BY MADELEINE MACCAROn August 13, a tropical wave emerged off Africa’s western coast. It sauntered across the Atlantic Ocean and through the Caribbean Sea, alternately deteriorating and gathering strength as meteorologists trained their eyes and equipment on a storm that couldn’t make up its mind. It had begun deteriorating by August 19; the next day, the remnants of the downgraded tropical storm were closely monitored for redevelopment.
By August 26, all hell had broken loose and the eastern coast of Texas was right in the Category 4 hurricane’s path of imminent destruction.
First hit was Rockport, which bore the brunt of a peak-intensity storm making its first landfall; Harvey struck land a second time at the tiny unincorporated town of Holiday Beach some 30 minutes north. For two days, Texas’ first hurricane since 2008’s Ike, strongest since 1961’s Carla, and wettest since 1978’s Amelia, brutalized the Houston area, hovering over The Lonestar State’s Gulf Coast and dumping the full force of its wind and rain on the country’s fourth most populous metropolitan region.
As August gave way to September and the skies began to clear, the harsh reality of Harvey’s aftermath dampened already soggy spirits. The total economic loss still wavers between $70B and $200B worth of damage, a staggering number that doesn’t even begin to tell the individually heartbreaking stories of flattened communities, submerged houses, flooded streets, lost possessions, and dashed dreams—to say nothing of the human tragedy of 83 related fatalities. And its impact, though minor in comparison, was felt nationally as the oil-rich area was forced to halt production and transport. But nothing brings out the best in people like the worst of circumstances, and the times that try men’s spirits the most are when humanity’s resiliency is on display in its most impressive form. And, as the appropriately cheeky saying goes, you just don’t mess with Texas.
To be sure, indomitable spirits certainly help those who were physically, financially, and emotionally beleaguered rustle up the prodigious determination necessary to overcome the aftermath. Flood waters that sent left-behind homeowners scurrying to their roofs in desperation, devastating winds that had tens of thousands riding out the storm in at-capacity shelters, and widespread power outages that left hundreds of thousands literally in the dark gave the region much to mentally process. And all the determination in the world doesn’t lessen the physical and mental toil of facing a heart- and backbreaking road ahead.
“So many of our members lost cars or buildings, and we all lost money. It was important to send a message that we are part of this together, that we feel the pain that you’re going through, but we’re all going to support each other and the sun is going to shine tomorrow.”
–Ismail Abed, HALCA President
“I gave myself a day and half to just sulk,” says Matt Assolin of Nikko’s Worldwide Chauffeured Services, whose Houston office was under four feet of flood waters and is now down to its studs as the Nikko’s team cleans out the ravaged site that became a watery graveyard for ruined computers, office furniture, and three decades of accumulated memories. “We threw out 30 years’ of stuff. I joked that it was the purge we needed to get rid of everything, but it was still 30 years that’s just gone now.”
Regardless, he reiterates that things could be worse. Much worse, as the devastation literally in his own backyard stands as a testament to.
“The neighborhood behind mine is filled with homes that cost half a million dollars, and they all flooded,” he says. “Now they’re for sale as-is for half of what they’re worth. Other places were under 15 feet of water and others are still flooded.”
Mere weeks after Harvey dissipated, the Houston Area Livery & Charter Association (HALCA) was scheduled to have its quarterly meeting, and association president Ismail Abed was going to make sure it would go on as scheduled, come... well, hell or high water.
“I was not going to cancel the meeting because the hurricane didn’t kill us, and we needed to prove that we can get back up after a storm—there will be others, and we can’t just lie down and take it,” Abed says. “So many of our members lost cars or buildings, and we all lost money. It was important to send a message that we are part of this together, that we feel the pain that you’re going through, but we’re all going to support each other and the sun is going to shine tomorrow.”
