Houston's flooded streets due to Hurricane Harvey.
Houston’s flooded streets due to Hurricane Harvey. (Photo: IrinaK/Shutterstock.com)

Donald Guter, dean of the South Texas College of Law—Houston, has spent the past several days volunteering at the George R. Brown Convention Center, which has transformed into an emergency shelter for people displaced by flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

Guter counts himself as fortunate. His downtown Houston high-rise apartment building has been spared from the rushing water, and sits several blocks from both the convention center and the law school, each of which have escaped flooding. Guter and his wife started working at the shelter Sunday night, soon after it opened. But by Tuesday afternoon they were turned away due to an oversupply of Houstonians who had showed up to help. Only volunteers with medical backgrounds were let in.

We caught up with Guter Tuesday to discuss the law school’s plan to reopen, how students have fared, and what it’s like in the emergency shelter. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.

What is it like at the convention center-turned emergency shelter?

What made me proud was that when we went over there, the first thing I saw was a group of South Texas students and recent grads pitching in, along with thousands of other people who are helping. The outpouring from the community is just astounding and heartwarming.

Donald Guter

The first day it was organized, but organized chaos as someone described it. It’s very efficient and well laid out. They’ve got doors for intake. They pat people down—they aren’t allowed to bring weapons—then they pass through stations to get towels, clothing and food. Yesterday, when we were over there, we were helping to set up the thousands of cots that were bring brought in, and making sure all the cots have blankets and pillows. The space was filling up very fast.

What’s the situation with your law school’s building?

We’re fortunate to be on high ground. I’ve got my Gore-Tex on and I’ll slosh over to the school and make a perimeter check later, which I’ve been doing every day. The thing that’s saving us right now is our particular location in downtown. We’re downtown but away from the bayou. You can walk a few blocks either west or north and have to stop because it’s flooded. It’s an amazing amount of water.

So the law school isn’t flooded. Have you been inside yet to see if there is any interior damage?

I have not, but we’re pretty confident that there isn’t. And if there is, we’re pretty confident we know where it would be. It’s nothing that would effect operations whatsoever.

Are your students OK?

We have heard some individual stories coming in from students. Fortunately, they are all safe and dry. They’ve made it to the homes of friends or family. We’re trying to determine if any were displaced to shelters. When we open, we want to be able to provide individual help to every student, whether it’s finding a place for them to live, or supply recovery.

What about access to the school?

The main problem is getting into and out of downtown. There are some directions you can go. But most, if not all of the highway systems, are blocked once you get a few blocks out of downtown. If you live within a mile or two, you may have access. For those faculty, staff and students who live out the suburbs, they’re not faring as well. 

Do you have plans to reopen at this point?

We’re going to officially stay closed through the weekend, opening Tuesday morning. We’re going to see if it’s feasible and safe to open the school on Friday, on a voluntary basis, for faculty staff and students to start taking an inventory and provide an air conditioned, dry, space for students to study if they want to. But also to start finding out from students what they need, and do any counseling we need to do.

What’s your message to students right now?

The primary message to students is to be safe. Either stay in place if you know you’re safe there, or get someplace safe and stay there. Don’t try to worry about other things that are out of your control. And don’t worry about law school. We’re going do everything in our power to take care of your individual needs when we reopen.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