you know, other hurricanes. And during Harvey — getting to Harvey [0:05:00], like I said, we had this crisis management plan, which I’m a major member of that team. We prepare for all — any emergencies, including hurricanes, storms. And we meet several times a year to make sure we have our ducks in a row. So when Harvey hit, I had retired for a few months. But they used my plan — my hurricane emergency preparedness plan, where you have a ride-out crew, have all your supplies ready, food, beverages, you know, to last you through three or four days.
And Rice — since that Hurricane Allison [sic, 0:05:34], we have not lost power at Rice University. We had emergency back-up generators in every building — almost all critical buildings. We had cogeneration in case we lost power. We were very well prepared, so I think a lot of times — because if you’re prepared, you have fewer problems. And after every hurricane at Rice, we usually are back online within a day or two, where other hospitals and institutions [0:06:00] are struggling for several days. And I was proud of that fact, because that was part of our emergency preparedness plan. I was a major part of that. So when Harvey hit, you know, I was — I felt out of place, because I wasn’t on campus riding the storm out. I’m usually there all night and, you know, monitoring all the critical areas.
And I was actually — I was down here in Houston, and — but I had a home in Spring — in Spring, Texas. I still owned in Spring, and I tell you how important the flood maps are. My house in Spring was on the borderline with the floodplain — major 100-year floodplain. I don’t know — house next door was not. And my house was. And my house actually flooded during Harvey. I had about maybe a foot of water. That’s enough to do major damage. So I went out there and assessed the damage. And it was — the water seeped up the walls, so we just [0:07:00] decided to pull everything out. We got — we got — actually got assistance from this emergency crew that travels around the country. They travel all around the country. I forget the name of the crew, but they come and help people. And they sent us — we were lucky enough they sent us — my daughter was able to contact them, although she lives in D.C. And they came out. They flew into Houston and had a major crew come out to the house. And they just took everything out, cut the walls out and everything, and were a major help. But the only problem is they put everything out in the yard, you know. And a lot of things come up missing. You come back the next day, and where’d that go? But anyway, we were able to survive that — the house in Spring.
But here in Houston, we had a lot of water. And everywhere you go, you had to make sure you had a — the right kind of vehicle first of all and know where you’re going. Best thing to do was stay home. I was also proud of the fact that at Rice University I kept in contact with my old crew [0:08:00]. And they did not lose power. And they were back online within a day or two like usual. So because being prepared and having a plan in place — prepare yourself. Usually during the storm, we — you usually — you know at least three or four days before the storm hits. So we start preparing right at that time and paid close attention to the — to the route that the hurricane had. And each day, we had a different step in our plan to activate. And that’s been very successful.
I had friends here with Hurricane Harvey that had damages as well to their homes. And out in Spring, my house was on the edge of the hurricane plan. A block away, homes had — the whole first floor full of water. So we were lucky. It was like a — it was like a disaster like you see on television. All those beautiful homes with all their belongings, furniture, and their personal items all out in the yard piled up. It was just awful [0:09:00]. It’s a — I felt blessed that I only had a foot of water in my house where other people’s houses were just devastated.
TR: Our last interviewee, Harold, also, I believe, goes to the same church that you do. And he talked a lot about what they did. Did you have any experience with what they did? Did you volunteer at all?
RP: I did not during that time, no. I did not.
TR: Did you have any experience with the church when they were doing that?
RP: No, I did not. No, I did not, uh-huh.
TR: You talked a lot about getting in contact. Was it difficult getting in contact during Harvey? Or was it after Harvey whenever you got in contact?
RP: Well, I kept in contact as long as cell phones worked, uh-huh, with my employees that used to, you know, work for me.
TR: Do you have any friends or family that got affected by the storm at all?
RP: Well, even in Sugar Land — my oldest son lives in Sugar Land. And even they were affected out there. They got, you know, flooded, but his whole home didn’t have any damage — fortunately for that. But you know, a lot of people were trapped [0:10:00] wherever they were. You know, they had to stay at least a day or so wherever they were trapped. Hopefully, they were at home, you know, but a lot of — many people were trapped around the city — in their cars.
TR: Yeah. How well-prepared do you think the City of Houston was? Not just with your program, but with the whole City of Houston, how do you think it went?
RP: I think the City of Houston will learn from — you know, we all learn from experience. And I think the mayor and their whole crew that worked hard, they were preparing just like we were. They were letting people know ahead of time what to do. They were preparing the heavy equipment out there in advance in strategic locations, so they wouldn’t have to all leave from one spot after the hurricane hit. They were already spread out. And I think the same with the energy company, like CenterPoint. They were already — you know, had a plan in place as well. And usually, utility companies, when they know a storm is coming, they get support from other cities [0:11:00], you know. And Houston supports other cities — Florida and everywhere when they have hurricanes — and New Orleans. And we get support from these other companies — from the other cities as well.
