Philipp Sitter set out on foot Sunday morning to see if Tropical Storm Harvey's punishing rains had flooded his Houston restaurant. His house lies 4 miles from King's BierHaus in the city's Heights neighborhood.
"It took four and a half hours to get there. So much of the Houston area is completely flooded, homes, cars … we're talking about 4, 6, 8 feet of water at some points," said Sitter. "Then we were able to hitchhike, jump on the back of 18-wheelers that were going through, and walk. Overall we went about 18 miles just to get 4 miles. Just to get around everything. It was insane."
Sitter felt fortunate that King's BierHaus only had 4 to 6 inches of water inside. He knows many Houston homes and restaurants have it far worse. His father had to be rescued by boat from his home in the Pearland area.
Since landfall on Friday, Harvey has pounded southeastern Texas, flattening homes in small towns near Corpus Christi, then slowly but persistently dumping rain on Houston, the United States' fourth-largest city. Nearly 50 inches of rain has fallen on parts of the Houston area since Thursday, the National Weather Service reported, causing catastrophic flooding that officials have called the worst in the state's history. Thousands of residents have been stranded in flooded homes, many on their rooftops, awaiting rescue from first responders, National Guardsmen and volunteers with boats. Floodwaters are forecast to continue rising for days.
With nearly 2 feet of rain still expected, authorities fear the worst is yet to come. Harvey has drifted back into the Gulf of Mexico and is slowly moving northeast. It's expected to continue dropping rain and come back ashore near the Louisiana border on Wednesday morning. Officials report that at least 15 people are confirmed dead. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is calculating that 30,000 people will need emergency shelter.
For Houston's vibrant restaurant community, with more than 10,000 venues, the prevailing feeling is helplessness. In a city of more than 4 million people, just a few restaurants have opened their doors since Friday. There are few reports of damage, but only because most employees cannot reach their restaurants. With many roads covered by hazardous floodwaters, city leaders are urging people to shelter in place to stay safe.
Alex Brennan-Martin reports that his family's restaurant, Brennan's of Houston, hasn't experienced much damage aside from a bit of flooding. The restaurant hasn't lost power, meaning items that need to be kept cool—such as wine—have a chance of surviving the storm.
But Brennan-Martin isn't sure he's out of the woods yet. With rains expected to last through Wednesday or Thursday, there is still a possibility for more flood damage. "We've literally gotten 100 percent of our rainfall for the year in three days," he said. "There aren't enough reservoirs in the world to handle that."
John Watt, executive chef/owner of Prego in Rice Village and managing partner of Third Coast in Texas Medical Center, visited both restaurants Monday and found no damage. He hopes to open both by Wednesday. "[Monday] was the first day you could really get out on the roads," Watt told Wine Spectator. "It's difficult to travel here right now. You can get on the interstates and freeways, but you can't really get off."
Brennan-Martin says his biggest concern is finding out if his staff members are safe. "We're sort of just getting our arms around who's been displaced," he said. "This is a long-term deal; folks are going to need to move in with family or that sort of thing, and then those that can't will be where we'll try to focus."
"The major concern for restaurateurs and business owners is our employees," said Sitter. "A lot of them live paycheck-to-paycheck, and they lost their vehicles, they lost their homes, they lost pretty much everything. Even if they wanted to get back to work, to open up the restaurant or do anything, they don't have transportation now to get there."
H Town Restaurant Group, with locations in various parts of Houston's Inner Loop, was spared from the worst of the storm. Sean Beck, beverage director and sommelier for the restaurant group, made the rounds Monday to assess any damage to their four Houston restaurants—Hugo's, Backstreet Café, Caracol and Xochi. Aside from some roof leakage, there's no sign of damage.
"Right now, it's mainly about keeping an eye on our staff," Beck told Wine Spectator. "We were expecting flooding, because it's flooded the past three years—that was kind of an expected thing, but I don't think anyone was expecting, you know, a trillion gallons to fall down on the city."
H Town management opened three of the restaurants, Hugo's, Backstreet Café and Caracol, Tuesday, with limited menus. "If people want some level of normalcy—a hot meal, friendly faces, a little bit of attention, wifi and electricity they can use—that's what we're going to be open for," Beck said. They also plan to use the restaurants as drop-off sites for donations.
For residents who have not been affected so much, who are waiting this out in their homes, a hot meal would be welcome. But for now, first responders need to be able to move quickly through the streets. Anne Le, owner of Tout Suite in East Downtown, says she would love to return to work. "I'm eager to open and start collecting proceeds to assist with aiding the city," she said. "But right now, with all the road closures and the continuing flooding, I have no choice but to stay closed, [to] ensure the safety of my staff."
Loren Allardyce, brand and marketing director for Johnny Carrabba's restaurant group, echoed that. "The fear right now is having our staff get out on the roadway. We're trying to be very cautious about that right now," said Allardyce.
Chris Poldoian, wine director and general manager of the Montrose bar Camerata at Paulie's, was on vacation in Massachusetts and has been stuck there since the storm, as both Houston airports have shut down. He's keeping in touch with friends and staff through social media, and has been able to monitor the situation at Camerata by looking at security camera footage.
The wine bar's sister restaurant next door, Paulie's, was open for lunch Monday, with a "modified menu" and a "skeleton crew." Poldoian said, "Everyone's making do with what they have."
Texan ingenuity is trying its best. Poldoian reported that Tacos Tierra Caliente, a popular local taco truck, is fully operational. People are lining up to get their street tacos. "[Houstonians] that are stuck at home, unable to really leave their local neighborhoods, are trying to find certain spots, whether it's a taco truck or a dive bar, where they can just get out of the house for a little bit."
While the storm churns on, people across the region and beyond are starting to organize nascent charity efforts, big and small. When the police department asked on Twitter which restaurants were open for first responders, one pizza chain immediately started making free deliveries to the station.
Beck and fellow employees have begun relief efforts by collecting blankets, towels, baby supplies and other necessities to drop off at the George R. Brown Convention Center, one of the city's largest sites that has opened as a shelter. They also plan to drive their van between restaurants to collect more items from community members to deliver to various nearby shelters.
"If you're a part of your community, you're a part of your community. I mean, we've done it after every major storm," says Beck. "If you're really a true restaurant and you are there for the long haul, which is what we are—Backstreet has been around for 35 years—you want to be a part of the community. And that means the good and the bad, always finding ways to help in the community."
Twelve years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina triggered the levee failures that flooded New Orleans, and Houston helped lead relief efforts for the Crescent City. Now the favor is being returned. Chef Amy Cyrex-Sins of Langlois has organized a gift-card drive by the New Orleans culinary community. New Orleans residents can drop off gift cards at numerous local restaurants that will go to Houstonians in need. Closer to home, several Austin and Dallas restaurants have held fund-raising events. Those wishing to make donations can find worthy assistance programs using Charity Navigator.
"We're hoping to be back open by Thursday," said Sitter, after drying off from his 18-mile journey. "And then the first thing we need to do—it's not a time for profits—[is] come together, and help our neighbors and help our staff."