As I write this, the remnants of Hurricane Harvey are still working their way towards Tennessee and Kentucky. Houston is underwater, and the totality of the destruction is just beginning to be understood. I was on the ground in Houston as the rain began to fall, and I flew around the storm on my next flight to go south towards Central America. The next day, the weather up and down the east coast was effected. And as the storm dissipates, all eyes are wearily turning toward Hurricane Irma, which is still a week away and forecast to become a Category 4 fury of wind and rain.
In addition to the personal preparation and, in too many cases, the aftermath, companies and businesses have to cope as well. The airlines all had their own strategy, some borne of experience, and some based on the particular dynamics of the storm. Harvey developed very quickly, and didn’t provide a lot of time for contingency planning.
As the track of the storm became more certain, airports were shut down. Houston Hobby (HOU), which is further south, was shut down first. At Intercontinental (IAH), the initial plan by United, the main stakeholder, was to run a full schedule through the storm. In order to allow the employees to tend to their personal situations, Southwest and United flew in employees from around the country who volunteered to work in Houston. However, the storm stalled, and like a well-planned military invasion, the plans were drastically altered as soon as the first shots were fired.
Both companies began flying evacuation flights to move as many people as possible, and eventually shut down operations. IAH sits at an elevation of nearly one hundred feet, and is north of the city, so it had less exposure to the brunt of the storm and the rain, and as soon as the airport authorities felt it was safe to allow people to and from the airport, it was opened. The first flights in were humanitarian, bringing back stranded flight and cabin crews, food, water, and other critically needed supplies. In the meantime, damage assessments must be made of the terminals, parking garages, etc. From a navigation standpoint, the ILS antennae, VORs, etc. also need to be checked, and possibly flight-tested.
The recovery from the storm—any storm of this magnitude—takes even more work. Planes are stranded, and may be out of their normal maintenance schedule. Crews are all over the planet, and many of them just want to get home to help their families. Hotels in and around the two airports are full, assuming they can even open. Crews that live and are based in Houston may not even have uniforms they can wear to work.
Behind the scenes, hundreds of people are working extra shifts, flying extra flights, and doing the jobs of three people, all while trying to juggle the disruption to their own personal lives. Passengers, after all, still have tickets, and extra seats are hard to come by on other carriers.
And all eyes are turned east, to the Atlantic, hoping that Irma will turn to the north, but knowing that if she doesn’t, that this scene may be repeated in just a few short days.