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Heroes of Harvey: A Public-Private Partnership

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Lesbian power couple coordinates response between their employers: the city of Houston and Airbnb.

By Megan Wadding

Longtime partners Susan Christian and Laura Spanjian became a tag-team relief duo in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Harvey—bridging the private and public sectors to coordinate food, housing, and support for first responders and evacuees.

For Christian, who serves as director of the Houston Mayor’s Office of Special Events, the week leading up to Harvey was especially hectic. She spent long hours in meetings planning the City’s response to the storm.

“Throughout the year, we are a cohesive unit and work seamlessly on major events and other special projects, including extreme weather events,” Christian says of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events.

Christian, who’s spent over 32 years in public service, was first involved in major relief efforts during Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita. When Harvey hit, she was ready. “I knew many of the needs: finding generators, securing housing for first responders, securing food for first responders—and not just sandwiches,” Christian says. “Our first responders, whether they work for the City, another agency, or are neighbors down the street, are the true heroes of Harvey.”

RELATED CONTENT: Saluting the LGBTQ heroes of Harvey  

Spanjian, who serves as a regional public-policy director at Airbnb, was busy coordinating the company’s largest disaster-response effort to date, which included working with Christian and mayor Sylvester Turner’s office to help find housing for first responders. Christian assigned City staff to work with Airbnb to prioritize families and match needs with open homes. “Because Harvey was an unprecedented rain and flood event, and so many were displaced, Airbnb worked closely with the City of Houston Mayor’s Office to help house families of first responders who had lost their homes, but were still working 18-hour days,” Spanjian says.

When a disaster strikes in her region, Spanjian works directly with the Airbnb Global Disaster Response and Relief team to ensure they are helping as many people as possible find free temporary housing. When their online Airbnb tool is activated, it automatically contacts Airbnb hosts near the impacted areas to see if they wish to participate, and waives all booking fees.

In addition to connecting emergency relief workers and volunteers with Airbnb hosts who agree to open their homes free of charge, Spanjian and the Airbnb team also work directly with evacuees to find appropriate housing in the right locations, based on family size as well as their transportation, school, and job needs. Over 1,000 free temporary accommodations have been offered in Texas and Louisiana for Harvey survivors since the program was launched. “During a disaster such as Harvey that displaces so many people from their homes, temporary housing is probably the most critical need, particularly for families,” Spanjian says. “People want to help their neighbors in disasters like this. Our community’s generosity is truly humbling, and we are thankful to those who have volunteered their homes.”

Spanjian, who spent 18 years in the public sector (including a stint in the Houston mayor’s office), says she went to work for Airbnb because of the company’s values and its constant drive to find ways to use the platform to help others. “The Airbnb community, coupled with Houston’s spirit of giving back and helping neighbors, has made the Airbnb Harvey disaster-response effort the largest and strongest to date,” she says. “I am so proud to be a part of these efforts to provide temporary housing to evacuees.”

Christian and Spanjian said damage to their home was minimal compared to the loss and suffering of so many of their neighbors. Their street and yard flooded, but no water entered their house.

Although they were without power for a week and lost one of their vehicles that had been parked downtown, they still feel fortunate. “A crisis is always difficult. When you get the call, you go, and I am appreciative of my family and friends being there for me through the many long hours,” Christian says.

Christian and Spanjian say friends pitched in to help care for their two young children, Eli and Ethan, whom they called “amazing troupers.” It was important for the couple to model an example of community service for their sons.

Looking back on the disaster, Christian and Spanjian say they saw a city come together with one goal and one purpose: to help neighbors.

“Our city is unique because of our people,” Christian says. “Together, we are all ‘Houston Strong,’ and many are working around the clock to help others. There is no question that so many are doing their part for the betterment of Houston. That’s who we are. I am proud to be a part of the fabric of our city.”

This article appears in the October 2017 edition of OutSmart Magazine. 

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