It’s not an accident that the George R. Brown Convention Center (GRB) sits where it does in downtown Houston. It was designed that way, according to Mike Waterman, president of Visit Houston. “This area we call Avenida Houston and used to call the Convention District is one of the highest points in the central business district,” Waterman said. “…We’re naturally a high point in town, and we certainly saw that during what some are considering a 1,000-year flood.”
That would be Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall in Texas as a Category 4 storm in late August before moving along the Gulf Coast to Louisiana. Over the course of four days, Harvey dropped 30 to 50 inches of rain on Houston, creating widespread flooding, displacing tens of thousands of people from their homes, temporarily disrupting energy and agricultural production, and causing up to $50 billion in property damage. Through it all, the GRB stayed dry. Which was a good thing, because it ended up sheltering nearly 10,000 people for close to a week.
Convene talked to Waterman about what the storm did to his city, and what’s next. We were also joined in the conversation by Leah Shah, Visit Houston’s public-relations manager.
When did Hurricane Harvey first come onto your radar?
Mike Waterman We were tracking the storm like everybody else, not knowing it was going to come our way, probably middle of the week prior to the storm hitting. Then, on Thursday [Aug. 24], I guess it was, Houston First and Visit Houston had an emergency planning meeting, kind of going through if the GRB was called upon to be an emergency shelter-in-place — how we were going to handle it, what were the expectations around what we were going to do, what FEMA was going to do, what the Red Cross was going to do. Most of the staff had been through hurricanes in the past, so the one good thing we had was past experience. Our COO who runs the George R. Brown, Luther Villagomez, had experienced Rita and experienced Katrina here in Houston [in 2005], and knew what to expect. We started planning really on Thursday, and then on Friday around 3:30 in the afternoon, we got the call from the mayor’s office requesting that they use the George R. Brown as a shelter-in-place. We informed the mayor’s office that we would do that gladly, and in about two hours stood the George R. Brown up. We bought enough food, water, cots — some were purchased, some were rented — to accommodate 4,000 people for five days. That was all delivered Saturday morning.
— George R. Brown CC (@GRBCC) September 6, 2017
When did it become clear to you that Houston was probably going to be directly impacted by Harvey?
Mike Waterman We knew when we got that call from the mayor’s office on Friday afternoon [that] it was more than just dress rehearsal. At that point, we went into hurricane-preparedness procedures, and [assigned] the essential staff that we needed to prepare, cook, serve, clean the George R. Brown, again, with 4,000 people for five days. Most of those employees were put up in the Hilton Americas-Houston [which is connected to the GRB].
In that situation, who becomes an essential employee? How do you communicate that to them?
Mike Waterman There’s a predetermined list from management. Meaning, you know that to serve 4,000 people, you need X amount of chefs, you need X amount of folks to serve it, X amount of folks to run janitorial services, etc. Some of those were actually our employees, others were contractor buyouts, so it’s a combination of both. But the team is pretty disciplined and unfortunately had done this before, so they knew how to stand that up quickly and make sure it could execute as expected.
So, those essential employees knew who they were. Everybody else was expected or was directed to stay at home. We had the office closed Monday and Tuesday [Aug. 28–29]. That was done over the weekend, when we knew it wasn’t safe for folks to try to get in. As it turned out, the office remained closed throughout the entire week, but as people were able, as the storm vacated the Houston area — really right around Tuesday — and the flood started to dissipate in much of Houston, employees started coming into work. Generally, most of them in a volunteer, non-requested way.
Leah Shah Most of the employees who were able to get in, even though the offices were closed, were in the building — volunteering and stepping up. Everyone made themselves essential.
— TxDOT-Beaumont (@TxDOTBeaumont) October 3, 2017
Did you have any major meeting or convention business in the city at that time?
