Houston's Next Act: Residents and Local Organizations Persist in Post-Harvey Recovery
What does the recovery of a city sound like? In the case of Houston, it’s the voice of opera legend Placido Domingo leading a crowd in a joyful sing-along of “Besame Mucho.” Domingo, along with Houston Grand Opera alumna Ana María Martínez, performed last month at the celebrated reopening of Houston’s Wortham Theater, which had been shuttered for more than a year following extreme damage sustained during Hurricane Harvey. “It’s been a really tough year for everybody,” said Kathryn McNiel, CEO of Theater District Houston, which supports Houston-based performing arts organizations. “But when the audience first came back in, it was amazing. It was very special.”
The reopening of the Wortham is a sign of a city on the mend. Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that swept into Houston on August 25, 2017, caused $125 billion in damages and displaced more than a third of the area’s population. Getting residents, institutions and businesses back on their feet is an ongoing process, even some 14 months later. But major strides have been made, thanks largely to the tireless work of volunteers and nonprofit organizations, as well as donations from Houston-area companies committed to seeing their city prosper. V&E was among the businesses proud to contribute to the city’s recovery. Donations from V&E lawyers and administrative staff were matched by the firm’s own funds, resulting in more than $450,000 that was distributed to an array of local organizations like Theater District Houston. The firm also supported its own employees, disbursing some $100,000 in aid to about 30 employees who sustained major damages to their homes and cars.
“We saw it as our duty to help our employees when they needed it,” said V&E chief operating officer Tim Armstrong.
Among those in need was Joan Groth, a V&E database analyst and programmer. She has vivid memories of riding a neighbor’s raft to safety after some five feet of water filled her one-story home. Groth, her husband and their four cats spent about a week at a hotel before finding an apartment. Groth used money from V&E’s employee assistance fund to pay rent, and that aid, combined with emergency funds from Groth’s husband’s employer, helped the couple avoid racking up debt.
“Whatever contingency funds we had were wiped out by an earlier flood in 2015,” said Groth, who later sold her home and plans to live in her apartment until retirement. “The assistance we got from V&E was invaluable.”
“After the hurricane, the first thing that people thought of around here was, ‘How do we take care of our employees?’” said Keith Fullenweider, a Private Equity and Mergers & Acquisitions partner at V&E and head of the Corporate department. “The second thing that people thought of was, ‘How do we help our community?’”
V&E’s initial outreach to the wider Houston community was a show of legal force: the deployment of lawyers across the region’s hurricane relief centers, an effort organized by pro bono counsel Ellyn Josef. Josef, who is on the board of the Association of Pro Bono Counsel, also helped match attorneys at other firms with volunteer assignments.
“We were just trying to get as many volunteer lawyers to the disaster relief centers as we could,” Josef remembered. Later on, Josef also coordinated attorneys in other states who could offer legal assistance remotely to those in need.
But one of Josef’s most immediate tasks was helping a major Texas legal aid group after a devastating fire. As Hurricane Harvey moved on from Houston, the Lone Star Legal Aid offices in downtown Houston sustained an explosion and became engulfed in flames. Though no one was hurt, the damages to the building effectively paralyzed the organization at a time when many of its low-income clients needed it most.
“V&E stepped in and helped them get up and running with critical support at the very beginning,” said Betty Torres, executive director of the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, which helps fund Lone Star Legal Aid.
Josef coordinated a multipronged response that included law firms across the country donating various supplies, from legal pads to laptops, as well as V&E’s own attorneys and staffers spending hours making thousands of copies of Lone Star flyers that the organization’s lawyers would distribute at disaster relief centers.
“Our office was still closed, but I was up here making the copies, and partners, associates and staffers would come into the office asking, ‘How can we help?’” Josef recalled. “So we had several copy machines going, making as many flyers as we could. The next day our document production staff were in the office, so we were able to produce more of those materials that Lone Star needed to get word out to the community.”
But perhaps most critical was V&E’s assistance in helping Lone Star get its computer system back online. V&E deployed tech staffers Mike Terry and Nikhil Suneja, who “spent about 12 hours out there before Labor Day assembling routers, switches and servers, patching together networks, building routing tables and helping set up VPNs and security,” explained V&E chief information officer Dennis Van Metre. “Lone Star was able to provide service and get systems running in most of their satellite offices later that week thanks to Mike’s and Nikhil’s help.”
