Deandra Delgado and her four children took refuge in an Austin shelter after Hurricane Harvey pounded her small Texas town of Edna. As she anticipated returning home to a trampled town, Delgado looked around the cot-strewn gymnasium of the Wilhelmina Delco Center in North Austin, which served as a shelter immediately after the storm hit.
"There's really not much to do," she said. "We sleep a lot."
While Harvey evacuees didn't know what they'd face when they returned home, in the moment they faced boredom at the shelter.
So, an American Red Cross volunteer pitched an idea: What if local musicians, Austin’s pride and favorite asset, played at the shelters to entertain evacuees? The performers would provide “comfort music” – everything unplugged, acoustic. Staff with the city’s Music and Entertainment Division put out the call on Aug. 28.
In less than 24 hours, it had more than 200 musicians interested. Eventually, the city called off the search.
More than 400 musicians had reached out. But the Red Cross and the city could confirm only six played – including Phillip Phillips, an out-of-towner who won the 11th season of American Idol. (It's possible there were more.)
Emails show that when City of Austin staff decided to pass the job of scheduling musicians off on the Red Cross, nothing happened. Other essential services took precedence.
“I know how proud the City of Austin is of their musicians. We want to incorporate that,” said Bristel Minsker, the South and Central Texas director of communications for the American Red Cross. “But when you’re in these disasters, the priorities are, ya know, it’s the hierarchy of needs situation.”
Inundated with interest
Emails show city staff were overwhelmed with coordinating the effort.
Stephanie Bergara, a program coordinator with the Music and Entertainment Division, said that performances would start as early as that evening – Tuesday at 5:00 p.m. – at two of the city's original shelters.
But music did not start then. Nor did it start Wednesday.
“We’re so overwhelmed with the number of people who want to help,” Bergara told me. “I am the single point of contact for this. At this point I’m getting a little bit concerned that this is spinning out of control and this is being messaged wrong.”
Bergara said she was scrambling to respond to every inquiry.
“We want to make sure that [each musician] gets a response and they know that we are working to get them placed,” she said.
When asked why the city couldn’t just stop responding to musicians past a certain point, Bergara said that was not an option.
“I’d really like to not stop responding to my emails,” she said.
Staff also said they needed to establish an administrative process for vetting and scheduling musicians before sending any to perform in the shelter.
“The red cross told us yesterday afternoon that they could do 5:30 yesterday and 9am today, but we haven’t been able to place anyone considering the administrative challenges,” Erica Shamaly, division manager with the Music and Entertainment Division, wrote in an email to staff.
All in all, three musicians performed at LBJ High School and two played at the Toney Burger Center. (Two of these musicians contacted the Red Cross directly asking to play.) The city then consolidated its Harvey shelters into one megashelter in Southeast Austin.
That’s when the music stopped.
One musician at the megashelter
At the same time evacuees moved to the megashelter, the city passed the responsibility of scheduling musicians entirely to the Red Cross. On Sept. 6, Stephanie Gates with the mayor’s office emailed an Excel spreadsheet listing roughly 300 musicians, their contact information and availability to a Red Cross employee.
A volunteer who was overseeing musicians got sick and returned home to another state.
“After that, the effort for scheduling those things kind of just died,” Minsker said. “When she left, nobody picked it back up. I wish that that wasn’t the case.”
One musician, though, got to play.
On Sept. 8, Phillips sang three songs for evacuees in the megashelter. He performed later that night at ACL Live.
In total, the agency could only say for certain that six musicians had played. "I don't have any more updated info regarding a count of musicians," wrote Minsker in an email.
Local musicians got lost in the shuffle.
“I was scheduled to play at the shelter then they canceled 'cause they were moving people to a different one and then they never got back to me about playing at the new one,” Austin musician Suzanna Choffel wrote in an email. “I was bummed to not get to play for the people in transition. I can’t think of anyone who did.”
Red Cross volunteers did manage to get other entertainment – including a petting zoo and movie screenings – into the shelter.
Melissa Alvarado, public information officer with Austin’s Economic Development Department, said she was proud of the work city staff put in to get, if any, musicians into the city’s Harvey shelters.
“I think the fact that we could provide any level of entertainment … I think it was a great gesture and helped our guests kind of forget a little of what their circumstance was," she said, "even if it was for a short period.”
Or, just for six sets.