As Hurricane Harvey took aim, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo immediately thought of the Onion Creek flood that struck Southeast Austin in 2013.
The former Austin police chief remembered that flood gauges that could have alerted thousands of residents to grave danger failed in the storm, which wound up damaging about 600 homes and killing five people, so he dispatched officers to low-lying waterways with orders to radio dispatchers if they saw water top the banks.
“I said, ‘I want eyes on all those bayous,’” Acevedo said.
As Houston faces Harvey’s historic aftermath, Acevedo, who left for Houston last fall after nearly a decade as Austin’s chief, has helped lead the city’s emergency response and will play a central role in its recovery in the weeks to come.
Before the worst flooding struck, Acevedo was out on Saturday with officers performing rescues, livestreaming on Twitter, before putting his phone down to help.
“How do you not go in the water with them?” he said. “What am I supposed to do? Say, ‘I’m the police chief?’”
Working with only fits of sleep, he told the American-Statesman in an interview at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center — the home of thousands of evacuees — that although he misses his friends of many years in Austin, he felt “God put it in my heart” to be in Houston more than nine months ago.
Now he says he knows why.
“I’m glad I’m here, and I’m OK,” he said. “When you consider that we are still responding to the worst rain emergency ever recorded in history, as far as I know, I’m amazed at how our men and women, and our law enforcement partners, are responding.”
In the days since Harvey began waging war on Houston, Acevedo said he has made it his mission to try to elevate the spirits of his 5,500 officers, despite the reality that many have been separated from their families for days and or had their homes swallowed by floodwaters.
But he said he is struck by how they are still determined to serve.
“The hardest part is the frustration,” he said. “When you are a police officer, you are wired to help people. I’ve seen officers with tears in their eyes who feel like they haven’t done enough.”
They also are coping with the loss of one of their own.
On Sunday morning, Sgt. Steve Perez, who had been with the department more than three decades, left his home to report to duty and spent more than two hours trying to navigate flooded streets. His supervisors realized he hadn’t arrived at work during a roll call and tried to locate him.
Perez’s body was recovered Tuesday.
The national news repeatedly played emotional soundbites of Acevedo discussing the department’s loss, speaking through tears and almost breaking down.
Acevedo described Perez as a “sweet, gentle public servant” and a man of faith.
At the convention center Wednesday night, Acevedo’s mood had turned. He could barely finish answering a question before turning to greet officers who approached him for a hug or handshake.
“Proud of you!” he yelled from across a hallway to a group of officers as he was striding toward a media camp to do an interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN.
“Going home?” he asked another, pointing out that many officers haven’t yet been able to get to their homes to assess the damage. “First time?”
He also talked to evacuees and volunteers, some of whom treated Acevedo with the same celebrity status that Austin at times gave him.
“You’re doing a great job,” Monique Rodriguez, a volunteer social worker told Acevedo before snapping a quick selfie with the chief.
Acevedo hadn’t been home in nearly a week and hadn’t slept longer than four hours. He has a hotel room near the police headquarters, and officers at the convention center joked about a story they had heard about Acevedo being startled while napping in his office chair.
He said Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Austin’s interim Police Chief Brian Manley have been in touch, and he thanked them.
Acevedo said he also has heard from Austin residents and friends and that he has shared what they said with his officers.
“All the supportive messages I’ve gotten from the people I served with for 10 years have been read by not just me but by the men and women of our department,” he said. “I can assure you, they have lifted our spirits.”