Inside Story

We still solve problems

Peter Horner, editor

In late August, Hurricane Harvey unleased a devastating assault on Houston, site of the 2017 INFORMS Annual Meeting on Oct. 22-25. For some INFORMS staffers and volunteers, Harvey brought back memories of Hurricane Katrina, which wreaked havoc on New Orleans two months before the Crescent City was scheduled to host the 2005 INFORMS Annual Meeting.

Along with sending its thoughts and prayers to those people directly impacted by Harvey, INFORMS again had to address the obvious question: What to do if Houston is unable to recover sufficiently in time to host the conference?

The INFORMS Annual Meeting is a massive event, drawing more than 5,000 attendees from all over the world. Given its size and the number of meeting rooms and hotel rooms required, there aren’t many cities and convention facilities in the country that can accommodate such a conference. For this reason, the annual meeting is booked years in advance, and even if you could find an alternative site on short notice, rerouting 5,000 people who have purchased plane tickets and booked hotel rooms presents a logistical nightmare, even for an analytics-oriented organization such as INFORMS.

INFORMS knows the drill. As with Katrina, INFORMS staff led by Executive Director Melissa Moore and volunteer conference chairperson Bill Klimack immediately got in touch with Houston officials, including convention and hotel managers, to monitor and assess the situation. At the same time, they began searching for a possible alternative site, just in case.

In 2005, after Katrina, INFORMS’ then-meetings director Terry Cryan and then-conference chair Jim Cochran quickly found an alternative site, San Francisco, and the meeting moved 2,300 miles across the country seemingly without a hitch, as big and successful as ever.

This year, after several tense days of watching and working on possible alternatives, INFORMS received word that downtown Houston had escaped its battle with Harvey relatively unscathed, and the 2017 Annual Meeting would go on as scheduled at the George R. Brown Convention Center, which was home to almost 10,000 refugees immediately following the hurricane.

Ironically, the original theme of this year’s conference was, “Houston, we solve problems,” a riff on the city’s NASA Space Center and the near-tragic Apollo 13 flight that was miraculously saved by engineering ingenuity.

Houston itself had a catastrophic problem with Hurricane Harvey, and by all accounts the city is doing an inspiring job of solving it with local, state and national help. Meanwhile, large areas of Florida and Georgia soon felt the wrath of Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Maria leveled Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands. Recovery from such devastation is a long-term problem that demands a coordinated, efficient, universal response.

Now is the time for O.R. folks involved in humanitarian relief logistics and associated disaster health-related issues to rise to the occasion. One such person is Georgia Tech professor Eva Lee, a longtime and often-decorated (Edelman Award winner and three-time finalist) member of INFORMS, whose recent research and application of personalized medicine and post-disaster healthcare issues is the subject of a profile on page 22.  

Ironically, Lee worked with Harris County (Houston area) and Puerto Rico in recent years on strategies to contain the Zika virus. Now she’s concerned about another outbreak of Zika in hurricane-ravaged areas, noting that flooding and pollution provide the “perfect breeding conditions” for the virus.