Surviving the storm

by Kimberlie Clyma
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Disaster
Heavy rains from Hurricane Harvey caused flooding throughout the greater Houston area.
 

The 2017 fall hurricane season will not soon be forgotten. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria wreaked havoc throughout the Caribbean and all along the US southern and eastern coasts. Record rainfalls and hurricane force winds led to flooding and structural damage that will take months, even years, to overcome.

In Houston, Hurricane Harvey’s record rainfall left many areas of the city under water for days. Homes and businesses were flooded and destroyed, and countless Houston citizens were left wondering how they would recover from such devastation.

As Martin Preferred Foods (MPF) reflects on the disaster that caused the Houston-based company to shutter its doors for the first time in its 73-year history, the company is staying positive. “If there was a silver lining to this storm, it’s that the people of the City of Houston, as well as so many from outside our community, banded together in an incredible display of civic unity to overcome the adversity and challenges presented by this disaster,” says Jeffrey Tapick, president and chief operating officer at MPF. “For our company, we formed new bonds of partnership and friendship with so many members of our community during the relief effort, and we truly believe these bonds will far outlast any ill effects of this disaster.”

Disaster preparedness

Being located on the Texas Gulf Coast, Martin Preferred Foods is no stranger to hurricane warnings. Being prepared for impending storms is nothing new to the further processor and distributor of custom, value-added proteins and specialty foods. The company operates two US Dept. of Agriculture-inspected plants at its company’s downtown headquarters, with over 200,000 sq. ft. of processing, cooler, freezer and dry warehouse space.

As storm warnings hit the area in late August, MPF followed the same protocol it always does to prepare. First, the company ensured there were enough backup generators and supplies on hand. Next, arrangements were made to ship sufficient product to its other distribution facilities in Dallas and central Texas to minimize service disruptions to customers. And finally, the company started communicating early and often with its customers and employees about its contingency plans with the storm on the way. The company held a Crisis Management Team meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 23 – three days before the storm hit the city. And from that point on, the crisis team – consisting of company management and members of production, operations, transportation and sales – met daily, sometimes twice a day, until one week after the storm had passed.

“One lesson we applied during the storm, and which served us well, was that it is critical to create priorities and communicate early,” Tapick says. “We prioritized safety, and communicated that message as clearly and as often as we could. As a result, we believe we helped eliminate any confusion or ambiguity as to what was expected of our team members, and that helped them stay safe and out of harm’s way as the storm hit.”

Those communications started with a company-wide email from Tapick sent on Friday, Aug. 25. At that time the plan was to stay open for business on Monday and Tuesday. However, Tapick iterated that management would be closely monitoring the storm over the weekend and would communicate to team members if plans changed.

“The most important thing is your safety and the safety of your families,” the email read.

As the rains arrived late Saturday, Aug. 26, and kept falling throughout the weekend, flooding began to affect many areas around Houston. The plant was not in danger of flooding, as it’s located on one of the highest parts of the city, but many other areas around Houston were affected by the extreme and ongoing rainfall.

“It was obvious that flooding around the city was so severe that it dictated the absolute need to keep our employees safe with their families and off the roads,” Tapick explains. “So, late in the afternoon on Sunday, Aug. 27, I made the decision that we would be closed for business on Monday, Aug. 28.”

Employees with email access were kept apprised of the company’s plans via emails from Tapick. In addition, members of the Crisis Management Team and those who attended the Disaster Preparedness meeting communicated with their direct reports, who in turn contacted each of the employees under their supervision until all 325 Houston-based employees (50 additional employees work in the Dallas/Central Texas area) were informed about the company’s plans. The company also set up a toll-free number with a pre-recorded message that employees were able to call to get updates on operations. Since the storm, MPF is testing a text message SMS emergency system which will enable the company to send text alerts to employees’ cell phones during any future emergency.

“Throughout the storm, we did our best to make sure this message was very clear: that we prioritized the safety and welfare of our employees above all else. That prioritization drove every decision that was made regarding the closure of the facility and communication with our employees,” Tapick says.

Martin Preferred Foods resumed operations the next day, though not all employees were able to make it into the facility. A skeleton crew of 40 employees made deliveries to affected customers in the area. The meat plant produced 8,000 lbs. of product and the chicken plant produced 8,500 lbs. that day. By Wednesday, 75 percent of the employees were able to return to work and all Houston deliveries resumed. The meat plant increased production to 18,000 lbs. and the chicken plant was up to 82,000 lbs. Thursday, the plant was able to operate a full production schedule, producing 51,000 lbs. of meat products and 115,000 lbs. of chicken products.

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