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DAAP News

DAAP Grad’s Knowledge of Downtown Houston Leads 

Hurricane Recovery Efforts

Date:  10/2/2017

Contact: Brandi Lewis

Phone: 513-556-1143

By: Laura Cook Kroeger

Photos By: Houston Downtown Management District

Medium shot of an older man wearing professional clothing

Bob Eury

Houston, we have a problem. Hurricane Harvey is barreling toward you. It can affect over 50 million square feet of downtown office space and the third largest skyscraper in the U.S.  And what about the renown Theatre District? Its home to nine major performing arts organizations and six performance halls operating year round. Even though much of downtown is 50 feet above sea level, can it withstand the deluge of expected rain?

Bob Eury was ready. The 1972 University of Cincinnati graduate is President of Central Houston, Inc. an organization he helped found. His 34-year tenure with the organization means he knows downtown Houston inside and out. He’s familiar with every structure, how deep a building’s underground parking extends and where visitors stay. This knowledge was crucial to recovery efforts.

As a College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning graduate in architecture with further education in architecture and urban design from Rice University, Eury’s love for buildings and people went into overdrive as soon as Harvey’s fury overtook Houston. Once the city activated the disaster plan he worked with downtown employers and properties to assess the needs of the area’s businesses, hotels and urban residents. His work became like a chess game, moving pieces of furniture and business functions from one water-filled location to sites he knew were safe from flooding. Who else but Eury would know about the availability of near-empty warehouses or where visitors could take immediate shelter?

“The key to effective recovery is immediate action,” he explains. “I actually call it the tale of two cities.  Half of the immediate work is to help others whose streets and homes are affected. They need shelter from the flood waters and then, once they know their homes are uninhabitable, temporary housing. Others need to be brought to safety. The George R. Brown Convention Center has a 5,000 capacity and sheltered 10,000.

“The other half is to quickly assess how we can keep our businesses up and running. Our downtown is divided into various districts. The Theatre District took the hardest hit. We have a lot of College-Conservatory of Music graduates working there. The renowned Alley Theatre suffered severe damage. Even sadder is that it just completed a $46 million building renovation. All the new work upstairs is fine, but street level and below is a mess and will take months to remove water, make repairs, get rid of mold and mildew and then sanitize. The Theater District parking garage, which houses 3,500 cars for numerous performing arts events, will not be ready until Thanksgiving.”

Outdoor city photo of the the Alley Theater, taken at night

Alley Theater

Eury witnessed heart-warming acts of kindness.  Immediately, the workers who had just finished the renovation returned to restore it. The Theatre Under the Stars offered to share their offices with The Houston Grand Opera.  A temporary opera house is already under construction on the third level of the Convention Center, over the area that took in thousands who escaped the flood waters. Rice University and the University of Houston have offered their auditoriums for performances.

“Sometimes you just marvel at peoples’ perseverance and generosity. You look at people like Perryn Leech, managing director of the opera. This is the third time he has built a temporary performance hall in his career. I saw him charging down the street to the Worthan Theater Center and asked him what was his mission? He answered, ‘to get the server, of course. Tomorrow is payday.’

Long outdoor short of a street leading into the Wortham Theater Center

Wortham Theater Center

“Perryn and others just show Houston’s can-do attitude. They are going to make this work. The show must go on. Performers are under contract. Tickets are purchased. The performance may be at a different location but these people will not give up.”

Eury also witnessed the mobilization of over 6,000 places of worship across the city and grassroots efforts to supply the necessities to those who had lost everything during the flooding. So many people around the region and country sent clothing and other items that one of the city’s three major league stadiums was overrun with donations. They turned to the organizers of the Chevron Houston Marathon, who are “masters of logistics” to get the donations sorted and to those in need.

“After all, we did host the last Super Bowl so we know how to run things well,” Eury chuckles with his native Louisville accent combined with a Texas drawl.

In addition to helping workers find shelters or hotels, Eury assisted businesses with getting up and running. He assessed which parking garages were flooded and helped companies steer their employees to parking alternatives.

“Believe it or not, the office workforce began returning as early as Thursday after the storm,” he marvels. “Most opted to resume work the Tuesday after Labor Day as employers allowed allow employees time to ensure their homes were in good shape.”

The downtown emergency response plan has been practiced and tweaked to prepare for disasters such as Hurricane Harvey. Luckily it was a water/storm event and not a wind event.

Eury remembers the 2008 Hurricane Ike with extraordinary wind. “It was much more complicated with Ike because windows blew out and hundreds of trees overturned. It spurred tornadoes. It’s harder to clean up the public realm to allow access to buildings after a wind event than a flooding event.”

The JPMorgan Chase Tower is a 75-floor, 1,002 feet high office tower. It’s the third tallest in the U.S. Having suffered the wrath of a tornado in Ike, it was spared damage because Harvey’s winds lost steam once hitting the city.

“Disaster planners sometimes forget that many businesses run 24/7,” reminds Eury. “When we update our manuals we need to be mindful that it is a new day with around-the-clock operations and that disasters can be forces of nature or acts of terrorism. Planners must be ready for anything thrown at them.”

Eury cites estimates that 10% of the downtown workforce was affected personally. He marvels at people like Camden Property Trust’s CEO Richard (Ric) Campo who oversees 8,500 apartment units within the region and had 500 available. Campo decided to offer them to the company’s families and their relatives.  Eury says, “This is just one of those situations where you know what you need to do. One thing I learned from Ric is that there’s an unwritten understanding in the multi-family industry that you hold pricing during an emergency situation.”

“DAAP prepared me for what I have had to do here in Houston,” Eury says with pride. “I feel so blessed with my education. The co-op program is the best in the nation. I got to dabble in construction and even worked on projects based on the plans I drew. One co-op in urban studies led me to my love for urban design and planning studies. The interdisciplinary approach gave me the skills that I use every day here at Central Houston.

“I even learned how to fundraise at DAAP. My first civic project was to raise money for the pink stones in Burnett Woods near UC. What a priceless experience! I went begging to Frank Messer & Sons Construction and Hilltop Concrete, and UC sent me to the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce with Dan Pinger who worked at UC at the time to explain the project and make the pitch.”

Of course fundraising is now second nature to Eury as is moving quickly to preserve structures, businesses and residents’ lives.

It’s amazing what can happen when people band together to take immediate action,” Eury concludes. “Houston is an extraordinarily can-do city. After all, we did put a man on the moon.”