As Houston residents began to survey the damage from Hurricane Harvey, stories from the George R. Brown Convention Center offered a sense of hope for the future. Reviews from displaced residents and volunteers told stories of how the convention center — which is traditionally focused on its economic impact — transformed into a community center welcoming more than 10,000 people in need.
“It was great helping my fellow Houstonians in our time of need,” Christopher M. White, a volunteer, wrote on the center’s Facebook page. “God bless Texas and everyone displaced by Hurricane Harvey.”
“They tried their best to make us as comfortable as possible given the circumstances,” Elizabeth Marin, a displaced resident, wrote. “Really helped us in our time of need. Thanks so much to all the people who helped and donated their time.”
“The amount of people helping people during this time was surreal,” Bryanette Leigh Thurmond wrote. “It was chaos, but it was organized chaos. Everyone came together to help out any way they could.”
In addition to offering cots for evacuees, the center remade itself into a hub for Houston residents in need with a 250-bed hospital, fully staffed pharmacy, a post office, social security office, an interfaith chapel, an area for owners with pets, and more. “Don’t get me wrong; these aren’t ideal circumstances for anyone, and the crisis isn’t over,” Tom McCasland, director of housing and community development for the City of Houston, wrote on Twitter. “But I am incredibly proud of everything our hundreds of volunteers have accomplished in a very short time.”
In addition to providing essentials for displaced residents, the center offered an equally important positive distraction for children. A kids’ area offered games, puzzles, activities, crafts, and books. Toro, the mascot for the Houston Texans, even made an appearance.
“I am so proud of the Greater Houston community, the selfless desire to help each other is truly inspirational,” Mike Waterman, president of Visit Houston, said in a statement. “Clearly hospitality is in our DNA.”
Hotels Help, Too
Outside the center, hoteliers contributed to the efforts, too. Justin Bragiel, general counsel for the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association (THLA), told PCMA that THLA had encouraged its members to participate in the FEMA lodging assistance program. Gov. Greg Abbott also temporarily suspended state and local hotel occupancy taxes for evacuees and relief workers.
In addition to government requests or mandates, plenty of hotels offered voluntary assistance. In San Antonio, La Cantera Resort & Spa offered a discounted room rate of $119 per night for those forced to flee Houston, and the hotel announced that it plans to donate 5 percent of all room revenue booked by Sept. 30 to the American Red Cross. Hilton announced a donation of $500,000 to the relief and recovery efforts, and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation pledged a matching contribution to the efforts. Hilton Honors members have the opportunity to donate their points to support Hurricane Harvey victims here. Marriott and The J. Willard & Alice S. Marriott Foundation will each contribute $250,000 to the American Red Cross, and Marriott Rewards members can contribute their points here.
A Long Road Ahead
As of Friday, Sept. 1, fewer than 2,000 evacuees were still at the George R. Brown Convention Center. That decline is positive news, but the cleanup is only beginning. Throughout the state, other business events venues such as the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas and the Austin Convention Center in the state capital also housed displaced Texas residents. It will take time to determine how much the storm will cost, but Gov. Abbott estimates that the total will fall between $150 billion and $180 billion.
At Visit Houston and the George R. Brown Convention Center, officials will soon shift their focus back to welcoming business and leisure guests to help the city return to a sense of normalcy. “We are grateful for the outpouring of support from the meetings and hospitality industry,” John Solis, senior vice president of sales at Visit Houston, said in a statement. “We have had no groups cancel their meetings for 2017, and we are confident we will meet, and in true Houston fashion, exceed their expectations.”