It’s the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey, the “Storm of the Century,” which dumped 50 inches of rain on Texas for five days. It also killed more than 100 people and caused $125 billion worth of destruction. Thinking about the impact Hurricane Harvey had on me and my community brings back a flood of emotions including sadness, humility, honor, pride and most importantly strength. It is also a reminder of the importance of being prepared.

In many ways, to those of us fortunate enough not to experience flood damage or loss, the storm seems like an eternity ago. For more than eight percent of Houstonians who are still displaced or rebuilding, Hurricane Harvey remains part of daily life.

Despite the devastation the storm left in its wake, Harvey’s aftermath also had a profoundly positive impact on the community. It brought neighbors and strangers together and reminded everyone how good humanity can be. People from across the globe rallied together to donate time, money and critical resources. T&C’s tenets and convictions remind us to “be grateful and give back to the communities that have given us so much,” and our team truly took that to heart.

Community relations

In Anchorage, Account Manager Stephanie Plieness spearheaded a dinner at her home to benefit the Junior League of Houston’s Hurricane Harvey fund. The Houston office closed for a full day to give us time to volunteer within the community. Vice President Liz Baker spent time with the Junior League of Houston to provide entertainment to scared, displaced children living in temporary shelters.

I volunteered at the George R. Brown Convention Center, which sheltered more than 10,000 people and 1,500 pets in the immediate aftermath of the storm. I was placed in the Mexican Red Cross’s volunteer group; and, despite language barriers, we worked together to serve hot meals to evacuees. The volunteers and the refugees included people from all walks of life. Different races, religions, languages, nationalities and socioeconomic backgrounds – because natural disasters do not discriminate. The melting pot of people at George R. Brown that day was a great representation of Houston’s diversity.

Many of the volunteers had also experienced some form of damage but still flocked to shelters to help those who had been more severely affected. Houston had so many people rush to help that shelters actually had to turn volunteers away. “Houston Strong” became the rally of the city as we worked together to rebuild. Visit Houston sold shirts embellished with #HoustonStrong to raise money for storm relief. The Astros used the mantra to inspire players and fans and captivate the nation as they battled to win their first ever World Series.

Crisis communications

Throughout Hurricane Harvey, the City of Houston clearly communicated with residents about where to go for help and information as well as how to help others throughout the entire process. Leading up to the storm, Harris County officials provided information about what to have in a hurricane preparedness kit, emergency evacuation procedures and the best places to take shelter. Throughout the five-day event, County Judge Ed Emmett provided factual, unembellished information and continued to do so during the long recovery process. By having a consistent presence, he gained the community’s trust. He provided a calming presence and debunked myths. (For example, sharks were not on the freeway, but floating fire ant balls really did wreak havoc).

As Houston worked to rebuild, PRSA Houston rallied behind #PRStrong and encouraged companies to share their crisis communications strategies at guest lecturer series. County Judge Ed Emmett shared his insight as a city official on the importance of leadership and collaboration. Longtime local legend Jim McIngvale, affectionately known as “Mattress Mack,” received national media attention for opening his mattress stores to storm victims without thinking about the cost to his bottom line. His advice on the best way to get good publicity is to simply do the right thing. Perryn Leech, managing director of the Houston Grand Opera, shared his story about ensuring performances weren’t cancelled, despite losing all props and facilities to flooding.

As public relations professionals, we understand the importance of solid crisis communications plans and commend the City of Houston’s response to Hurricane Harvey. Hurricane season is back and we want to remind organizations and individuals to be prepared. At T&C, all members of our team are FEMA and NIMS certified so we can adequately initiate an emergency preparedness plan, if necessary. Plan for the worst and expect the unexpected.

Here are some of our crisis communications tips:

  • Have a crisis communications plan in place and make sure every individual in your organization is familiar with it and their role in the event of a crisis.
  • Identify who will be the person in charge if a crisis arises.
  • Establish a joint information center.
  • Understand the importance of hierarchy and collaboration between different organizations like first responders, government officials and private organizations.
  • Get in front of the media to prevent chaos and rumors.
  • Have an internal template email so you can quickly notify employees about safety hazards/office closures.
  • Know when to make the call on the danger of coming into the office.
  • Download useful apps, like Hurricane Pro and Houston TranStar, to stay informed.
  • Have a hurricane kit ready to go.
  • Monitor social media closely and use it as a tool to disseminate up-to-date information.

Social media is an easy way to disseminate information, especially if your business has a simple message to share like a temporary office closure. Apps like NextDoor allowed neighbors to see what nearby streets were flooded and what gas stations were in service. Facebook allowed people to mark themselves as safe and share information quickly.

I first became acquainted with Facebook Live during Harvey. My friend got married on Aug. 25 as the storm rolled into town. I was able to live stream for the out of town guests unable to get to Houston because of canceled flights and flooded highways. After the wedding, I went home with two friends from out of state. Floodwater surrounded my apartment complex – we were safe but couldn’t go anywhere for almost a week. Many people who hunkered down together had interesting stories to tell: queue Harvey breakups and even Harvey babies.

Hurricane Harvey outcome

It has been 365 days since Harvey made landfall in Houston, and we have come so far. The Astros won their first ever World Series. My friend who got married in the middle of the storm celebrated her first wedding anniversary. Harvey babies are now three months old. Countless Harvey heroes have been recognized. Most people have returned to their homes. And, most importantly, we all feel a little more pride knowing we are #HoustonStrong.

By Megan O’Malley