18 PCMA CONVENE OCTOBER 2017 PCMACONVENE.ORG
plenary Houston After Harvey
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.
Two weeks after Harvey, 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
ricanes in the
past, so the one
good thing we
had was past
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 deliv-
ered Saturday morning.
When did it become clear to you that
Houston was probably going to be
directly impacted by Harvey?
MW 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
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?
MW 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
Some of those
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.
Did you have any major meeting or convention business in the city at that time?
MW 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
got up to 50
inches of rain.
‘The vast majority of
the hotel product in
and around Houston
is up and running for
business, and has been
since the storm.’