As days passed and the extent of the storm’s damage became clear, V&E began raising and donating funds to community organizations focused on rebuilding the battered region. Those organizations included Avenue CDC, a group whose mission initially focused on building affordable homes. After the hurricane, Avenue developed a home repair program to help Houston’s many displaced residents move back into their houses.
“We had a very small volunteer home repair program to assist elderly homeowners, so what we did was greatly expand that program to assist people who needed their homes to be rebuilt after the storm,” explained Avenue executive director Mary Lawler. “Harvey was such a significant event and affected so many people in the Houston area, that we as an organization decided we really needed to use our capacity to help.”
To date, Avenue has helped repair or rebuild more than 100 homes, and plans to raise that total to 150 by next March. One of the people now back at home thanks to Avenue’s help is Christine Gibson, a retired Houston library employee. Gibson had never experienced flooding in her northeast Houston house and was shocked as water gushed in through her home’s front and back doors. She remembers hurriedly putting clothes and other belongings on top of furniture before leaving the house to seek higher ground. “I’m glad I got out when I did,” she said. “The water reached 5 feet, and I’m only 5 foot 2.”
Gibson spent much of the past year sharing a one-bedroom apartment with her son, daughter and two granddaughters as she struggled to find funds to rebuild her home. When she found help from Avenue, Gibson said, it was a godsend. The organization helped her find available contractors, funded repairs and connected her with a group that supplied furniture. She, along with her daughter and two granddaughters, moved back into the freshly painted home this past summer. A newborn grandson joined the family just a few weeks ago.
Yet, she said, life isn’t just back to normal. “It’s better than normal,” Gibson said. “Now I consider my house a showcase. You never appreciate what you have until you lose it.”
“The support and the enthusiasm to help was really incredible and really powerful to see. It was a crazy time, but gathering volunteers to give back was also one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”
While homes and buildings underwent repairs, Houston grappled with displacements — not just of residents, but of organizations. That included the city’s major performing arts organizations, like the Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet, which had called Wortham Theater their home.
Here too, philanthropic donations like those from V&E played a major role in alleviating the hardship caused by the storm. Funds were used to help the Houston Grand Opera move into and build a new stage at the city’s George R. Brown Convention Center. Donations also helped fund the Houston Ballet’s “hometown tour,” which saw the ballet company performing at various venues in and around the region, like Houston’s Hobby Theater and the Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land.
Kathryn McNiel said it was critical for the city’s performing arts companies to keep their shows running. Not only are the arts a huge economic driver for Houston, she said, “but at times of crisis, people look to the arts. It lifts their spirits.”
The continuation of performances was also a testament to the resilience of the performers, McNiel added, many of whom suffered their own Harvey-related losses. “Not only did you have people who lost their place of business in one day — they lost their cars, they lost their homes; and yet they still came and played or performed,” she said.
Fortunately, as of last month, all the performing arts venues damaged by the storm, including the Wortham (and the Alley Theater and Jones Hall), have reopened.
While the theater’s reopening and rebuilt homes are tangible signs of recovery, less tangible signs come in the form of people obtaining the legal help they need to move on with life after the storm. This is perhaps one of the steepest challenges of any storm recovery effort, including Houston’s: Aid from the government is slow in coming, and many who apply for government assistance are denied. Still others struggle with insurance claims, title clearing, landlord-tenant disputes, contractor fraud and a host of other hurricane-related legal issues that have lingered for months after the storm.
Lawyers at Disaster Recovery Legal Corps, a group organized by the public interest law nonprofit Equal Justice Works, is tackling the problem head on. DRLC is dedicated to helping hurricane victims in Texas and Florida, representing them in court and, when possible, connecting them with other nonprofit organizations that can provide financial and other assistance.
“We have a constant stream of new cases coming in, and it’s going to remain that way for a while,” said Carla Krystyniak, the Corps’ lead fellow. “The legal needs are still very significant.”
The Corps, organizers say, is committed to providing Harvey victims the ongoing support they need. The assistance of V&E and other funders, said Texas Access to Justice Foundation’s Torres, “is continuing to help serve others. It’s phenomenal.”
At a time when so many of their colleagues, neighbors and fellow community members faced such dire straits, V&E attorneys and staff say they were grateful for the opportunity to help. Josef said she still holds close the memories of people coming together in the storm’s aftermath.
“The support and the enthusiasm to help was really incredible and really powerful to see,” she said. “It was a crazy time, but gathering volunteers to give back was also one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”
This information is provided by Vinson & Elkins LLP for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended, nor should it be construed, as legal advice.