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NEO Shop Talk September 22nd, 2020
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Special Edition: 5 Ways that Living Through a Hurricane Made Me a Better Evaluator

Posted by on August 28th, 2017 Posted in: Blog, Logic Models, Practical Evaluation

Photo of flooded street in Houston

A street by my house flooded with Buffalo Bayou

One of the NEO Shop Talk bloggers, Karen Vargas, lives in Houston and is sheltering in place with her family. She posted this special blog post to let our readers know how her evaluation training is helping her and her family face Hurricane Harvey. She also wanted to let you know her family is going to be okay.

Setting the scene:

Houston is mostly flat, so all geographical changes are subtle.  We live on a high-ish point about a quarter mile from Buffalo Bayou, one of the main watersheds for Houston.  Historically our neighborhood has stayed dry, even in the fiercest storms, like Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Ike.  It takes a lot of water for Buffalo Bayou to work its way up the hill to our house.

But Hurricane Harvey seems intent to try.  Several times a day we have been walking down the street to see how high the Bayou is.  At its highest (so far) it was about a block from our house, which is closer than it’s ever been.  The rain is still falling, the storm is still trying to figure out what direction to go, and the Army Corps of Engineers has released a lot of water from a couple of upstream reservoirs into Buffalo Bayou (at the time of this writing, we don’t know how that’s going to turn out).

Important things in our favor:

  • We still have electricity (one of the interesting side affects of that is that since I work at home, I can still go to work).
  • We have plenty of food and water.

Things that we’ll call challenges:

  • We have an energetic 4 year old
  • Everything in Houston is closed
  • Streets are full of water, so even if things weren’t closed we couldn’t get there

So what have I learned from this experience that will make me a better evaluator?

Lesson 1: Starting with an evaluation question focuses your thinking. An evaluation question is what do we want to find out from the evaluation of our project.  In our case we knew last week that this mess was coming and had plenty of information for us to assume we would be stuck in the house by ourselves for anywhere from 3-5 days (it seems to be turning into 7 days, but we had the basic idea). We didn’t know whether there would be electricity, but we did know schools were going to be closed Monday (today) and likely to be closed for longer (now we know that they will be closed all week). So I think our evaluation question is: How successful are we at preparing for this natural disaster in a way that would keep our family safe and our child from going bananas?

Lesson 2: Start with a logic model.  As an evaluator, I know that even if there wasn’t an evaluation plan up front (ahem), if you’re called in to evaluate something in the middle or end of a project, you should still start by making a logic model. So here it is, even though our planning took place without a logic model.

Logic model of hurricane planning

We can use the evaluation plan to build outcome indicators and set targets to build measurable objectives, like “number of positive experiences for daughter is greater than the number of negative ones, all week long.”

Lesson 3: Good planning makes it easier to change course.  Of course it’s not possible to plan for everything, especially when the hurricane appears in the Gulf of Mexico as a mixed up bunch of clouds and two days later is a category 4 hurricane.  The 6.5 million people who live in the Houston area planned ahead when they heard about the storm, and therefore stores were empty of water and perishables. If we had really planned ahead, we would already have our hurricane kit ready.  That said, we aren’t newbies to hurricane preparedness, and we knew about going to places other people hadn’t thought of, like going to gas stations to get water.

But back to changing course.  The plan was always to stay in our house, which has always braved the Houston storms because it is on a “hill.”  However, this storm is like no other, and the Bayou rose higher than it has ever risen.  So yesterday we needed to look at alternatives, especially since it was getting dark and the streets were flooded.

Because we had done a lot of preparation, we were able to change course and pack all of our food and our supplies and our animals for a quick evacuation to a nearby parking garage or a trip up to the attic, whichever turned out to be the better plan.

Lesson 4: Connections matter.  In a good program evaluation, you have a team of advisors, or stakeholders, who are invested in the success of your project. In this storm, those people are our neighbors, friends, family, and coworkers.  It has been important to keep those people involved, so they know when we last reported in, for moral support, and to exchange ideas and information, which has been invaluable.  We learned things like: for heaven’s sake don’t go up into the attic if you don’t have an ax to get out of the attic.

Last night as we were concerned about the water continuing to rise in the dark, we brainstormed with our across-the-street neighbors (part of our advisory team) to develop additional plans of what we could do if the water kept rising. Since we had all been walking down the block to check on the height of the water, we agreed to take shifts so we could all get some sleep and text each other the water levels.  Working collaboratively with our advisory team made stronger plans and helped us be healthier and better able to make decisions today.

Lesson 5: Outcomes outcomes outcomes.  Our number one outcome is that we survive this adventure.  It’s an important outcome because none of the other outcomes will work without that one.  But I put lessons learned as the interim outcome, and better preparedness for the next hurricane as the long-term outcome.  Why are lessons learned and improved preparedness outcomes?  I probably don’t need to say that living on the Gulf of Mexico provides a lot of opportunities to practice hurricane preparedness.  Each one teaches us lessons that we can use for the next one. And years from now (please let it be years from now) when we have another storm, we would like to survive that one too.  By making “lessons learned” an outcome, when we evaluate this storm we will see whether we’ve learned anything that we can use to survive the next one.

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This project is funded by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), National Institutes of Health (NIH) under cooperative agreement number UG4LM012343 with the University of Washington.

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