When Disaster Strikes Close to Home, U.S. Rice Industry Takes the Reins

What Harvey wrought
What Harvey wrought
Jul 10, 2018
HOUSTON, TX -- It’s been ten long months since Hurricane Harvey inundated the Houston area with 40 to 60 inches of rain, displacing more than 30,000 people, and causing $125 billion in damage.  For those that lived through it, it was a harrowing ordeal of rising flood waters, destroyed property, and daring rescues.  For Houstonians, it was also a time to come together to help family, friends, and neighbors, no matter how dire the situation.

For the employees of Houston-based RiceTec, it started with some phone calls.

“We felt so helpless.  I was stranded in my home for several days,” said Cindy Howe, compensation and benefits manager at RiceTec.  “We felt like we couldn’t do anything, so we just decided to do something.”

Howe and her colleague Jean Thornton, RiceTec’s manager of IT business services, knew they couldn’t rest until they had contacted every single one of the company’s approximately 160 Houston-area employees and confirmed that they were safe.  The two were stranded in their neighborhoods by the floodwater, but still had phones, power, and computers.

“We reached out to determine who was impacted, what the impact was, if they needed assistance, or if they had family members who needed assistance,” said Howe.  

Howe and Thornton’s efforts snowballed from there.  Almost everyone Howe and Thornton got in touch with had been affected by the storm and the floods to some degree, some worse than others.  But even those who had their own problems and repairs to attend to were eager to help those coworkers in more dire situations.  

Before they knew it, there were 90 RiceTec employees involved in the recovery project who logged a total of 1,223 hours of volunteer rescue work.  The company footed the bill for supplies from the hardware store, and employees brought their own tools, expertise, and work ethic.

“They just showed up with their hammers and their saws and their gloves and their muscles, and they got in there and got to it,” said Thornton.

This spirit of community extends to RiceTec’s employees in Puerto Rico as well. The island was devastated by both Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria within the span of three weeks, leaving residents without power for months and largely isolating them from international relief efforts. But that didn’t stop RiceTec.  The company purchased generators, food, water, filtration systems, satellite radios, batteries, and diapers, and miraculously managed to get the shipments through using their connections.

RiceTec’s employees in the small town of Lajas, led by Station Manager Cesar Zayas, in turn rationed out supplies to their neighbors most in need, extending RiceTec’s goodwill and fellowship to their own community.  

Months afterward, one of those employees from Lajas would meet Howe and Thornton in person.  She hugged them so hard she could have cracked ribs.  “You’ll never know how much that meant to us,” she told them.

Howe attributes their motivation to get “boots on the ground” to the response of their Arkansas team during the catastrophic flooding there in 2017.  While no RiceTec employees were directly affected by those floods, many of their farmers in Arkansas were drastically impacted and Marya Landford of the RiceTec office in Arkansas got a group together at a local church and helped farmers clear out the damage on their farms.

That attitude of coming together when things get rough is an ingrained part of how the company operates.  “Our culture has always been to have each other’s backs when the chips are down,” Howe said of RiceTec, whether it be in Houston, Arkansas, or Puerto Rico.

Of course, RiceTec wasn’t the only company in the rice industry who stepped up to the challenges last year’s hurricanes presented.  In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Riviana Foods and their employees set up a disaster relief fund that was administered by the Greater Houston Community Foundation (GHCF).  All told, Riviana raised $87,000 for their 17 employees who experienced damage to their homes and automobiles.  

“We greatly appreciate the compassion and generosity of our employees,” said Senior Vice President of Human Resources Gerard Ferguson of the relief efforts.  

Ten months after the devastation of Harvey, Irma, and Maria, Houstonians are still putting the pieces back together.  There’s black mold and insurance policies to deal with, as well as the threat of future floods.  But thanks to the diligence and camaraderie of employees at Riviana and RiceTec, everyone impacted by the flood is back home and moving forward.  

“We are a family here,” said Howe.  “It’s our values.  We care and respect others and our environment and our community, and that’s where this all came from.”