As Houstonians watch the waters recede, they are looking ahead to the next phase of the disaster: recovery. The unusually prolonged assault by Hurricane Harvey flooded nearly a third of Harris County, killed at least 38 people, and left thousands more homeless. The storm also effectively throttled commerce coming into and leaving Houston, the county seat. Both of its major airports closed, its rail yards and nearby ports were majorly disrupted, and the city’s extensive highway system was largely underwater.
The deluge appears to be finally done, and Houstonians are hustling to rebuild and recoup what they’ve lost in part by reestablishing those vital connections.
George Bush Intercontinental and Hobby Airports, which together move 55 million passengers and 442,563 metric tons of freight every year, shut down for three days, with airlines rerouting flights and waiving change fees for travelers. The airports reopened Wednesday, and traffic should begin to return to normal. Houston isn’t a major air cargo hub, and most of the shipments headed its way likely landed in Dallas or Austin. “It doesn’t really slow down the air cargo supply chain,” says Neel Jones Shah, who runs air freight operations for Flexport, a company that helps businesses organize their shipping efforts. But people sending specialized cargo, like pets or human remains, will have to wait or pay a premium.
Out in the Gulf of Mexico, ships delayed by the storm will make up lost time over the next few months, either by rearranging schedules or spending money to run faster. During Harvey, ships likely skipped Houston for at least two alternate landing spots situated relatively nearby. German shipping line Hapag-Lloyd, for example, canceled its call at Houston “for schedule recovery purposes,” and will unload its cargo at the Port of Altamira in Mexico, 500 miles south. Others will likely head for Mobile, Alabama, 400 miles east.
But when it comes to supplying Houston and its 6.5 million residents the vital goods they need—bottles of water, loaves of bread, diapers— the horizon looks a little hazier. “Roads, ports—everything’s in real trouble,” Shah says. “Local distribution is a mess and will continue to be a mess, perhaps even impossible.”
There to defy the impossible are the truck drivers, who are eager to work, even when roads have flooded, even when power lines are down, even when warehouses and distribution centers may be damaged or inaccessible. “It reminds me of Katrina,” says John Esparza, CEO of the Texas Trucking Association. “It’s amazing how this continues to be an ongoing emergency situation.”
The rare upside of a hurricane is the heads-up. Forecasters gave several days’ notice of Harvey’s impending arrival, which gave suppliers a bit of padding to properly prepare, says Drew McElroy, CEO of Transfix, a brokerage firm that matches drivers with cargo. Companies were able to lay down sandbags to protect facilities from flooding or push out existing inventory and pause the inbound flow on noncritical supplies.
In the days before the storm’s arrival, FEMA hired hundreds of trucks to haul provisions like bottled water, medical supplies, meals-ready-to-eat (MREs), and tarps to San Antonio, before dispatching them to smaller staging areas in and around Houston. (Many drivers and carrier companies volunteered their services.) The state of emergency also includes lifting restrictions on weight and how many hours drivers can spend on the road if they’re carrying life-saving supplies.
For hundreds of grocery stores, priorities shifted away from stocking goodies like Oreos and steaks, McElroy says. “That all just halts. It’s all water, bandages, bread, stuff like that.” Late into Saturday night, his company was accelerating deliveries by skipping distribution centers, where mixed pallets of goods are usually prepared for any given destination. “We started bringing truckloads of water directly to stores,” McElroy says.
But even though the worst of the storm has passed, the damage wrought by severe flooding presents a fresh set of challenges. “Not much has improved,” says Diego Urrutia, chief commercial officer of Loadsmart, another truck brokerage. “It hasn’t stabilized yet.” As of Thursday morning, Houston transportation agency TranStar still listed 95 high water locations. At least some stretches of each of the half-dozen major roads passing through or around Houston remained shut down. Earlier in the week, traffic mapping app Waze reported more than 1,000 road closures in 51 Texas counties.
It’s no surprise, then, that the combination of bad conditions, increased demand for necessities, and a preexisting driver shortage has triggered a jump in the cost of trucking. On a normal day this time of year, Urrutia says, it costs about $2.40 per mile to have someone carry a truckload of your stuff between Dallas and Houston. Right now it’s between $8 and $10 per mile. McElroy confirms the trend: “We’ve seen rates go up 350 percent on average,” he says.
This is because there are simply fewer trucks on the road—commercial fleet activity in the area dropped 88 percent on Monday compared to a week earlier, according to telematics company Geotab. Even as the weather relents, carriers may hesitate to accept trips that risk damaging their vehicles. “Folks are still in a very cautionary and almost emergency mode,” Urrutia says. “We’re not going to see this improve significantly for at least the next week.”
Folks are still in a very cautionary and almost emergency mode.
Closed routes and debris on the road also make every trip take longer, which makes trucks less efficient. Then there’s the added challenge of truckers navigating a city where any given road may be flooded. Urrutia’s crew has been using Waze, in which users mark road closures. McElroy has relied on information from the National Guard and other dispatchers. “We have a team of people sketching out roads,” he says.
Another step toward normalcy will be restocking stores—those that can be reached, at least—with groceries other than water and necessary staples. That’s not as gnarly as it sounds, McElroy says. In normal conditions, stores usually keep just a few days’ worth of goods on hand, to keep inventory costs low. Refilling all their shelves in a 72-hour period is standard operating procedure, even if in this case it costs a bit more than usual and means more work for everyone.
The men and women running these complicated supply chains are used to disruptions: worker “slowdowns” at West Coast ports in 2015, the 2014 polar vortex that froze the Northeast. But a hurricane—especially one with such a drastic level of flooding—brings a different sort of challenge. Tens of thousands of people have lost their homes, vehicles, or other valuable possessions. The stress of wrangling with insurance adjusters and whomever else will certainly limit their ability to work all the extra hours a shift to normal conditions demands. They don’t just have jobs to do. They have lives to rebuild.