by Alex Palmer | September 15, 2017
As he describes how the city and his team sheltered and assisted those affected by Hurricane Harvey, Visit Houston President Mike Waterman frames the unprecedented response in a way that an event planner could appreciate. 
"If you want to put it in meeting planner terms, we got a call for a 10,000-person convention on Friday and executed it by Sunday," he says.

With record-breaking rainfall and flash flooding expected throughout Houston, thousands of residents were being evacuated and suddenly in need of somewhere dry to stay. On the Friday afternoon the storm made landfall in southern Texas, Waterman got a call from the mayor asking if the city's George R. Brown Convention Center (which is operated by Visit Houston's parent organization, Houston First Corporation) could be prepared to house up to 1,500 evacuees. 

The convention center and the surrounding entertainment district of Avenida Houston were located in an area likely to avoid the worst of the hurricane and were seen as a good option to provide a refuge for Houstonians forced to leave the harder-hit residential areas. Plus, the staff of the George R. Brown Convention Center also had experience with just this sort of emergency: many had assisted in setting up the convention center to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina a dozen years earlier. 

Playing it safe, Visit Houston's COO and the head chef of the convention center ordered enough food, water, and cots to supply 4,000 people over five days. But as the storm made its destructive path through the city and many residents sought shelter at the convention center, it became clear that the staff were dealing with a bigger event than they'd prepared for. By Monday night, more than 8,000 were filling the halls and showed no sign of slowing.

"At its peak, we had over 10,000 displaced Houstonians," says Waterman. 

As word spread about the needs of those in the convention center, many people and organizations began bringing supplies - food, blankets, diapers - first in a trickle, then at such a pace that cars bringing supplies were backing up on the highways. So many donations arrived that there was not enough room to store it at the George R. Brown Convention Center. With help from the mayor and BBVA Compass Stadium (the city's soccer stadium), the donations were rerouted to the soccer arena.

"In one day, they filled the entire inside ring of BBVA Compass seven feet high with donations," says Waterman.

Thanks to the fast-acting efforts of the city and convention center staff, local businesses and volunteers, and many others, those who were displaced were able to weather the worst of the storm in relative comfort. By Wednesday night, Harvey began to recede and many who had been stranded were able to move in with family or friends, and the American Red Cross and Southern Baptist Organization were able to fully mobilize at the convention center, taking over operations from the convention center staff.

"I can't even begin to tell you what might have happened had we not been prepared," says Waterman.


Back to Work

Once the emergency response had been handled, Waterman and his team set their sights on broader and longer-term recovery efforts. While the residential areas closer to the water suffered severe damage expected to take longer to repair, the downtown core, museum district, and Galleria shopping area were spared the worst of Harvey's wrath. 

"In Avenida Houston, there was no flooding, it never lost power and never lost water," says Waterman. "When it's raining 50 miles an hour sideways, there was some water damage where it seeped through windows and that sort of thing, but ultimately no significant damage as a result of Hurricane Harvey."

All METRORail routes and the majority of local bus routes have resumed regular service. All park and ride facilities have resumed normal operations. A majority of restaurants in the central districts, including areas near downtown, the Heights, and The Galleria are back in business and approximately 98 percent of the members of the Hotel and Lodging Association of Greater Houston have reopened. Both the George Bush Intercontinental and William P. Hobby Airports are fully operational, and all roadways to and from the airport are as well.

The majority of major attractions have reopened, with a few exceptions: The Theater District, which sits close to the water, was one of the hardest areas of downtown hit, and Jones Hall, Wortham Center, Alley Theater, and the underground parking areas are currently being assessed for damage. Buffalo Bayou Park and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston's Bayou Bend and Rienzi remain closed, as does the 1940 Air Terminal Museum and Mercer Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. But efforts are moving quickly to repair even these hardest-hit areas. 

Back to Normal

With recovery underway, Waterman's focus is now on showing "we're open for business. We're trying as fast as possible to get back to a new normal."

That's meant keeping customers with business booked through 2017 and 2018 updated on all developments and emphasizing Houston's readiness for hosting their events. That has included flying planners for events coming up in the next few days or weeks into the city to see the recovery for themselves, including representatives of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (bringing 5,000 members to Houston for its annual meeting Sept. 27-29) and American Nurses Credentialing Center's National Magnet Conference (bringing almost 10,000 attendees to the city Oct. 11-13).

"We flew them into Bush or to Hobby, showed them it's what it was pre-hurricane, toured them around the facility, showed them the George R. Brown, and convinced them they can safely execute their meeting," says Waterman. "It turns pretty quickly into them realizing, 'wow this is really the best way we can help Houston recover, bringing our event here. We want to come. We want to put Houston back on the road to recovery.'" 

Visit Houston, the Hotel & Lodging Association of Greater Houston, and Greater Houston Restaurant Association have also just launched the Houston Hospitality Employee Relief Fund, to help hospitality- and tourism-industry workers impacted by the hurricane, and to which Waterman urges those looking to offer aid make a donation. 

To date, Visit Houston has had no cancelations as a result of Harvey, including 13 citywide events still planning to take over Houston between now and December.

And, three weeks after Harvey made landfall, the convention center that served as a refuge for more than 10,000 locals is ready to return to serving its intended purpose, with the Texas Society of Association Executives holding its New Ideas Annual Conference there from Sept. 17-19.

"We are grateful to all of those customers for their trust in what we're doing," says Waterman. "Harvey is not going to define Houston - nobody thought 'I'm a victim of the storm.' It was, 'how do we get up faster and quicker than anybody expected.'"