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Getting produce out in the midst of Hurricane Harvey

“Being at the George R. Brown building was pretty sobering,” said Tony Stachurski, the corporate vice president of procurement for Hardie’s Fruit & Vegetable Co. Houston.

At dawn on Aug. 29, Stachurski and four other team members from Hardie’s warehouse on Houston’s Produce Row assembled to deliver a food donation from their firm. Their stock of fresh produce and other foods planned for Houston schools was rendered irrelevant by the closing of schools and most other city operations due to the late August assault on the city by Hurricane Harvey. But the city’s civic center was in desperate need of food.Harvey-Hardies-Houston-Convention-CenterOn the morning of Aug. 29, three bobtail delivery trucks from Hardie’s Fruit and Vegetable Co. Houston back up to Houston’s George R. Brown Civic Center to donate food to the 9,000-people taking refuge from Hurricane Harvey. Hardie’s left one of these emptied trucks behind to provide the center with needed refrigeration space. Photo courtesy of Tony Stachurski

Stachurski worked in advance with the American Red Cross to bring three truckloads of food to the George R. Brown facility, which became the primary refuge for some of those displaced by one of the most damaging events in the history of the United States. In a few days, Harvey dumped as much as 50 inches of rain in the Houston area.

“It was organized chaos,” Stachurski said hours after returning from the civic center delivery. “It was a concert of people coming and going — police, FEMA people, helicopters. I hoped they could use all of the food we were bringing and I asked a guy. He laughed at me. ‘We have 9,000 people here!’ the charity worker responded.

“Seeing the people displaced and the number of volunteers coming together was incredible. There were so many cars around the center, it looked like they were going to a football game.” The cars belonged to citizens who drove through terrible conditions to bring diapers, clothing and other goods to suffering Houstonians. There were so many donations, that leaders were overstocked and began turning good samaritans away at 10 a.m. on Aug. 29.

“We drove in with three trucks and left with two,” Stachurski said. The third bobtail stayed behind for relief leaders “who were overwhelmed.” They didn’t have enough refrigeration to accommodate keeping food safe so the Hardie’s truck became additional refrigeration.

Driving into George R. Brown with Stachurski were Victor Villegas, Jorge Blanco, Juan Montano and Terrence Hudson, who is Hardie’s operations manager.

As the storm approached an elevated fierceness on Saturday, Aug. 26, Hardie’s closed mid-day.

One of Hardie’s partners, the downtown Hyatt hotel, was full with 1,300 people, ranging from the newly homeless to stranded travelers, FEMA leaders and policemen coming from other cities. By Monday morning, Aug. 28, most of the hotels in downtown were out of food. The employees in these over-packed hotels were trapped at work. The chefs never stopped cooking and other servers in the hotels just kept serving.

Given the dire needs of Hardie’s clients, the 37-year-old Stachurski drove his own truck to the Hardie’s warehouse on Aug. 28 and packed it to deliver to the Hyatt and a couple hospitals. Hardie’s handles a full range of foods, so he was able to deliver proteins and dairy as well as produce to the needy outlets, “which were in desperate need,” he said.

Because Hardie’s planned for a routine week of delivering to Houston schools, the firm was well-stocked with individual-serving packaging. This coincidentally became the ideal gift for the foodservice operators saving Houston.

Hardie’s Houston office employs 175 people. None of the staff died or were hurt. However, “there were some that lost their homes and cars,” he said. “They are staying with other family or are in shelters.”

Stachurski said his own home is in a flood-prone area, but his home and his immediate neighbors’ homes were unharmed.

He added that Hardie’s is fortunate that its warehouse was unharmed by the flooding. “Our facility dodged a bullet. But it will be awhile ‘til things are normal. Normal? That could easily be weeks or months. There are parts of the city that are gone. Restaurants, businesses and supermarkets use produce. But they won’t be back next week,” he said.

These companies will need to make business decisions on rebuilding, “so it’s hard to say how that will shake out. But I’d say we’re pretty resilient here,” he said.

The Produce News called about 10 Houston produce distributors on Aug. 29 and most of those phone calls were unanswered. The few people that did answer the phone indicated that their firms were operating on a limited basis. Driving to work was a setback for many who work for these firms.

In south Texas

“We dodged a major bullet” in the Rio Grande Valley, said Tommy Wilkins, director of sales and business development for Grow Farms Texas LLC, in Donna, TX. As regions between Corpus Christi and Houston faced a forecast of feet of rain from the lingering storm, Wilkins said on Aug. 26 Texas growing areas along the Rio Grande “didn’t get any rain” from the hurricane.

Ironically, there was a cold front coming from the north that dropped some rain 40 miles north of McAllen. But Wilkins said that moisture had nothing to do with Harvey.

A further irony, Wilkins added, was “we could use some rain. But we certainly didn’t need 20 inches of rain, nor a hurricane. The Rio Grande Valley was spared any negativity whatsoever.”

Wilkins noted that 100 miles to the north of his McAllen home, the Texas coast endured ocean surges as high as eight feet and 135 mile per hour winds upon landfall the evening of Aug. 25.