When Hurricane Harvey made landfall in east Texas in August 2017—one year ago this month—it hit hard. The subsequent flooding displaced tens of thousands of area residents from their homes and resulted in dozens of fatalities, with more than $125 billion and counting in damages.
But in the midst of the disaster arose a stirring community response, as people worked together to coordinate rescue and recovery efforts and provide aid to those who had lost so much. Among those responders were employees of HilltopSecurities, a Dallas-based full-service brokerage firm with offices in several Texas cities, who sprang into action to help in a time of need.
The disaster put three of HilltopSecurities’ Houston-area offices out of commission, and numerous employees in the area experienced severe flooding and damage to their homes. After rapidly activating the firm’s disaster response plan—ensuring the safety and well-being of employees, routing business traffic to other offices in unaffected areas—the HilltopSecurities team then turned to the next priority: helping their employees and community recover from the disaster.
Jumping in: The immediate response
“We had people from all over pitching in,” John Muschalek, HilltopSecurities’ chief administrative officer, said in a recent telephone interview from his Dallas office. “The folks in League City [a Houston suburb, where the firm has an office] were among the first to go out and start helping people in the flooded areas, tearing things out and cleaning out the flooded properties. And the folks at our downtown office, with the public finance division, were also extremely involved as well, going around to help with clean-up. We had people from Dallas and Austin who even drove in to help as well, volunteering and serving meals.”
With the Houston offices’ business activity temporarily reassigned elsewhere, employees from around Texas jumped into action.
Among the volunteers who broke out their toolboxes and lent their shoulders and backs to the clean-up effort was Don Burrows, a Hilltop Securities senior vice president and financial advisor. Burrows set to work checking not only on the well-being of his co-workers, neighbors and friends, but also of the firm’s clients—even checking in on the home of a client who was out of town at the time. Once everyone was accounted for, Burrows and other Hilltop employees went to work in the extensive clean-up effort.
In the days that followed the disaster, the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston was swiftly repurposed as a makeshift shelter for more than 10,000 evacuees, as well as a coordination point for rescue workers. Janie Landherr, managing director in HilltopSecurities’ downtown Houston office, took her 3-year-old dachshund Stewart, who’s trained as a therapy dog, to the convention center to visit with those affected by the disaster and spread a little cheer.
“I talked to police officers, volunteers and people who were displaced, and it gave them a moment of loving on the pup and thinking of something other than the situation they were in, whether it was the long number of hours they had been working or just the disaster itself,” she said in a telephone interview. “You’ve never seen a dog that loves going to meet new people and wants to be everybody’s friend like Stewart. The response was just pure joy and a lot of laughter. He’s very calming, and he has a funny little nature. It’s amazing how therapeutic animal involvement can be, how healing it can be.”
For Landherr, who also delivered toothpaste, soap and other toiletries to collection points, the most important thing in responding to an event of this magnitude is finding any way to help—and even if it seems like something small, like bringing a friendly dog to visit with kids forced from their homes, it can have a big impact in helping others to get past the crisis.
“As a community, everyone felt like they wanted and needed to do something to help others, even if they were affected themselves,” she said. “Everyone came together and did their part. It was just an overwhelming desire to help where they could. I felt like what I did was so small, but it was what I could do.” (More stories about Hilltop Holdings’ employees response to the hurricane catastrophe are available at the company’s website).
Employees of HilltopSecurities’ sister company’s also responded to the need for volunteers. Among them was Kale Salman, a vice president and lending officer at PrimeLending in Dallas, a sister company of HilltopSecurities under the auspices of Dallas-based Hilltop Holdings Inc. Salman joined the volunteer rescue effort to help people stranded by flooding.
Salman made the 250-mile trip from Dallas to Houston with his boat and trailer. Over the next several days, sleeping in his truck when time allowed, he joined the rescue effort of volunteer watercraft navigating the flooded streets and neighborhoods, transporting stranded Houstonians to safety.
“There were so many people there with boats, average citizens like me who had traveled long distances to come lend a hand,” Salman said in an online account of his exploits. “It’s difficult to put words to it. I saw cars floating down streets that had been turned into rivers. So many people needing help. At one point a man ran up to my truck at a stoplight begging for the use of my boat to rescue his family members who were trapped.”
Improvising solutions to urgent needs
Meanwhile, the urgent realities of the post-disaster environment meant HilltopSecurities also needed to make adjustments in its business line, which often required improvising solutions to meet unexpected challenges. For example, the firm plays a critical role in working with the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs’ affordable housing program for qualified first-time homebuyers, which provides buyers with competitive interest rates and assistance with down payments and closing costs.
In the storm’s aftermath, hundreds of home loans were in the pipeline, but many of the potential buyers had been affected by the disaster, according to HilltopSecurities Vice Chairman, Michael J. Marz. Delays could mean they’d be hit with heavy additional fees, or even miss out on their opportunity to buy a home altogether. HilltopSecurities stepped up to provide a lifeline to buyers who needed more time, even if that meant a short-term hit to the firm’s bottom line.
“There were a number of buyers who hoped to close on their homes, but then people couldn’t make it to work, or the area where they were buying a home had been impacted,” he explained. “HilltopSecurities worked with the Department to waive extension fees for the buyers in declared disaster areas. Waiving the costs for the adjustments impacted about 250 homebuyers, representing well over $40 million in home loans. We gave them the time they needed to get their affairs in order, which allowed those loans’ rates to remain fixed and stay in the program.”
In responding to the disaster, HilltopSecurities employees were not only generous with their time and energy—they also opened their wallets to provide financial support to the recovery effort. Kick-started by a $50,000 contribution from the parent holding company, employees added a total of more than $200,000, within days, to be contributed to the Red Cross for Hurricane Harvey relief.
“One of the things that was the most gratifying about this is that we’ve got offices from San Diego to Boston to Miami to New York, all over the country, and the participation firm-wide was exceptional, with everybody chipping in,” Muschalek said. “It wasn’t just a Texas-based response.”
One year later
It’s been 12 months since Hurricane Harvey struck, and while the recovery effort has made substantial strides, it remains a work in progress and will take time. A disaster of this scale can strike in a matter of hours, yet require years of rebuilding.
Muschalek expresses pride in both his people and in the larger Texas community for their willingness to step up and work together to respond to the disaster—while recognizing that such events often leave scars that take longer to heal.
“From an everyday basis, it seems to be back to normal, except folks get a little more nervous when you hear about a big storm coming through the gulf,” Muschalek said. “The thing you can never really measure is the emotional response of people and the amount of time it’s going to take to get people back to operating in a normal environment. This was a devastating event, and it takes a toll on people for sure, and that’s the hardest thing to gauge.”
That “boots on the ground” response was business as usual for HilltopSecurities employees, Muschalek explained. While the company has more than 900 employees in 50 locations across 19 states, the firm hews tightly to its commitment to the local communities it serves, and where employees are active in a variety of charitable endeavors.
Having offices and employees in Houston, where the company and many of its workers experienced the same damages and displacement their neighbors experienced, brought home the reality of the disaster —and was a further impetus for Hilltop leaders and employees to help put things right.
“We’ve been in Houston for decades, so we’ve been a long-time player in the community,” Muschalek said. “We’re in the public finance business as municipal advisors and underwriters, so we feel like we literally help the communities we serve…We’re working on major projects with these cities, and we see this as just what we do. That’s who we are.”
*Photos courtesy of HilltopSecurities and Janie Landherr