Houston Symphony Weathers the Deluge

Mark MacNamara on August 29, 2017
The Houston Symphony's Jesse H. Jones Hall has experienced significant water damage.

“I’m just happy to be alive,” Matthew Strauss told us on Tuesday. He was sitting in his car in southwest Houston, in a light rain, having just returned from seeing his home, which is filled with two feet of water.

Strauss, a 42-year-old percussionist, is one of 10 members of the Houston Symphony who have been displaced by Hurricane Harvey. No injuries have been reported among the 88 musicians or the staff members.

Matthew Strauss

“This is the second time in two-and-a-half years that we’ve been put out of our house,” he told us. The last time was on Memorial Day in 2015 when a storm left a few inches in his home, but caused extensive damage, especially to electrical circuits and flooring. 

This is in Meyerland, an area of the city known for its distinguished neighborhoods, highly sought-after schools, and beautiful homes. When Strauss first looked at the place it had no history of flooding. Now, besides the floodwater in Meyerland, there are reports of alligators, snakes, and balls of fire ants, which is what often happens in other places when bayous are flooded.

Some early forecasts suggested Hurricane Harvey might bring as much as 40 inches of rain. “A lot of people said that was impossible,” said Strauss, who took no chances and got his four-year-old daughter on a plane with his wife’s parents to take her to their home in New York. Then, last Thursday, he set to work photographing everything he owned, packing up his house, hiring a moving company, getting everything, except appliances, and what was not essential furniture, to a storage facility, finding a second story garage for his cars, restacking shelves, remembering to get the two cats, and moving to an apartment on higher ground — an apartment not far from a hospital.

“My wife is nine months pregnant,” he said and added, “We did a lot of preparation but we’ve also been very lucky. You look at these scenes of people plucked from rooftops, who’ve lost everything, and live in parts of the city where you can’t get flood insurance.  This is so much more than anyone imagined.”

Strauss estimates it will take six months to a year to get back into his house, what with all the work and bureaucracy to work through. He has flood insurance with a $10,000 deductible.

Strauss, who has been in Houston for 13 years, took his bachelor's degree in percussion performance from Juilliard and his master’s degree in performance from Temple University. In addition to his job at the symphony, he’s an associate professor at Rice University and a visiting lecturer at University of Miami.

“This is something that the city will recover from — that I know — and we’ll be fine, but for now it just seems to overwhelming.”

U.S. Soldiers with the Texas Army National Guard aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey | Credit: 1st Lt. Zachary West

The Houston Symphony has cancelled this weekend’s series of pops concerts. A spokesperson for the symphony noted that no decision had yet been made about performances beyond this weekend, including the opening of the symphony’s 104th season, on September 9, a concert that is scheduled to feature mezzo-soprano Susan Graham

The Symphony is lead by Music Director Andres Orozco-Estrada. Until July, the executive director had been Mark Hanson, but on September 1, he will become executive director of the San Francisco Symphony.

“We’ve had the best relationship with management and the board,” said Strauss, “and he was a major reason. He has a way of seeing all sides to an issue and being able to communicate. So even if there was a problem, and people began to think the worst, he would address it head on and resolve it.  He’s leaving us in a great place.”

The Houston Theater District, a 17-block area in downtown Houston, just a couple of blocks south of Buffalo Bayou, is home to nine professional performing arts organizations. The symphony is in Jesse H. Jones Hall, a 50-year-old, marble-covered building that seats 2,912.

The rehearsal room in the basement of Jones Hall has “significant water damage and currently still has standing water,” according to Whitney Radley, a spokesperson for the company that manages the Theater District. As a precaution, hard-to-replace instruments had been moved to a higher floor a few days before the hurricane struck. Moreover, contrary to rumor, the symphony’s library was not damaged. In 2001, Tropical Storm Allison, another “once-in-500-years” flood, left 22 dead, 30,000 stranded residents, and completely destroyed the symphony’s basement, which was filled with millions of dollars worth of instruments, music and archives.  The library was then rebuilt on the third floor of the hall.

Flooding in the theater district | Credit: Thomas B. Shea/Houston Chronicle

Other flood damage has closed a three-level, underground garage next to the Hall, which is completely flooded, along with garages throughout the theater district. How long it might take to pump out all the water is unknown. A building assessment is scheduled for Wednesday. As of Tuesday, heavy rain is expected to continue through the day, falling off slightly on Wednesday and Thursday.

For information about donations, to both the symphony and the city, visit the symphony website.