Charlie Funk
Charlie Funk
Sherrie and I had our "Houston moment" back in 2010, though it was far less serious than the destruction wrought by Harvey.

We were headed home from the funeral of Sherrie's aunt. It had been raining the day of the funeral, and by the time it was over, the rain had intensified into a downpour.

We had planned to make our Saturday run to Costco that afternoon, but given how hard it was raining, we decided to go straight to the store. When we neared the store, high water had already blocked the access road we normally turned onto. No problem: We just went to the next street and drove to the parking lot.

When we came out 20 minutes later, the rain had grown even heavier, and the street we had used had been blocked, as well, making it necessary to take a circuitous route to get back to a main thoroughfare. For whatever reason, we decided to take a back route home rather than using the interstate.

On arriving home, we turned on the local news to learn that a flash flood had covered the interstate that we would normally have taken. Images of cars and tractor-trailers bobbing like corks and of people frantically trying to get to higher ground were chilling.

The rains continued for two more days, totaling about 13.5 inches, with some areas reporting more than 20 inches total, inundating areas that had never before seen standing water. The Cumberland River, with a flood stage of 35 feet, finally crested at nearly 52 feet several days after the rains ended. Floodwater covered more than 4,000 square miles of Middle Tennessee.

One of our daughters and her husband live on a hill. A wet-weather creek with 4-foot banks running beside their home normally has a flow of less than 4 inches. In a matter of a few hours, this creek had risen well over 6 feet, breached a retaining wall, filled an empty swimming pool in less than five minutes and flooded the lower level of their home. The damage total was more than $38,000.

Water filled the Titans football stadium to a depth of more than 6 feet. Mudslides swept homes off foundations. A person on a Jet Ski rescued an acquaintance of ours and her dog from the roof of their submerged home less than 30 seconds before a gas explosion demolished the house. Rushing water swept a citizen rescuer, our daughter's friend, off a bridge and to his death.

The people of Nashville came together in a mighty force, stepping in to help with cleanup for people they did not even know, sometimes driving 50 miles or more to do so. Race and ethnicity were irrelevant. Neighbors, even ones we didn't know, needed help, and the citizens of the Volunteer State stepped in and lived up to the appellation.

All told, some 31 people died; property damage exceeded $2.3 billion.

Despite all that, you probably never heard about any of this because it all happened the same weekend that a terrorist plot to detonate a car bomb in Times Square was foiled and the Deepwater Horizon fire and explosion occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, dominating the news.

Yet as deadly and expensive as this episode was, it pales in comparison with what is going on in Texas and Louisiana in general but in Houston in particular. As I write this, we still don't know the full impact on Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, but Harvey is a storm name likely to be retired because of its destructive nature.

Floodwaters have displaced thousands who will likely find they have no physical possessions when they are finally allowed to return to their homes -- or to where their homes used to be.

We have longtime friends in the Houston area impacted by this disaster. Many are living in hotels with tenuous access to their homes via bridges that are a few inches of rising water short of cutting them off. Others might well be impacted, but we have been unable to contact them.

Initial damage estimates suggest a minimum of $100 billion and perhaps as much as $160 billion. To put that in perspective, this amounts to between $300 and $500 for every human being, regardless of age, in the entire U.S. The death toll from Harvey stands at 38 as I write this, but it will almost certainly go much higher once rescuers can access flooded areas.

It all sounds daunting, doesn't it? And well it might be. Yet in the face of all this, consider the herculean efforts already put forth -- and the worst of the disaster might not even be over. A Houston Texans football player has raised more than $5 million and has a $10 million goal. The controlling owner of the Tennessee Titans (nee Houston Oilers) is donating $1 million. The owner of the Houston Rockets has pledged $2 million.

In the travel realm, the Micky and Madeline Arison Foundation and Carnival Corp. have announced they will donate $2 million to relief efforts. Travel agents with ties to the Houston area have posted many helpful tips and bits of information on social media. Other, "ordinary" people are using any number of charities to donate $10, $20 or more.

It is inspiring to see how so many people and companies from so many walks of life have already stepped up to make a difference. I am certain there will be even more volunteers and contributors as it becomes clearer how they can be of assistance. Heroes come in all shapes and forms.

I have no way of knowing how many retail travel entities in the Houston area have been impacted by Harvey. As I write this, Vacations to Go is closed, but apparently their 800 or so Houston-area employees are safe.

"We are extremely fortunate that our headquarters suffered only minor water damage and never lost power," Alan Fox, Vacations to Go's CEO, wrote in a Sept. 1 note to customers. "Our phones were restored Wednesday night. With power and air conditioning, we are able to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner to every employee who can make it in."  

Fox also stated that Vacations to Go is committing $1 million to the recovery efforts in the Houston area, to be divided among six local charities.

Those retailers with a client base within a 100-mile radius of Houston are going to feel the pinch most. A cruise or other vacation is likely the last thing on the minds of most victims. That situation will persist at some economic level for several years.

We experienced a 10% drop in sales the year after the Nashville flood, followed by another 10% drop the year after that. Our calamity, combined with the Great Recession, served to keep business levels below even 2007 levels until 2015, when we saw a tremendous turnaround. Sometimes business owners have to adopt a survival mindset that is painful in the short term.

For Sherrie and me, it meant deciding we had to preserve our most important asset, our staff, even though it meant we would not pay ourselves for the foreseeable future. We asked each employee to take time off without pay when possible. We did not replace staff lost due to attrition. We increased our marketing efforts and reached out to suppliers to help with more co-op funds. We took on the added cost of adopting ClientBase as our front-office booking platform for the productivity improvement it brought to the booking and accounting processes as well as in automating marketing activities integral to our Travel Leaders Network membership.

The result was that we came through an economic downturn and a natural disaster bruised but a lot leaner, smarter and better positioned to take advantage of the major uptick beginning in August 2015.

It's like this: Misfortune befalls many, if not all of us at times. The best part is that we are not in this alone. There are so many resources available to us if we but dig to find and take advantage of them. To our friends in Texas, Louisiana and other impacted areas, we can only advise get up, get busy and start planning now. Reach out to suppliers for help. Find online and social media groups to use for gathering tips and advice. You have fellow travel retailers all over the nation ready to assist. The key is to not give up.
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