Bottomless Coffee: Communicating from Houston’s Largest Harvey Shelter

I woke up on Tuesday, August 29 at 8:00 am. It was finally towards the end of Hurricane Harvey’s destruction, and just two days after Mayor Sylvester Turner ordered evacuees to the George R. Brown Convention Center. The 24 hours prior, members of our marketing team, along with myself, were slowly monitoring activity on our social media profiles.

Before the storm, we shut down our normal messaging, paused campaigns, and prepared to be a voice of information and updates for those in and around the Houston area.

A few days prior to Harvey hitting Houston, I had the privilege of needing to take my car into the shop for transmission issues. Since I didn’t have transportation, I took the Friday before Harvey off, ran some errands, and prepared for the storm.

Around 2:00 pm, the rain started.

My roommate and I ran errands and picked up our close friend from the airport, and I finally picked up my car and proceeded home, where we would all be staying through the storm.

Fast-forward through historic rainfall and flooding.

Come Tuesday morning, I receive a text message from a coworker, discussing access for our social media accounts for a couple of people working inside the George R. Brown Convention Center. The team member was slightly confused as to how access is given for different platforms, so just as I poured a cup of coffee at home, I realized I would need to head downtown.

With shorts, sandals and no shower, I headed to the George R. Brown Convention Center, not knowing how long I would actually be staying.

Crisis Communications

I entered the convention center on the second floor, and all seemed calm. I later came to realize that evacuees were not allowed on levels outside of one. Down on the first floor, guests were only allowed to enter through one door, where Houston Police Department officers were checking each individual who entered.

After checking in with a previous coworker at the shelter, I proceeded to the third level of the building, where the headquarters for shelter operations was.

A large meeting room with a rectangle, dash-like shape of tables, along a grey floor with many black squares. I took a seat at the media table, meeting two women that I would be working with on social media communications. I was to be in charge of communications on all platforms for these profiles:

  • George R. Brown Convention Center
  • Visit Houston
  • Houston First Corporation
  • Wortham Theater Center
  • Jones Hall for the Performing Arts
  • The Twitter account for a city housing director

Immediately, the amount of questions across all networks was intense to say the least. In four days, the convention center received over 400 direct messages, while the other networks received under 50 combined. Over the course of a few days, our page likes shot up 2,500 – being the center of so much media and local attention.

Twitter profiles were consistently being mentioned, while I monitored communications to combat false information.

I met and learned a lot in these first four days.

Being in the center of operations, allowed me to communicate directly with the Red Cross management, City of Houston, fire department, health department, police department, and more. Something that was needed to answer many complex and specific questions.

Most inquiries pertained to volunteering and donations. After the first day, the convention center was at capacity for donations, and those seeking to help were directed to the BBVA Compass Stadium, home of the city’s professional soccer teams. The concourse filled up within a day.

Every day consisted of three main updates; 8:00 am, 2:00 pm and 10:00 pm. In the first three days, I averaged 13 hours and probably a gallon of coffee a day.

Being the Convention Center

Although there were many profiles I was set to manage, the convention center rose and stayed the most important. At its peak, the facility had over 10,500 guests, and changed physically; with barber shops, FEMA, pop ups, and more. Outside guests from all around would come to bring smiles.

DSC_0629 (1)

The convention center had many guests I got to interact with and cover: Ted Cruz, Micky and Minnie Mouse from Orlando, the Houston Astros, cosplayers and more.

At night, the desire to sleep was met with continuing messages, and apparently too much coffee during the day.

After Friday, I was instructed to take a couple of days off. The number of guests at the convention center had dropped, as those received new housing or moved out. What my contributions were at the convention center, became something that I decided to manage from home. We still received over 25 messages a day, but the messaging and answers to questions I had down cold. Here’s a few, summarized:

  • Convention center wasn’t accepting donations, and many other shelters weren’t either. Stay tuned and check in with local churches and shelters in your area.
  • We always need volunteers, please register with the Red Cross.
  • Contact this person.
  • Contact that person.
  • We will find a place in need of 100 meals you’d like to donate.
  • Here is a site where you can get connected with those who may be at the shelter.

I returned for a few hours the following Monday, transferring some accounts over to a new media person, and to get a little work done in the place I had been for so many hours before.

Spending time in that room, made me forget what time it was, whether it was raining, or even the devastation that was happening in other parts of Houston. On day 3 (Thursday), I came across the two big televisions in the center of the room, as a news crew was flying over parts of west Houston along Buffalo Bayou, where the flood waters took over thousands of homes.

It was the first time I got to see the devastation to that level. On the Sunday prior, I saw some homes and cars, but not nearly to the same extent as I was seeing now.

Harvey took homes big and small, from all types of people. Those displaced came from all different backgrounds, some who came to Houston after being displaced from Hurricane Katrina.

When we resumed work on Tuesday, many of our profiles hadn’t posted a single piece of content in over a week – we couldn’t.

For days of thought, I couldn’t come up with an answer to the question, “what now?”

A city devastated, and we are usually the voice of attractions, events and activities. In the days following, thinking of content to find and post, I thought “we love Houston.” We are a city of amazing people, and we want to showcase that. Tell the good stories that came out of such a tragic event, and showcase a sense of pride and hope that the community will come back, and it will.

Over three weeks and the recovering isn’t close to over, physically or mentally. I look to bring a cycle of content that followers can expect, but make sure we drive home that sense of pride in the community. Work to connect those who would like to help, to those who need it.

Our city is amazing. It is the most culturally-diverse city in the nation, and it has shown true heart. I couldn’t have been any less happy, spending those hours at a small table, typing answer after answer, hoping I was doing something worthwhile.

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