Watershed Moment

Houston skyline and Buffalo Bayou

Moments of crisis bring out our best and our worst. Some people emerge from catastrophe bathed in praise for their heroism; others are drenched in public disdain for their actions in the same moments.

That’s what happened with Hurricane Harvey.

Whether they were big corporations, small businesses or struggling nonprofits, the storm gave an array of Houstonians the opportunity to shine – even if they didn’t think of that during the downpour.

In times of calamity, most people aren’t thinking about their personal brand, says Utpal Dholakia, a marketing professor at Rice Business. “How they behave in normal times is how they are going to behave in an emergency or a disaster,” he says. Nevertheless, Dholakia adds, personal and institutional brands often are profoundly affected by how people act at those times. “Every action that they perform in good and bad times is going to have an effect on their reputation.”

A year after the worst natural disaster in Houston’s history, here’s a look at some of the people and organizations whose credentials were enhanced by their instincts – and some whose names were tarnished by what they did when the chips were down.

Halo Enhancers

In the decades before Harvey, Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale was best known as the loudmouth owner of Gallery Furniture who promised to “Save You Money!” in incessant TV commercials. But when Harvey pummeled his community, another side of McIngvale emerged. He transformed his stores into temporary shelters and told evacuees to “come on over” in a Facebook video. He gave out his personal cell phone number. And for those who couldn’t make it to a store on their own, he dispatched delivery trucks and drivers to haul them to safety.

Since then, McIngvale has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to help those hammered by Harvey, and he and his wife, Linda, have launched an ambitious program to offer job training and other community services at their stores.

“We believe in unity and community,” McIngvale told Furniture Today. “Our thoughts have always been, ‘If we went out of business, would the customer miss us?’ This is another way to become part of the community.”

Houston Texans superstar J.J. Watt had less of a transformation to make. Just when it seemed he couldn’t be more beloved, Watts burnished his halo with a Harvey relief fund that brought in a whopping $41.6 million from 200,000 donors. In a recent Twitter post, Watt’s foundation called it “the largest crowdsourced fundraiser in world history.”

Watt’s efforts have enabled repairs to more than 600 homes and 420 child-care centers and after-school programs. They’ve allowed distribution of more than 26 million meals, offered mental health services for more than 6,500 individuals and bought medicine for more than 10,000 patients.

Watt, who has received a host of awards for his Harvey fundraising, including the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, has laid out a plan for the coming year as well: funds will go toward continued home restoration, physical and mental health services, rebuilding damaged Boys & Girls Clubs and support for food distribution with Feeding America.

In Purgatory

Lakewood Church, by contrast, is still overcoming its Harvey moment. After its perceived sluggishness in opening its doors to those seeking help, the church led by Pastor Joel Osteen has been working to rehabilitate its reputation. Osteen got a recent boost from megaproducer Tyler Perry, who took to the pulpit to praise Osteen’s response to the storm during a nationally televised Lakewood service.

Lakewood also gleaned a city proclamation for its contributions after the floodwaters receded, such as providing $5 million in financial assistance and supporting 9,300 volunteers who aided more than 1,100 Houston-area families.

However, the proclamation prompted a storm of criticism on social media. In its wake, a city official revealed that Houston made 3,600 such proclamations in 2017, and that anyone could apply for one online or by mail.

Pitching In

The Islamic Society of Greater Houston weathered the storm differently. Before Harvey hit, the organization had already prepped several of its mosques to offer temporary refuge for storm evacuees.

Members who lived near the mosques brought in clean sheets, towels, diapers and food, while hundreds of volunteers worked around the clock to run the shelters and distribute supplies. Dozens of Muslim doctors also volunteered at the citywide shelters in the George R. Brown Convention Center and NRG Center.

The society raised $275,000 to help members of the Muslim community, plus another $300,000 for the community at large.

M.J. Khan, the organization’s president, estimates that around 40 percent of the Houstonians who took refuge in the mosque shelters were non-Muslims. Religious affiliation didn’t matter. “The first thing on the minds of people in the community was, ‘What can we do?’” Khan says. “We knew in a time like this we had to step up and help out. We take it as our responsibility to help our fellow human beings.”

Strange Bedfellows

And then there were the odd couples. These days few Republicans and Democrats play well together, but Harris County Judge Ed Emmett (Republican) and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (Democrat) were universally praised for the way they stood shoulder to shoulder as leaders in the crisis.

They appeared on TV together so often during Harvey that it became a crowd-pleasing bromance – one that continued as they both urged voters to approve a $2.5 billion bond issue to more than quadruple annual funding for flood control in Harris County. The bond issue passed overwhelmingly.

Weather Watchers

Houston-based meteorologist Eric Berger gained countless new fans during the storm with his reports on Space City Weather, a website he founded to “cover Houston weather news and forecasting with accuracy and without hype.” Soft-spoken and camera-shy in daily life, the former Houston Chronicle reporter was the subject of a gushing profile in Wired magazine, titled “Meet the Unlikely Hero Who Predicted Hurricane Harvey’s Floods.” Berger has since become a hotly pursued public speaker.

Harris County Flood Control District meteorologist Jeff Lindner also drew a large following with his frank and concise live updates on Harvey’s water levels. Lindner now has 21,000 Twitter followers.

Small Business Winners

Overall, it was figures such as Berger, people not normally in the spotlight, who were most likely to transform their public profile during Harvey, Dholakia says. That also applies to the small businesses and local mom-and-pop restaurants that stepped up to help their neighbors during the storm.

Dholakia cites Proud Pie, a coffee shop and artisan bakery in Katy, where owner Scott Chapman was active on social media during Harvey and offered free meals to first responders and the Cajun Navy. Chapman also opened his food truck in the parking lot of Grace Methodist Church and served 200 free meals a night for four nights to displaced families.

“One year after Harvey, they are one of the most popular restaurant/food shops in Katy,” says Dholakia. “People remember that there was a store owner who helped and was very proactive during the crisis.”

On the other side of town, at El Bolillo Bakery, seven employees rode out the storm by baking the store’s signature Mexican rolls for two straight days. Trapped in the store by high waters, the staff turned 4,000 pounds of flour into nearly 5,000 pieces of bread.

Owner Kirk Michaelis eventually rescued the bakers and took them to his home. “The next morning, they said they were ready to get back to work,” he said. “By 1 o’clock the next day, the stores were open and there was a line of people down the street. It was tough because a lot of my employees lost everything. And they still showed up to work.”

Employees took the excess bread to citywide shelters first, and then to smaller churches and shelters that hadn’t received the attention the larger ones had.

Since then, Michaelis says, “our business has increased, because people read about it and responded, although we didn’t do it for that reason. It’s like paying it forward; people started coming back.”

The city of Houston has proclaimed September 27 El Bolillo Bakery Day. To celebrate, Michaelis is planning a “share day” at the store’s three locations, offering five free bolillos or pastries for every five purchased.

“Hopefully you will share them with someone that helped you during Harvey,” he says. “We want to keep it going.”