Universal Handles Harvey

Hurricane Harvey dumped four feet of rain on the Texas Gulf Coast in late August and left hundreds of thousands homeless, but Houston-based Universal Weather and Aviation didn't miss a beat, servicing its usual volume of 100 flights per day worldwide during the storm. The trip-support, flight-planning, and handling company implemented a business continuity plan to ensure that customers experienced uninterrupted service. The plan was drafted after 110-mph Hurricane Ike slammed into Galveston and then denuded downtown Houston of much of its glass in 2008, leaving $29 billion in destruction in its wake. Damage from Harvey is expected to top $70 billion.

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Universal's staff of 30 meteorologists closely followed the storm, and the company began putting plans in place 10 days before Harvey made landfall in Texas. Universal's lead meteorologist, Jason Plowman, also happens to be the company's business continuity manager. Pete Lewis, senior vice president of global operations, said those plans staged employees closer to Universal's main office in local hotels, preparing for continuity of operations and temporarily releasing employees ahead of the storm to prepare their homes. While Universal sent most of its 700 employees home before the storm, a dedicated crew equivalent to a typical night shift—50 to 60 peopleremained in the third-floor operations center in a six-story building, near NASA's Johnson Space Center, to handle client needs.

“Our building here is in a good location. We're sort of on a small island surrounded by water,” Lewis said. “We have a generator with three or four days' worth of fuel. You almost didn't recognize that the storm was going on if you were living within the building here.” Lewis said Universal's building suffered some wind and water damage but nothing structural. Dedicated staff supported the operations specialists, working with local restaurants that remained open to keep everyone fed. “There were lots of ancillary activities going on to maintain the continuity of the business,” Lewis said.

Preparation Pays Off

Universal was also able to keep off-site staff engaged with remote log-in capabilities functional during the hurricane to support people in the building. “We were able to keep our people safe and maintain global operations without affecting any of our customers,” said Lewis. “A lot of our customers didn't even know that we were in the middle of the hurricane. For us that is a source of great pride.” The company was back to full-strength staffing within days after the storm, he said.

Lewis said putting a business continuity plan together can be a “pain,” testing it once or twice a year with a tabletop exercise can be a grind and spending resources on it may seem inefficient, but in the long run it's invaluable. “It's last on the list of things you want to do, but when you need it and it works, you realize the value of the hard work involved.” Part of Universal's plan is the remote-site capability in Austin and Dallas should the need arise to evacuate Houston altogether. “We test that once a year before hurricane season, turning on the computers, answering the phones and working some trips from there to make sure it actually works,” he said.

Ten percent of Universal's employees lost homes and/or vehicles in the storm, Lewis said, adding that the company, employees, and clients have all stepped up to help. Employees are helping one another, donating days off to assist with clean-up at each others' homes. Through the beginning of September, employees had raised $115,000 to assist coworkers. Universal has matched that figure, and customers have made donations on the Universal employees' “You Caring” page to help.