When Hurricane Harvey finally dissipated after wreaking havoc across Texas and Louisiana in August 2017, the storm left behind an estimated $125 billion in damage, ranking it among the costliest natural disasters ever to hit the United States. In the weeks that followed, Elite Diesel Service jumped into action, assisting boat owners struggling stay afloat without power or functioning marinas — despite losing one of its own shops to the storm. “It was a surprise storm to everyone, both in how quickly it blew in and how devastating it was,” says John Bowen, the company’s president. “We had minimal time to prepare, and we pretty much got the eye right across our shop. Being in the boat business, we’ve dealt with hurricanes our whole lives, but this one was different. It ripped apart all the weak spots.” “Like Working from a Campsite” An authorized marine dealer for Caterpillar, Elite Diesel Service is based in Kemah, Texas, but opened a second facility in Rockport — located on the Gulf Coast about 30 miles north of Corpus Christi — just a year and half before Harvey. When Bowen and his team finally reached the Rockport shop several days after the storm, they found the building’s foundation in good shape and their inventory mostly untouched. But there was no power, and the roof, walls, interior, plumbing and electrical were all destroyed.
Shutting down the facility wasn’t an option, though, as Elite Diesel Service customers in the area began calling for support within days of the hurricane. So the company got resourceful — setting up a temporary shop on its property.
“We got some shipping containers to store our inventory and had a temporary office trailer set up within a week and a half of the storm,” Bowen says. “For power we were using a marine generator that runs on seawater, so we just threw the hose in the pond next door. It was a lot like working from a campsite for a while. We just tried to take care of our customers and employees as best we could while getting our facility rebuilt.”
Much of that customer work involved restarting engines, recharging batteries, fixing electrical issues caused by wind-driven rain and resolving control-system damage due to flying debris and seawater. In many cases, Elite Diesel Service’s most important job was simply to get boat owners up and running so they could leave for a marina that still had facilities.
Not all the issues were local, either.
“With the marinas all torn up, there wasn’t really anywhere for people to come back to, so a lot of our customers took their boats to Florida and Alabama,” Bowen says. “That meant our employees had to travel more to work on engines. It was a double-edged sword: Our guys needed to travel to make money, but they also needed to be here to get their own homes fixed.”
Rebuilding Engines — and Lives
All of Elite Diesel Service’s Rockport employees suffered damage to their homes, and helping them get back on their feet has been a priority for Bowen.
“You have to retain your people. You can’t just say, ‘We’re shut down, and we’ll call you back later,’” he says. “We’ve tried to diversify a bit to keep all our employees working. We’ve had to be resourceful and work outside of our normal base. It’s made for some interesting things we’re doing some days.”
One of those unusual jobs involved “pickling” the Cat® 3516 engines inside a sunken harbor tug vessel. After being underwater for days, the engines couldn’t be saved, but Elite Diesel Service was able to drain out all of the water and salvage some of the parts for the owner.
As a board member for the Houston Big Game Fishing Club, Bowen also found himself in a new position — reviewing applications for a relief fund set up to help members of the local boating industry.
“These guys, the deckhands and captains, they’re the ones who keep this industry moving,” he says. “We got some donations right away, and we were able to quickly put money in the hands of people who lost everything. It was a rewarding and challenging part of storm recovery I’ve never been involved with before.”
Getting Back to Normal
Back at Elite Diesel Service’s Rockport location, work is progressing on the facility rebuild. Electricity and Internet have been restored; employees have moved back into the office; and a grand reopening crawfish boil is planned for March.
“It’ll be another couple of years before it’s back to normal in terms of work for us,” Bowen says. “But we’ll keep moving forward.”