Harvey, Houston and Rebuilding as a Financial Executive

Hurricane Harvey, which struck Texas and parts of Louisiana last week, has dumped nearly 19 trillion gallons of water and damaged or destroyed over 100,000 homes.

The storm has impacted people from all walks of life, including several members of Financial Executives International’s Houston Chapter.

We spoke with Josh Tabin, a member of FEI Houston and Chair of its Young Leaders program to discuss the personal toll the storm has taken and how he will use his skills as a financial executive to rebuild for the future.

The podcast is embedded below. An edtit transcript follows.

Chris Westfall: Hi, it's Chris Westfall, FEI in Morristown. How are you?

Josh Tabin: Hey. Good. How are you?

Westfall: I'm okay. More importantly, how are you?

Tabin:  Oh, we're getting there. I mean, it's just sort of the processing of what we have versus what we lost, itis difficult and touches so many different pieces of who you are. So it's been an experience, and not one I'll forget.

Westfall: Maybe Josh, you can talk a little bit about where you are right now, and what your experience has been over the past week.

Tabin: Right now, I'm sitting on a lawn chair in my front yard, looking at the rows of stuff that I used to own, which is and now garbage.

In front of my house. For the past couple days, I've been assessing what we have, what's salvageable, what's saved, and what's ruined. The amount of stuff that is ruined has outnumbered the stuff that we've saved, probably two, maybe three to one at this point. At least from a volume perspective. It's been a difficult, emotional week for us.

Yeah, so I mean, it just was a difficult period of time, because we really weren't sure what to expect, and our focus was getting stuff to higher ground, if in fact we did flood. But we are, as a family, have been here in Houston long enough that we know a lot of people that have been through floods, but we've never been through it ourselves.

It's hard to know what to prepare for, and I don't think anyone really, in our family, was prepared for what came next. We didn't have a rush of water come in, it was a continual, slow creep of water getting closer, and closer, and closer to the house, and then eventually filling up the windows outside quickly that it would soon start seeping in and the house would be as high as the water outside. And just sort of coming to terms with, okay what do we do now to make sure that we're safe.

Tabin: We've done as much as we can to save our stuff, now we need to make sure we're safe, taking care of ourselves. It was very difficult, because we're not in an accessible place in town, and there were a lot of people that needed to be rescued. So we sort of were on our own for a greater part of a couple days until the waters receded enough for us to be able to venture out and at least be able to take stock of where were, and then eventually, have someone come and get us out of here and take us to somewhere safe where we can relax, take a deep breath, and then plan our next move of how we sort of rebuild.

Westfall: Did you have to make a last minute decision to evacuate, or is that something you planned on?

Tabin:    It wasn't that we evacuated so much as that ... we had about three feet of water that came in the house. We probably could have stayed, but we decided to use that space for our stuff, and we wanted to keep safe because we didn't feel like there was going to be more water coming at that point because it had sort of been at that level for a while. The concern was going on the roof while it was still raining and waiting for rescue that may or may not come, didn't seem like a ... two teenage daughters, as well too, and they were very, very distraught and not excited about the idea of going up on the roof as well, too.

I made the decision to venture out in the flood waters to my next door neighbor, knock on their door, and they had already flooded but they have an upstairs bedroom, and asked them if we could come over and they were nice enough to let the family of four plus our two dogs basically bunk with them in this small, little one bedroom area upstairs while we waited it out. Pretty much our only entertainment while the power was out was just watching helicopters fly by rescuing people.

Westfall: You've mentioned that you've never seen, although you've been in Houston for several years, you never experienced anything like this before. Where are you now? What are your next steps? What are you thinking about?

Tabin:    My wife is a third generation Houstonian, so we have a lot of family here. Right now we are staying at my mother-in-law's house, which has plenty of room, plenty of space, for us to be at in the time being. Honestly, all I can think about is what's right in front of me right now, which is determining what of our stuff we can actually salvage. Figuring out of the stuff that's salvageable, how to get them cleaned. Do we have enough clothes to wear.

I've been doing contract CFO work for several years now, so you have some more flexibility and to spend some more time with my family. And as a by-product of that, I need to make sure that I continue to work, because I'm not a salaried employee at a company like I used to be when I was a CFO years ago. I have to be able to balance figuring out how to get our kids back in some sort of routine, ourselves back in a home, and at the same time, I have to continue to do work during that period of time as well too to pay for it all as well.

It's an interesting balance that I'm going to have to go through, and all I can really focus on is what's immediately in front of me. One of the things I took away from this is that there's only so much planning you can really do.

Planning is sort of the process of getting yourself ready for the event, and we're in the event right now, so there's really not a whole lot of planning I can do until I can better understand what exactly are our options. What kind of stuff do we need to come up with and settle ourselves. How long is it going to take us to rebuild the place that we're in if it's even going to be able to be rebuilt. Do we want to stay in this area that's flooded several times over the past several years, or do we really need to be somewhere else.

There's so many questions that are in front of us, that's a bit overwhelming. I just take my work as a finance executive working with fast growing companies, new companies, and say, "Look, we have to lay it all on the table, and deal with one thing at a time." You can't answer seven questions at once. Sometimes they're sequential. So figure out what the sequential stuff is, what's the parallel stuff. Address it, and hopefully get to a point where we've been able to get enough so we can put a large chunk of this behind us, and then start to plan long term for the future where we want to be.

Westfall: Houston is a fairly large FEI chapter, and there's a really vibrant community in Houston in terms of financial executives. Have you been in contact with any of the members? Have you gone back and forth with anybody, or is it something even discussed prior to the event?

