In August and September 2017, communities throughout Southern Texas, the Southeast United States, and the Caribbean were ravaged by a rapid succession of three powerful hurricanes. As Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria swept through these regions, our Employees, Customers, friends and families were gravely impacted.
The strength and timing of these catastrophic events stretched our Employees and resources to the limit. But they also provided us with a firm reminder of the strength of our People and our dedication to the Southwest Way. Employees worked countless hours, gave selflessly of themselves, and dug deep into their Hearts to serve others. Although the storms stretched us, they did not break our Servant’s Heart or dampen our Warrior Spirit.
What follows is a timeline of some of the events of those months.
After making landfall as a Category 4 Hurricane in Southern Texas, Hurricane Harvey begins to make its way toward Houston. On Saturday night, Harvey dumps nine inches of rain on the Houston Area in 90 minutes, causing devastating flooding. Normal operations at Houston’s William P. Hobby Airport (HOU) are suspended. In between storm bands, five Southwest aircraft are flown from HOU to Dallas Love Field (DAL), allowing stranded Customers and Employees to evacuate.
Our Weather Disruption Task Force is set up in the Headquarters Emergency Command Center (HECC) in Dallas in response to the situation in Houston. Employees work around the clock to support Employees in the affected areas and provide continuous updates about the storm, its impact, and its effect on Employees. This Task Force would remain active in the HECC for the next 67 consecutive days.
With Harvey still dumping rain, we meet with members of the American Red Cross chapter in North Texas. Southwest committed an additional $500,000 to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Effort following Hurricane Harvey. We also donated five million Rapid Rewards® Points to the American Red Cross, Team Rubicon, and All Hands Volunteers to fly volunteers to impacted areas.
Southwest humanitarian flights begin to arrive at HOU, carrying much needed supplies—including food, water, and 5,000 pounds of rubber boots donated by Walmart in Indianapolis for Houston rescue and evacuation teams.
Houston-based flight crews arrive at HOU in the wake of the storm. An Employee Resource Center is set up to help meet the immediate needs of Southwest Employees. Services include counseling, transportation, accommodations, gift cards, clothing, uniforms, food, diapers, pet food, FEMA forms, American Red Cross assistance information (shelters, pantries, etc.), and information about Southwest Airlines’ Employee Catastrophic Assistance Charity (SWAECAC).
Southwest begins limited operation of commercial flights to HOU. Thanks to the many Employees who volunteered to assist our Team in Houston, full operations resume on Sept. 6, a day ahead of schedule.
Southwest provides the first of several Humanitarian Pet Lifts out of Austin–Bergstrom International Airport (AUS). Throughout all three hurricanes, we would continue to evacuate animals from Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico animal shelters in order for those shelters to have room to take in additional displaced pets.
Houston Ramp Agent Marty Herrera, a 19-year Southwest Employee, returns to his home and sits in what used to be his bedroom. The chair is an antique from his wife’s grandparents and is the only piece of furniture that was saved after Hurricane Harvey flooded his home. Members of SWAECAC work around the clock to process requests and provide financial assistance to many of the other 4,200 Southwest Employees who live or work near Houston and have been affected by the storm.
Southwest hosts a Company-wide fundraising telethon to benefit SWAECAC. Donations are matched dollar for dollar by Southwest, and the telethon raises more than $1.4 million. Amazingly, the telethon is executed in roughly one week—from inception to planning to implementation. “When we were going into the telethon, we thought, ‘Okay. We’ll do this for Harvey victims,’” says Courtney Miller, a Community Engagement Communications & Outreach Specialist. “But as the days went by in our short window of planning, we realized that the next hurricane was right around the corner, so we pivoted our perspective and realized, ‘Okay. This isn’t just about Harvey anymore. This is about hurricane response in general.’”
Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 hurricane, passes directly over St. Martin and Anguilla, just north of Puerto Rico. In preparation for Irma’s arrival in Florida, Southwest begins humanitarian evacuation flights out of Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) and Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW). During Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, Southwest cooperates with many other airlines to offer space for each other’s Employees and supplies on humanitarian flights. Emergency Response Teams from Southwest, Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines/Virgin America, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines, and United Airlines participate in daily coordination conference calls regarding response efforts in areas impacted by Irma.
Irma makes landfall in the Florida Keys as a Category 4 hurricane and begins to make its way up Florida’s Gulf Coast. Southwest suspends service to and from Ft. Lauderdale, Ft. Myers, West Palm Beach, and several other locations throughout the region.
From Sept. 8–28, Southwest operates 20 humanitarian evacuation flights for Employees, Customers and their families in regions impacted by Hurricane Irma. Due to increased demand, we also operate an additional six unscheduled flights with reduced prices (capped at our lowest Wanna Get Away™ fares).
Tropical Depression Maria forms in the southeastern Atlantic and intensifies to a Category 5 hurricane. On Sept. 20, the storm slams into Puerto Rico.
Following Hurricane Maria’s impact, heavy flight activity restrictions remain in place at the airport with only a few humanitarian flight slots3333) A slot is the right of an air carrier, pursuant to regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration, to operate a takeoff or landing at a specific time at certain airports. available each day. The first successful flight from Orlando to San Juan and back to Orlando is conducted Sept. 24. Humanitarian flights continue through Sept. 30. Southwest offers a total of 18 humanitarian flights carrying 1,288 Passengers at zero cost to the Passengers. We also offer six additional unscheduled flights carrying 924 Passengers at reduced fares.
With damaged infrastructure, airport operations at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) in San Juan are forced to use backup generators and are left without air conditioning. Southwest makes a $100,000 donation to the Foundation for Puerto Rico, a nonprofit organization committed to immediate relief efforts and long-term infrastructure recovery on the island.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, Southwest transports supplies to help the people of Puerto Rico begin to rebuild. Southwest is recognized by the Federal Reserve for our willingness to work with Dunbar Armored to fly millions of dollars in currency into Puerto Rico to address the immediate need for cash.
The strength, magnitude, and rapid succession of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria were unprecedented. In many cases, rebuilding will require a long, patient process. And in some situations, things lost in the storms cannot be recovered.
However, the storms also gave us an opportunity. Throughout the hurricanes, our Employees’ dedication to each other, the People that we serve, and our Purpose created unique opportunities for us to demonstrate our Servant’s Heart. Simply by connecting People with what matters most to them—elements like home and family—we were able to help others weather the storms.
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