Last Friday, Houston event publicist Dutch Small flew to Atlanta to attend Red Bull Culture Clash, a hip-hop battle royale between rival rap crews. It was meant to be a one-day trip—he was planning to fly back to Houston on Saturday—but after watching weather reports, he decided to reschedule his flight for Monday, thinking Harvey would blow through by then. “That was a mistake,” he ruefully acknowledged by phone on Wednesday from Atlanta.
On Saturday night, Small received a frantic call from his husband, Israel Glass, who had stayed behind in Houston. Glass had been eating dinner with friends at a Chinese restaurant in southwest Houston when the first flash flood hit, trapping the group inside the restaurant. Glass had attempted to escape in his car, but was forced to abandon it in high water and flee by foot. He eventually found shelter at a Mormon church with an unlocked back door.
“He told me he was stuck there alone, and and that he was worried about trespassing, because there was nobody in the church,” Small said. On Sunday afternoon Glass was finally rescued by a high-water truck, and Small breathed a sigh of relief in his room at the W Hotel in downtown Atlanta.
Now that his husband was safe, Small wondered what he could do to help his city while he was stuck in Georgia. Then, on Monday, he received a call from a friend who works at a Houston hospital. The hospital was running low on food but didn’t want to frighten its patients by putting out a public call for supplies. Could Small, who has handled publicity for many of Houston’s leading restaurateurs, discreetly arrange a large food delivery?
“I had worked with her on other food projects and had been successful at getting her what she needed, so I was the first person she thought of,” Small said.
Small immediately called up Jonathan Horowitz, the CEO of Legacy Restaurants, which owns and operates Antone’s Famous Po’ Boy, and asked whether Horowitz could deliver 2,000 sandwiches to the hospital to get the patients through the night. Horowitz agreed, but by the time the sandwiches were ready on Monday evening the hospital had already found another food supplier. Now there were 2,000 sandwiches with nowhere to go. (Those sandwiches ended up at Texas Children’s Hospital and Methodist Hospital.) Small was watching the news and knew that many other hospitals and shelters would likely need the food, but wasn’t sure how to get it to them.
“I didn’t know how to identify the areas of need remotely,” Small said. “How do I find out who needs it the most? At that point I didn’t actually understand how big the crisis was. But I have tons of friends in the restaurant industry, so I got with a friend of mine who’s a software developer and said, we’ve got to set up some kind of centralized system here. Let’s make a Google request form, let’s spread it by social media, let’s ask the community who needs help. Then let’s separately ask the community who is willing to help. And that turned into a very big operation.”
Small posted links to the two forms on his widely followed Twitter and Facebook pages. (Here’s the link to sign up to volunteer goods and services. Here’s the link to request goods or services.) KTRK and KHOU, two local television news stations, reported on Small’s effort, which helped boost their visibility. “A lot of people offered help, and a lot of people requested help,” he said.
He also began calling Houston restaurant owners directly to ask for food. “I said, hey, your walk-in freezer is going to be out for a few days if you lost power, and your restaurant isn’t going to be open for four or five days anyway, so can I have the food that’s going to go bad? I’ll take that and get someone else to cook it. And everyone said, of course, come and take it.”
With a rapidly growing list of suppliers and an equally long list of organizations requesting food, Small had to match donors to recipients, then oversee the logistics of transporting thousands of meals through a city devastated by flooding. He posted repeated requests on social media for drivers to pick up food at Point A and deliver it to Point B. Again and again, ordinary Houstonians answered the call.
Dozens of Houston’s best-known restaurants pitched into the effort, including Reef, Les Ba’get, Pi Pizza, Uchi Houston, Southern Goods, Brennan’s, Hugo’s, State of Grace, Cane Rosso, and Pinkerton’s Barbecue. Rocking 711 Ranch donated 1,000 pounds of beef. Places like Grand Prize Bar, Black Hole Coffee House, and 8th Wonder Brewery served as drop-off and collection points.
On Wednesday morning, Small suddenly realized that he needed 3,400 breakfast tacos for one of the shelters. He posted a request on Facebook asking people to Venmo donations to Cat Nguyen, a Houston sommelier. “I know people recommend not doing that, but Cat is totally transparent and happy to give an audit of the money,” Small explained. “I just said, we need tacos, we can’t get them without cash, please send her cash.” Within two hours of posting the request, Nguyen had received over $1,500, ending up with more than enough to buy taco ingredients from local grocery stores, which volunteers cooked in the kitchen of Reef restaurant and delivered to the shelter. (Nguyen continues to accept donations towards meals for those in Houston shelters on Venmo at @catlikemeow.)
Although most shelters can only accept food prepared in commercial kitchens, Small discovered that police and fire departments were willing to accept home-cooked meals, so he put out another call for individual Houstonians to bring casseroles to stations and union halls to feed overworked and underfed first responders. Hundreds of people answered the call.
Small knows that the massive food delivery operation wouldn’t be possible without social media, which has allowed him to crowdsource donations. Still, he’s sometimes incensed by the number of people unwilling to go beyond “liking” his posts or simply thanking him in the comments. He has started responding to such comments by directly asking the commenter what they are doing to help.
“It has been a little bit frustrating for me,” Small said. “I really believe in social media as a tool for change, but at the same time I hate the involvement in social media without any action whatsoever. Especially with something as critical as this. It’s not acceptable. I want people to take action.”
You can follow Dutch Small on Twitter at @dutchsmall.