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How 311 Helped Understand Air Pollution After Harvey


During Hurricane Harvey, Houston's 911 system was overwhelmed. But newly released recordings reveal that another number played an important role, the all-purpose helpline 311. As NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports, it became a useful tool for understanding dangerous air pollution from the storm.


MS. BOOM: Thank you for calling to 311. This is Ms. Boom. How may I help you?


REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: On a normal day, the calls to Houston 311 are pretty dull. My trash didn't get picked up. That fire hydrant is still leaking - that kind of stuff. But during and after Hurricane Harvey, people were using it to report some unusual smells.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It kind of smells like those refineries - kind of like that chemical from the refinery, that type of thing.

HERSHER: This is a recording of one of about 40 calls to 311 about strong chemical odors in neighborhoods. The calls were obtained through an open-records request by NPR. Caller names have been redacted.


BOOM: So it don't smell like a sewer smell. It smell like a chemical smell.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's like a chemical smell.

HERSHER: When this call came in, the water was still rising in Houston. And across town at the City Health Department, they were dealing with a nightmare situation. Refineries and chemical plants were flooded, and some were releasing millions of pounds of dangerous chemicals into the air.

LOREN RAUN: Benzene and 1,3-Butadiene are chemicals that we watch really closely.

HERSHER: Loren Raun is the department's chief environmental scientist.

RAUN: They both are carcinogens and cause leukemia.

HERSHER: Those chemicals and others were leaking out of damaged facilities that were right next to neighborhoods. But Raun had a problem. She didn't know where the leaks were. Most of the air monitors were offline during the storm.

RAUN: We had sporadic readings. The wind was changing direction and - so the data was limited.

HERSHER: Raun and her colleagues needed to answer a difficult question. Were people in danger from the air? There weren't a lot of hard numbers. But there were those 311 calls.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Um, yes. I need to report - I wouldn't necessarily call it a gas leak. But I smell gasoline.

HERSHER: The more calls that came in, the more they told a bigger story. There was a cluster of people complaining about weird smells in southeast Houston. So that's where the Health Department started focusing their resources. They sent in investigators and a private mobile air monitor. It helped them pinpoint where chemicals were coming from, which Raun says helped them make sure that people weren't in imminent danger.

RAUN: We were pushing the limit of what we could do. You know, I believe that we did an incredible job.

HERSHER: And 311 provided a less tangible benefit. In the middle of a disaster, with 911 backed up, calling 311 made some residents in working-class neighborhoods feel like their city was listening to them - people like Jessica Hulsey, who smelled gasoline in her neighborhood during the storm.

JESSICA HULSEY: So I call - I call 311. And I said, you know, this is what I smell. And they're very, very courteous.

HERSHER: The whole interaction left her feeling pretty empowered.

HULSEY: I know that we're not rich, that we're no millionaires. We're very blue collar - maybe under blue collar, you know? But I have to say that the city provides the tools.

HERSHER: Tools like 311. She's one of a dozen residents who told me they felt the city was more responsive to air pollution after the storm than state and federal authorities. Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECONDITE'S "LEVO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.