Given how many of the association’s members “were still swimming” less than two weeks into the recovery began, Abed was not expecting much of a turnout for a meeting that would essentially serve as a pep rally. When the turnout turned out to handily top his expectations, he knew members needed some sort of silver lining, and HALCA, with so many members touched by financial and physical losses, was not surprisingly among the first to organize a fundraiser in an effort to support those who lost the most in the storm. Others rallied around those who lost cars, buildings, or their entire operations to flood waters that have permanently affected the landscape of Texas.
Organizations like the American Bus Association (ABA), which partnered with the travel and tourism industries’ philanthropic arm Tourism Cares, and Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) quickly threw their support behind hurricane-ravaged Texans with their own fundraising efforts.
“In order to help meet the needs of members impacted by natural disasters... GBTA recently launched a general disaster relief fund through GoFundMe,” GBTA President Christie Johnson wrote in a message imploring the association’s more than 7,000 members to lend a hand however they could. “It’s at times like these that we come together as a community.” And, of course, the National Limousine Association launched its own industry-specific fundraiser—which easily surpassed its $20K goal in a matter of days with the help of more than 50 donors.
The swell of generosity didn’t stop there. Former HALCA President Wes Hart used his birthday as an opportunity to raise money for the quickly depleted Houston Area Food Bank, while operators in the city’s immediate vicinity and throughout the state offered to pick up jobs for storm-shuttered companies, house fleet vehicles on higher grounds, and provide whatever practical aid they could.
Various fundraisers are currently underway to help support operators and other travel professionals whose lives and businesses were most devastated by Hurricane Harvey and other recent natural disasters. Remember: These operators will need assistance for months or even years to come. If you would like either more information or to make a donation, check out the following:
Houston Area Livery & Charter Association
National Limousine Association
American Bus Association
Global Business Travel Association
Soon, a nationwide support network emerged. Helping hands showed up in droves. Companies began sending the supplies people needed as aquatic barriers made traveling by anything other than canoe impossible; Assolin says that both he and his father were trapped for days in their respective homes by flood waters that had nowhere to go—which was far from an uncommon plight Houstonians waited out helplessly. With travel options limited, home pantries soon emptied and supermarkets offered no relief with their own ominously barren shelves.
ABA asked for additional relief assistance by imploring operators to donate buses to FEMA’s relief efforts and its transportation manager to help with evacuations, particularly for the elderly and disabled, since both “a shortage of available transportation and managing overburdened drivers and equipment” threatened to hobble such work. Premier Limousine in Connecticut sent down pallets of water and members of its own team as manual labor for its “Pack the Truck” initiative; Premier Transportation in the much-closer Dallas also sent its own buses stuffed to capacity with donated supplies of all kinds.
“I can’t take credit for it: One of our employees, Shelby Harris, came to me and asked if we could arrange something,” says Eric Devlin of Premier Transportation. “How could I say no? This is exactly the kind of attitude and thoughtfulness we strive for on the Premier team.”
Devlin says that his company’s vulnerable Dallas location made him all too empathetic to what his Houston counterparts were slogging through.
“While you don’t do these things because you hope someone will return the favor one day, I knew that I’d be in their position again,” he says. “You don’t wish this on anyone, and I remember what a relief it was to know that others weren’t going to abandon us when we went through a similar difficult time. We have to stick together when things get this bad.” And as Assolin and many others in Houston and other Harvey-ravaged areas still strive for normalcy and gratefully accept every hint of routine life that they can grasp at, it is that solidarity and rush to help that is the silver lining following what was, for many, the storm of the century.
“We know that Houston is on a flood plain—we’ve weathered storms before and we’ve learned how to prepare—but I have never seen a storm like this in my life,” he says. “People do have it better than us but people also have it much worse than us. But we also have a great team, and seeing the Nikko’s staff pull together to get us back up and operating so quickly showed exactly what a strong team can achieve.” [CD1017]
Editor’s note: During the production of Chauffeur Driven’s October issue, the 2017 hurricane season unleashed its fury on the Atlantic islands and mainland United States. Our hearts go out to our affected friends and their families who have suffered so much loss in September in the relentless sieges of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and we will be covering the recovery process and operators’ stories in a future edition of the magazine.