Mike Waterman The one blessing of the timing of the storm happening the week leading up into Labor Day was, we had really no major groups scheduled to be in that weekend. We did have a relatively good-sized group scheduled to arrive the Tuesday after Labor Day [Sept. 5]. We have a strong relationship with that group, and we got on the phone a week out and decided collectively that it made more sense to move that group, especially considering the George R. Brown was an emergency shelter. Instead of canceling, we moved that group to November of this year. We did also move a handful of smaller events that were in the GRB — four or five other smaller groups, and they all were relocated to dates further into 2017. Thankfully, as of today, we have had no major cancellations as a result of Hurricane Harvey.
What were things like at George R. Brown?
Mike Waterman I’ve got to tell you, it’s a remarkable story. When they ordered up this food and supplies for, like I said, 4,000 people for five days, they really thought that was a worst-case scenario. Just to paint the picture, on Sunday [Aug. 27] I think we had about 2,500 people in the George R. Brown. We were feeding them hot meals — breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Then on Monday, we were up around 8,500.
And the Red Cross, unfortunately, was struggling. That’s not a criticism of the Red Cross, but they were struggling to get supplies in, because downtown never flooded, but parts of Houston to get into downtown were hard to get into. So we were told we were going to get some relief supplies on Sunday, and then again on Monday, then again on Tuesday. We still had no Red Cross sup- plies as of Tuesday, and Tuesday night we had over 10,000 evacuees in the George R. Brown. And then luckily on Wednesday [Aug. 30] the Red Cross was able to bring in the relief supplies and bedding. So by Wednesday, all 10,000 folks were able to get a warm meal, a warm blanket, and a bed to sleep on.
Leah Shah There were lines out the George R. Brown, and they were not people seeking shelter. Those were volunteers. So all of our needs were back filled also by the community itself just coming to show support, to volunteer, to provide donations — so much so that we at some point had to close the door on the donations and send them elsewhere.
— Houston HCDD (@HoustonHCDD) September 3, 2017
Did Houston’s meetings infrastructure suffer any major damage?
Mike Waterman None of the airports sustained any significant damage. Both major airports — [George] Bush [Intercontinental Airport] and [William P.] Hobby [Airport] — were open starting that week right after the storm. Somewhere around Thursday [Aug. 31] after the storm departed, limited flights were coming in over that weekend, and then by the Tuesday or Wednesday after Labor Day, we were up and fully functioning.
Ninety-eight percent of the hotels in and around the Greater Houston area were not materially damaged. When it’s raining sideways at 45 miles an hour, there could be some leakage and some minor damage, but that didn’t impair their operations, so the vast majority of the hotel product in and around Houston is up and running for business, and has been since the storm.
Most of Houston and most of the key visitor areas — the Galleria, the Museum District — were not materially impacted by the flood. It was devastating, and close to 25 percent of Houston was impacted by the flooding, but that means 75 percent of Houston was not.
Does whatever impact there was change anything about Houston as a meetings destination?
Mike Waterman I don’t think it does. Our message to those folks who were rightly so nervous about their livelihood, their ability to host a meeting — we addressed them really quickly, as early as Monday, while the storm was still going on, and gave them comfort: Give us some time to see where we stand with the essential facilities to be able to host your meeting.And every day we dried out, every day we learned a little bit more, and we were able to see that Houston, which many people may not realize, is designed so that when it floods, it drains o to the Gulf [of Mexico] about 40 miles southeast of us. So we do flood, but we also drain very quickly.
In catastrophes like Hurricane Harvey, really the best thing a city needs is business to come back, so we can get those housekeepers and doormen and waiters back making their livelihood. What we’re asking most customers to do is keep their meeting here, and more importantly, book more meetings in Houston, so we can make sure our hospitality community is employed.
— Jeff Syptak (@JeffSyptak) September 21, 2017
Do you have any advice for a destination that finds itself on the receiving end of this type of crisis situation?
I’ll say two things: Make sure you have a very comprehensive plan in place, and take it on yourselves to be prepared. Because our expectations in the meetings industry of first responders or rapid response — to the Red Cross, five days may be rapid, but to an attendee or a person who’s been displaced, two hours might be rapid, right? So for us, one of the key learnings is, we were prepared for the worst. Unfortunately, the worst happened. It got even bigger than what we thought, but because we were so prepared, we were able to satisfy the need.