Risk Management

Houston After Harvey

Visit Houston’s Mike Waterman on how the destination weathered Hurricane Harvey — and how it’s moving forward.

A little more than two weeks ago, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas as a Category 4 storm. 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. Nearly 10,000 people ended up sheltering in place at Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center.

And then the sun came out, the waters receded, and Houston started the hard work of drying out and cleaning up. Yesterday afternoon we talked to Mike Waterman, president of Visit Houston, about how his city’s meetings infrastructure came through Harvey, and what’s next. Look for a longer version of this interview in the October issue of Convene.

Did Houston’s meetings infrastructure suffer any major damage?
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?
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 off 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.

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.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso is executive editor of Convene.