But Houston — I think, considering everything, it was a — it was bad. It was a lot of people were — had flooded out. But when a hurricane like that hits, there’s not much you can do but wait it out. And do as much preparedness as you can. I think Houston did a good job of that based on my experience.
TR: I heard you talk about how you’re from Denver.
TR: Sorry, Detroit, my bad. And you had to deal with a lot of snow up there. Is there a huge difference dealing with snow versus water? Or is it pretty similar in how you prepare?
RP: I think with snow and ice you get stuck or you — with snow, a lot of people learn in Detroit, you keep a shovel in your trunk during the wintertime, because you get stuck, you dig yourself out. And just like in Houston, when people have a — when you have a major disaster or problem [0:12:00], everyone supports everybody else. In Detroit, it was the same way. If you get stuck on a highway or a street, nobody can move unless they help you get out. So there was always that support mechanism in place.
The biggest danger in Detroit was when they have ice storms. And ice would break the utility lines. You lose power, and you’re already at zero degrees or whatever the temperature is. Then you got no heat. So then your pipes can freeze in your house and have more damage. And I’ve come out of my house and had icicles two-foot long hanging out in the gutters from the roof. And that’s dangerous. When they fall, they could hurt somebody or kill somebody. So ice storms were the worst. But to me, compared to ice storms and snow and ice, I think flooding and wind damage is much more severe in my opinion — in my experience — maybe because I was younger then and didn’t really — you know, when you’re young, you don’t — you’re not afraid of anything. But when I come down here, I was a little older. And I learned the significance of disasters and what can happen [0:13:00].
TR: I know you talked about that plan that you implemented. With Harvey, I know you said it was already implemented pretty well. But was it able to be available for the future? Is it still going on?
RP: It’s still going on, yeah. Yes, uh-huh. I’m sure they — you know, every year you examine your plan and everything you could have done a little bit better. You tweak it every year. And when a university like Rice or the University of Houston is growing, you have to add buildings to your plan. You know, there’s always new facilities, and there’s changes. One of the changes we realize is just, you know, the medical center, when it flooded during Allison and other hurricanes, they didn’t protect their tunnel system and basements. And we — that’s part of our plan. We put in flood doors. The flood doors are closed right before the storm, so the water cannot enter those critical tunnels and shut everything down [0:14:00]. Because the tunnels supply utilities for the entire campus. So you learn things like that along the way. So I’m sure, at Rice, I talked to some of my peers right after the storm. And they went through it well, but I’m sure they’re still tweaking the plan. Right now, we’re still in hurricane season. So I’m sure they’re in that ready preparedness plan — looking at that plan again to make sure everything’s in place.
TR: Are you still in contact with them all with that kind of thing?
RP: Yeah, I’m a — I’m an associate at Rice. I’m alum. And Rice has the college system. I’ve been an associate for 25 years, so I’m like a member of the college. I can go and have lunch. We have associate nights, where I support the students, mentor the students. I go on campus quite a bit.
TR: So is there anything about the storm that you experienced that really stuck with you?
RP: Well, sticking with me moving [0:15:00] forward would be to make sure that you identify where you are if you’re on property or even if you’re leasing property. Know where the floodplain maps are. Know where — because they’re pretty accurate. You know, they’re very accurate. I mean, there’s always changes, because the — I call [unclear, 0:15:20] changes, you know, your highways and your streets. And the more pavement you put in, that’s — you know, it’s not impervious. And you know, the water got nowhere to go, so it goes — where it used to go in the ground, it goes someplace else. So you got to be cognizant of that. But what I realize is, you know, a lot of people didn’t have flood insurance right on the border, you know. And I think it’s important, especially if you own property to have flood insurance, whether you live in the floodplain or not.
TR: Just one more question, was there anything else that we haven’t discussed that you would like to talk about when it comes to [0:16:00] Harvey at all? It could be anything. No?
RP: Nuh-uh. I know University of Houston came out pretty well, too, being — you know, considering, yeah. I’ve been with them — I know Dean Tillis. And I know Vice President Lee. I’ve been affiliated with University of Houston even before I got my degree.
TR: Alright. Well, thank you. I appreciate it.
RP: Okay, Tyler.
TR: Thank you so much for talking to me.
RP: Thank you. [0:16:30]