Tabin: It's not something I thought about prior to the event, and when it happened I went out on Facebook and let people know what's going. And I've had an outpouring of support from other FEI members. Frances Hawes], who's our incoming president for the upcoming year, sent out a notice that if anyone needed anything during the storm to let us know. I sent her note and basically our chapter administrator sent the note out to a bunch of people and I had about a half a dozen different members who have been by. I've got one here right now. We had several yesterday. Frances herself came by to check on us to see how we were doing.

The thing is is that it's not a isolated event. It's something that is really going to touch everyone in the chapter, and everyone in the city. So everyone has their own little world to deal with, and there are people that have been spared that are very generous with their time. There's been a lot of folks in the professional organizations that I've been a part of, and FEI in particular, that have really stepped up to be there for me.

Which speaks to what I get out of it, which is the familial and collegial aspect of having brothers and sisters in arms who are not only just doing the work that we do, but also like-minded people who are cut from the cloth as me, who think alike. We're quick and able to step up for each other. I don't hope that there's another disaster, but I do hope at some point that I'm able to give back specific people and the chapter as a whole. I sit on the board today. I think that's something, but I want to be able to give back more as well.

This whole city is really reeling. It's still, frankly, in many cases, dealing with, still, with a lot of the stuff as well. It's going to be an interesting couple of months, and it could even be longer until its full recovery. I think at FEI chapter here, we're going to spend some time figuring out how as a chapter we can give back. Community outreach is a big part of what we do, and it's hard for me to think about that now, but I know that at some point, a lot of this will be behind me. And I'm in a better place with the people that I know and the resources that I have available, where a lot of people just, frankly, don't. Those are the people I want to be able to get out and really help at some point when I'm able.

Westfall: What are your next steps? Where do you go from here?

Tabin:    My next step is, at this point, continue to clean up, figure out what the time frame for the clean up is going to be, and determine if I'm have enough stamina to live with my in-laws for the next three, nine months. But out of that, I'll be able to then determine, do we need to go find temporary housing, do we need to look to resources that are geared for providing help outside of the insurance that we have, like FEMA or other organizations to help us find the things that we need to ...

It's just the challenge of resources here right now. Both of our cars were destroyed in the flood. I can't even go out and rent a car at this point, because there are no available rental cars in Houston. You ask about next steps, my next step is waiting for the truck that's going to come and help me bring] some boxes in storage. At some point, I'm going to want to eat dinner, and then wake up and plug away at it again tomorrow. It's actually pleasant to be living moment to moment and day by day, because so much of my job is thinking about the future. It's nice to actually be more present.

Westfall: What would you like to see from other chapters, or from FEI as a group? How would you like to see them participate in the rebuilding? Or have you even gone down that road yet?

Tabin: I think there are so many people that are affected by this, that it's going to take a while just to figure out what all the needs are. It'd be nice for the other chapters that have interest, and people that are interested, to pool resources together. Whether it's to do food drives, or clothing drives, or things of that nature, at their work locations. Have the chapter be the central point for that, and be able to coordinate, which we ... I'm not volunteering myself at this point, but I'm sure other folks in the chapter would be happy to help to bring that in and help distribute it to the organizations that are getting that out to people and being able to do that as well. I think the local chapter can be a conduit for the other chapters that want to do something but don't know how to do something. Whether that's raising money for groups that need it, or finding charitable organizations to put money into, or literally having people bring and donate stuff, and then from there sending it down so that we can distribute it and be their arm here locally.

San Antonio, I remember, is where I initially joined a long, long time ago, but I'm sure that there are folks in the chapters there that are struggling as well, too. New Orleans and Louisiana is probably next, and who knows what's going to happen there. I think there'll be a lot of chapters that need help, and I think to the extent that there's an interest, I think the chapters should just organize, think about what they want to do, and reach out to us here in Houston and say, "How can we help?" We'll figure it out for them.

Westfall: Last question I know you got better things to do, right now. But one thing I wanted to ask you is, you mentioned that this is, in a way, gives you a little bit of respite from having to plan things out all the time.

You're sort of living moment to moment. What do you think, as a financial executive, benefits you in dealing with this right now. It's sort of a squishy question, but I'd like to get your thoughts on it.

Tabin: I could tell you that most of the work that I do as a finance executive is to be the level head in situations where we have challenges. That in itself is a tremendous training to help with this situation. It's a little harder when it's personal like this to separate myself from it. But I've worked for companies that have not been able to make payroll at any particular point in time, and finding ways to handle that. I liken this is the same way. I've got people that I have outstanding credit card and debt that I owe to, that I've got to figure out where's the best use of my resources and what are you willing to work with me on.

I'm not in the turnaround situation myself, but that thinking is something that I'm going to apply as it relates to here. And then at some point, when I'm able to really think about what's going forward, lay down a financial plan and say, "Where do we want to be in the next 10, 15 years, given this hiccup that we've had." And then reassess our plans. I had to do that back in 'O8 an '09 as well, too. Financial crisis versus a physical, ecological crisis, but underlying all that stuff is pretty much the same thing.

Westfall: So you're sticking with Houston, I would take it.

Tabin:    For now. My kids are teenagers, so I'd like to see them finish out high school. After that, who knows.

Westfall: Yeah. That's true with everybody. Well, I appreciate you taking the time. I really do, and wish you the best of luck.

Tabin: Sounds great. I appreciate the opportunity to share my story in hopes that maybe it spurs someone to do something they wouldn't have done before to help someone else out.

Tabin: Hey, I have got to go. I've got some boxes to load.

Westfall: Yep. Take it easy. Thanks very much. Good luck.

Tabin: Alright. Take care. Bye.

A note from FEI Houston Chapter President Frances Powell Hawes:

"I am learning about more and more members who cannot return to their home as the water has not subsided. If FEI members across the nation want to donate, I suggest the JJ Watt of the NFL's Houston Texans  established Houston Flood Relief Fund."