Interview by Melinda Whiting

The Houston Symphony rebuilds after flood losses

Last June, the Houston Symphony concluded its subscription season and geared up for the arrival of an eagerly awaited new music director, Hans Graf. With another three months to go until opening night, the orchestra looked forward to a relatively calm summer of parks performances before the gala Graf welcome on September 15.

Then, on Friday night, June 8, a heavy rainstorm pelted Houston. Tropical Storm Allison had plagued Gulf communities like Galveston during the previous week. Allison's parting gift to Houston was three feet of rain, which rendered the downtown area an archipelago of temporary lakes and flooded 15,000 homes. Twenty-two citizens lost their lives; more than 20,000 were left homeless. Damages were estimated at well over $2 billion.

For the orchestra, the flood was a stunning misfortune, destroying its administrative offices and seriously threatening its primary performance space, Jones Hall. Executive Director Ann Kennedy had been in place for just over three months when the flood hit. Still on a learning curve after making her switch from commercial management to orchestra leadership, she had a new, crystal-clear emergency job description: Get the orchestra performing as soon as possible, get its administration back in operation, and make it to opening night intact.

As Kennedy told me in late September, less than a week after the flood, the orchestra resumed performances at its summer home, The Woodlands. And three months later, on September 15, Hans Graf's debut as music director took place as scheduled -- just four days after a national tragedy that prompted Houston, as well as other orchestras across the country, to pay tribute to thousands of victims with benefit performances and special programming.

In this conversation, Kennedy relates the overwhelming challenges that Houston Symphony musicians and staff faced daily as they recovered from the flood.

Melinda Whiting: What were you thinking about in May and early June, before the flood hit?

Ann Kennedy: We were primarily focused on the opening of Hans's season and building momentum for that, with a major marketing campaign and so forth.

MW: Then came June 8.

AK: Yes, on the evening of Friday, June 8, we had a very heavy rainstorm. But we have really big rainstorms regularly. Houston is a tropical city, like Hong Kong or Singapore.

Now, in downtown Houston, virtually all of the major buildings are joined by a tunnel system, like the skywalk system in Minneapolis; it protects us from the heat and humidity and rain. So the next morning we went for a walk. I remember a neighbor of ours saying that some of the city's tunnel systems had been flooded. He looked at us and said, "You'd better go downtown."

We were able to get downtown without a whole lot of difficulty, although it was apparent that there was no electrical power. Many of the streets were flooded -- like lakes -- it was really mind-boggling. Then we drove up in front of Jones Hall.

MW: What did you find?

AK: Well, if you haven't been in Houston before, imagine a beautiful hall with a big plaza in front. In the center of the plaza is a grand staircase that leads down to a courtyard level. And we used to enter our offices from that courtyard level.

MW: Your offices are below street level.

AK: Right. We pulled up alongside in our car, and I jumped out and ran over to the grand staircase. I saw water lapping just a foot from the top of the staircase -- so I knew that everything in the offices was just gone. Everything was gone.

So the next question was, was the hall ruined? There were some really brave engineers and security guards who had been there through the night. They took us into the hall and the power was dead; all of the equipment that powers the hall is below ground.

It was dark, but it was cool; there had been a performance the night before, so the air-conditioning had been on full blast until 11:00. The water level was only a few inches from the floor underneath the performance space -- underneath the auditorium seating -- but there was no water in the hall itself. So we knew we had a little time before so large a space would warm up and become dangerous to the acoustics -- to the teak walls, and so on. And we knew we had a little time to get the water pumped out from underneath.

MW: How far did the damage go as far as the Symphony's own possessions that were down underground? You lost some instruments.

AK: We lost three Steinways. We lost two of our double basses, one dating from 1690. And we lost a lot of percussion equipment. We lost our music library completely -- 2,000 works. We lost our offices and our archives. All of our contracts, all of our business papers, all of our computers and files.

MW: But you could have lost more instruments, right?

AK: Absolutely. We were lucky. We don't play in Jones Hall in the summer; we play in community centers around Houston. So most of the instruments that might have been in the hall were actually in the back of a big truck in a warehouse, high above ground. That was very good news. And the performance space itself was not hurt, assuming we could control the temperature and get the water out. But with the water so close underneath the seats and no temperature controls, there were all kinds of concerns -- like mildew.

MW: Soon you would learn that this flood was a great human disaster as well, with 22 people losing their lives and thousands of people left homeless. How were the musicians and staff affected personally?

AK: We had several musicians who had very severe damage to their homes. We had a couple of musicians who had harrowing experiences; they were stuck in their cars when the waters became impassable. But we didn't lose anyone, fortunately, and in the end, they played a concert a few days later. We were able to play.

MW: I can imagine it was great challenge to put on that performance, having lost your library and most of your communications with players and staff.

AK: It was a miracle, because we had no phones and we had no e-mail. Somehow we were able to get in touch personally with the librarians in San Antonio and Dallas. And librarians around the country got in touch with us via home phones once the lines started to work again. For our first performance, a librarian drove in from San Antonio with his car full of scores and parts.

MW: With all of the challenges that you had ahead of you -- getting the hall in shape, setting up emergency operations, just trying to perform week after week through the summer -- did you at any point consider putting off your opening night?

AK: No. It was just not an option, and we had to convince the city of that too -- that we had a very real deadline -- because they own Jones Hall. Our first concert in the hall was actually scheduled as a free performance before the season started, on September 2.

The city, within just a few days of the flood, brought in temporary air-conditioning and dehumidifying equipment and so stabilized the performance space. And within a week, they pumped out all the water. When you think that the major hospitals were shut down -- they had to carry people out in the dark and life-flight them out -- it was a very extreme time. And yet the city saved the performance space. Within two weeks, they passed the emergency funding we asked them for. They committed $8 million to fixing the hall, which is not an insignificant amount for a city with 20,000 homeless and a billion dollars lost in its medical center alone. The emergency funding included completing the repairs to the equipment in the hall on an accelerated timetable so we could open our season on schedule.

MW: Then came opening night, on September 15.

AK: Opening night was phenomenal, very successful. It was completely sold out two weeks before the concert and the benefit was sold out before the invitations went out six weeks before the concert. We had a great opening night.

MW: The challenges, as you've said, are not over yet for any of you in Houston. But having made that Herculean effort with your musicians and staff and music director to produce the opening weekend, what are your reflections as you look back on the last few months?

AK: A lot of people pulled together to make our opening happen. I feel this even more deeply since the terrible events of September 11. People worked harder than anybody should have to work. But in the face of great obstacles and a great catastrophe -- I won't call the flood a tragedy for us, because none of us at the orchestra lost our lives, though there were lives lost in the city. But in the face of a real catastrophe, a lot of people pulled together and worked extremely hard and accomplished something that most outside observers would have said they didn't have a chance of succeeding in.

Of course there's a lot more work to do. We have to just take a deep breath and keep going. But the most important thing has been accomplished. Our season is going ahead as scheduled.