by Ann Shepphird | December 01, 2017

Harvey, Irma and Maria. These three names will long be associated with the powerful hurricanes that hit U.S. soil late this summer. Not only was it the first time one season saw three Category 4 (or higher) storms, they slammed Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands within a matter of weeks.

While much has been aired about the federal government's response to the damage - especially in Puerto Rico - what hasn't gotten due attention is the important role associations played in helping the devastated communities recover.

Associations, by their very nature, bring people together and thus are uniquely qualified to step in quickly during a crisis. One of the most dramatic examples of that ability was seen in Puerto Rico following the assault of Hurricane Maria in late September. While federal authorities were arguing over whether to suspend the Jones Act (as they had done in Florida and Texas) to allow relief ships easier access, celebrity chef José Andres' nonprofit organization, World Central Kitchen, had managed to marshal a network of chefs to set up 17 kitchens on the island and provide more than 130,000 meals a day. Chef Andres was on one of the first commercial flights into Puerto Rico after the hurricane and ended up staying for weeks, ultimately helping to produce more than 2.3 million warm meals and sandwiches.

Here's a storm-by-storm look at how associations responded in times of crisis.

Hurricane Harvey: Houston
World Central Kitchen also lent a hand when the first of the hurricanes, Harvey, hit the Houston area in late August. The Washington, D.C.-based organization, which was established in 2011 after the earthquake in Haiti, helped to rally local chefs and begin cooking meals at the George R. Brown Convention Center and other locations around the city. Chef Andres and the organization's executive director, Brian MacNair, also created a manual for Miami-area chefs as they braced for Hurricane Irma.

The Texas Society of Association Executives also stepped up to rally its members post-Harvey. Among efforts by member organizations: The Texas Veterinary Medical Association and Texas Animal Health Commission provided care for some of the many displaced animals; the Texas Hospital Association assisted local hospitals; and the Texas PTA launched a "fill the backpack" campaign for children in need of school supplies.

"We were overwhelmed with calls from our members who asked, 'What can we do to help?' " says Steven Stout, CAE, executive director of the TSAE. "I have never seen anything like it, and it made me very proud to be an association professional."

In addition to providing physical aid, associations collected monetary donations and quickly sent the funds directly to those in need, without the fees associated with charitable giving sites. "We already have a process in place for donations, so we have not had to use PayPal or GoFundMe," which charge fees, notes Deborah Jakubowsky, CAE, associate director of the Texas Veterinary Medical Association.

The Texas Bankers Association and the Independent Bankers Association of Texas, together with the American Bankers Association, the Independent Community Bankers of America, the Texas Department of Banking, and the Texas Department of Savings and Mortgage Lending, established a Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund through a joint foundation.

An added incentive: TBA and IBAT absorbed all credit-card processing fees. Noted Tam Nguyen, vendor-relations coordinator for the TBA, "100 percent of every dollar will go directly to the relief effort."

Hurricane Irma: Miami
Associations also had means to determine if individual members needed their help. To reach members in the Houston area post-Harvey, "We posted updates on our internal communication platform," says Elizabeth George, director of membership development and engagement for Shop!, which represents more than 2,000 retailers.

Because the Shop! platform is collaborative, it allows members to ask for or offer assistance, a feature the association found especially helpful when, barely two weeks after Harvey finally fizzled out, Hurricane Irma came roaring past the association's Hollywood, Fla., headquarters. Although the office lost power for a few days, Shop! weathered the storm well - news George was able to share quickly.

Communication also was critical for associations that had planned meetings in an affected area, as the Textile Rental Service Association learned when its annual meeting was scheduled to take place in Miami just as Irma was about to hit. The group was able to cancel in time, and attendees were given the option of collecting a refund or donating any or all of their registration and sponsorship fees to relief efforts.

More than half of the attendees chose to donate, which raised more than $125,000, according to Joe Ricci, CAE, president and CEO of the TRSA. The association also gave to the relief effort hundreds of conference welcome boxes, which included bottled water and nonperishable food.

Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico
Meetings - and tourism in general - are a big part of the economic boost that can help an area recover from a natural disaster. The Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association will be among the first groups to meet in Puerto Rico following the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. (The island had already been clipped by Hurricane Irma, which passed by close to the north shore.) The Caribbean Travel Marketplace, expected to draw some 1,100 participants, will be held at the Puerto Rico Convention Center, Jan. 30-Feb. 1.

World Central Kitchen provided
more than 130,000 meals per day
to those struggling in Puerto
Rico after Hurricane Maria
devasted the island.

"Next year's event takes on an added dimension, allowing us to showcase the more than 70 percent of the region that was not impacted by the recent hurricanes, but also to provide the latest information on plans underway to upgrade, refurbish and bring on new products in those destinations that were affected by Irma and Maria," says Frank Comito, CEO and director general of the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association. "Hosting the event in Puerto Rico opens the door for pre- and post-events to be developed around volunteer opportunities to support recovery,"

The CHTA also plans to incorporate recovery efforts into the program for Puerto Rico and other ravaged areas, and "special registration concessions are being offered for members in impacted destinations," Comito says.

Although Puerto Rico's convention center did not sustain damage from the hurricanes and has been serving as the command center for the Puerto Rican government, much of the U.S. territory was devastated, with 80 percent of the island without power for more than a month and counting following the storm. The severity of Maria and the federal government's slow response made the role of associations in recovery efforts even more important, especially in getting help to the more remote parts of the battered island.

Right after Maria hit, Frankie Miranda, senior vice president of the Hispanic Federation, founded in 1990 and headquartered in New York City, traveled to the island to check things out after receiving reports of the devastation. Miranda, who grew up on the island and experienced several hurricanes firsthand, was shocked at the scale of the destruction and realized critical aid was not getting to some of the communities most in need.

"Helping them required us to push aid through bottlenecks at ports, create distribution routes and set up collection centers as quickly as possible," Miranda says. "We needed a breakthrough fast, and one arrived when we met with a pharmacy-chain manager who said we should try to connect with local food distributors to see how they might be able to help. We did just that and found that some of these local suppliers had essential provisions in their warehouses that we could purchase and send quickly to different parts of the island."

Ultimately, the organization
produced more than 2.3 million
warm meals and sandwiches.

These relationships allowed the Hispanic Federation to quickly deliver more than 1.5 million pounds of food to towns that hadn't received any prior help. In November, Lin-Manual Miranda, creator of the musical smash Hamilton, and the Hispanic Federation launched a $2.5 million Road to Recovery fund, focused on building island infrastructure that is durable, sustainable and self-sufficient. The Broadway star went on-site and joined forces with chef Andres and World Central Kitchen, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard (which, incidentally, was founded by Alexander Hamilton), to continue preparing and delivering meals to those in need more than six weeks after the storm.

In October, celebrities of a different sort - the five living former U.S. presidents - launched the One America Appeal, which at press time had raised $31 million for overall hurricane relief. Donations are being collected through a special restricted account established by the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation, which means that, as with the other associations collecting donations for the affected areas, 100 percent of the funds collected will be used to assist in the recovery from those vicious storms whose names we will not soon forget.