Surviving the Storm

Texas-Based Call Center Reflects on the Trials and Tribulations of Hurricane Harvey

By Kevin Ryan

The first question often asked when a serious storm approaches is, “Are we prepared?” Over the years, we’ve educated ourselves on disaster preparedness. We’ve faced natural disasters before and worked through them successfully. We took this experience and built out our company with redundancy at the forefront. All our equipment is in a tier-4 data center in the middle of the state, away from the coast. We have two of everything: call servers, communication servers, power sources, data connections, and server farms, all backed up into the cloud.

We also have multiple office locations in San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Houston, and Beaumont. Each office has redundant routers with two different incoming data circuits. Short of the data center completely going up in smoke, nothing could take us down. Then came Hurricane Harvey.

Harvey Arrives

Harvey first appeared as a tropical storm on August 17, 2017. By August 20, reports indicated the storm could gain hurricane status, with the Texas coast as the projected target. By August 23 all indications showed the storm had built up to a Category 4 and would hit Texas somewhere near Corpus Christi.

Hurricane Harvey made land fall on August 25 in Port Aransas as a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of 135 mph. The Rockport community was immediately devastated, with over 30 percent of the homes destroyed by high winds. As soon as Harvey made landfall, it quickly weakened. Wind speeds dropped, and the rain was consistent but not overwhelming.

We woke up on August 26 thinking we were okay. Our office south of Corpus Christi was back to fully operational, with just a few tree branches littering the parking lot. The staff had checked in. All were fine, and we were relieved. The forecast showed Harvey weakening and heading back out into the Gulf.

San Antonio made it through the storm almost untouched: no power outages, just some light flooding. There was general celebration. We had dodged the bullet. We knew the rain would continue and there might be some flooding.

Harvey Hits Huston

By August 27, Harvey had moved back out into the Gulf of Mexico and stopped just off the coast near Houston. It was now categorized as a tropical storm. But as it churned over the Gulf, it dumped massive amounts of rain on the greater Houston area.

A colossal amount of rain still pummeled Houston well into August 28. The area of flooding was larger than the state of New Jersey. Houston and the surrounding counties were declared disaster areas. Over fifty inches of rain fell on the city, shutting it down. Throughout the storm, we did all we could to stay in contact with our Houston staff to make sure they were safe. Most had or were being evacuated. Communication was spotty.

On August 29 Harvey came back inland, making landfall near Port Arthur and Beaumont. Our second-largest office is in Beaumont with thirty-plus employees. For the first time, we felt we were in real trouble. We had over forty employees from the Houston and Beaumont offices who were unaccounted for. The ability to stay in communication with our team members decreased by the hour. Our main priority was making sure our teams were safe, doing whatever we could to help them. Almost every business between Houston and Beaumont was closed, which caused a massive call surge on our lines.

Callers were trying to reach medical providers, pharmacies, service technicians, and city offices, all of which were closed and would remain so for the rest of the week. The fourth-largest city in the country would be closed until the following Monday. Our people were exhausted.

A Dire Situation

On Friday, September 1, our Beaumont office manager was finally able to get through to us, but she relayed a dire situation. Most employees had lost cars and homes. All were in shelters. There was no water, no food, and limited electricity.

At our office in San Antonio, we collected food, clothing, toiletries, and medicine. We organized a relief caravan to take off as soon as the roads opened, and by September 4, we had connected with all employees but one. We left early Friday morning with two trucks and a cargo van, each loaded down with food and supplies and met our Houston team at a Walmart just off the highway.

When we pulled into the parking lot, nine employees were waiting for us with their families. We supplied them with food, water, and clothing. Many had lost everything, and this was the first delivery of aid they had received. We will never forget their tears of joy. We spent two hours dispersing supplies before we were off to our next stop, Beaumont.

Making It to Beaumont

The drive to Beaumont was surreal. I-10 is the major east/west transit for the southern half of the US. What are normally open plains on either side of the road were now lakes. Floating debris could be seen in all directions. The water had a blue-green hue to it from the chemicals that had leaked out of the refinerys in the area. The city water system was still offline, so the only clean water for Beaumont residents was bottled water. There were lines of semitrucks stacked with water. Staging areas for water around the city had been set up. Because so many residents had lost their cars, most walked to an area to pick up a case of water.

We pulled into our Beaumont office parking lot around 5:00 p.m. Most of our staff had already arrived with their families and were waiting for us. We began unloading the food, water, and clothing into the hallways of our office.

A Hot Meal and a Bit of Normalcy

Once the trucks were unloaded, we drove to an open grocery store, purchased food, charcoal, and beer and returned for a family cookout in the parking lot. It was the first hot meal most of them had eaten in six days. With smoke billowing out of the grill, we finally relaxed. It was an opportunity to come together for a barbecue and much- needed normalcy.

The effects of Hurricane Harvey would last for months to come for our staff and business. Numerous employees remained in shelters well into November.

Over a year later, we still feel the effects of Harvey. However, our company stuck together through the trials and tribulations this storm inflicted on us. We continue to help each other through the ongoing challenges and consider ourselves better prepared for the future.

Kevin Ryan is the managing partner of business development at TAS United.

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