When Brian Olson saw the path of destruction Hurricane Harvey left in Texas in August, his reaction was a sense of grief and a desire to help.
But soon after, the co-owner of Beachcomber Vacation Homes in Cannon Beach had another thought.
“These people are just like us. We in Cannon Beach could be in the same boat,” Olson said.
Many vacation rental property management company owners lost homes they rent in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. Destroyed or damaged rental properties mean no income for the foreseeable future.
Olson couldn’t help but think what he would do as a property manager if a tsunami were to ravage the homes he makes his living off of on the North Coast. So Olson and several other vacation rental managers from around the country collaborated with the property management software LiveRez.com to create LiveRelief. The nonprofit collects donations and coordinates efforts to support property managers who are struggling after the natural disasters.
Companies all over the North Coast use LiveRez.com to help manage and rent out vacation houses. As a way to raise money, companies like Olson’s are creating silent auction vacation packages, where all of the proceeds of the bid will go to those affected by hurricanes. In a month, LiveRez.com has raised about $60,000.
“This isn’t about helping second homeowners,” Olson said. “This is about helping the people who work in this industry put food on the table. If all of a sudden we were without, I don’t know what we would do. Vacation rentals are such a huge part of our local economy.”
‘What are we doing?’
After Hurricane Irma hit, Kelly Willey said all that was on her mind were the basics.
“When we came back, we didn’t have electricity. We couldn’t flush toilets,” she said. “People weren’t necessarily thinking about businesses until sometime after. We were focused on little hurdles — like being able to flush the toilet again, thank God.”
But after amenities for basic survival started to come back, the reality of what the storm meant for her business, Coco Plum Real Estate, came back, too. Before Hurricane Irma, Willey managed about 70 properties in Marathon, Florida, a town of about 8,000 in the Florida Keys. After Irma?
“Four. Four are operational,” Willey said. “My first thought was, ‘Oh my god I’m out of business.’ When will the visitors want to come back? Will my employees be coming back, and how do we take care of them?”
LiveRez.com estimates about 100 property managers like Willey were affected by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, 30 of whom lost all of their properties in the storms. Like Cannon Beach, many of these towns are small, coastal and driven by tourism.
Tina Upson, vice president of operations at LiveRez.com, said the company initially responded how they always did after disasters: sent thoughts and prayers. But immediately the company started receiving phone calls and emails.
“They kept asking us, ‘What are we doing?’” Upson said.
In response, LiveRez.com launched a program that allows property managers to share inventory. For example, a property manager in Cannon Beach can donate one of their vacation rentals to a property manager based in an area affected by a hurricane to rent out temporarily. That way, someone in a place like Rockport, Texas, which is still reeling from inconsistent access to power and utilities, can still make money while their own properties are rebuilt.
The nonprofit is also hosting a silent auction. More than 50 property managers around the country have donated vacation rental packages. Whatever is made off the bids will be donated back to the property managers in hurricane-struck areas.
In Cannon Beach, Beachcomber Vacation Homes is offering a vacation package with brewery tours, Coaster Theatre tickets, surf lessons and variety of other local goods valued at $6,500.
“We are trying to learn how to be better prepare for future tragedies. We weren’t prepared,” Upson said. “But at least now Texas properties can say to their clients, ‘You can’t stay with us, but you can stay in Cannon Beach’ and get a cut from the profit. We’re trying to give hope back to companies who thought this was it for their business.”
While she always knew hurricane damage was a possibility, Dawn Huff said imagining how destructive it can be is almost impossible.
“Eighty percent of my homes are wiped out. I can’t say I really planned for that,” Huff said. “This is a reality check.”
Huff owns Miss Kitty’s Fishing Getaways in Rockport, Texas, a small fishing town hit by Hurricane Harvey. When she returned from evacuation, starting up her business proved to be a challenge. Many of her employees were displaced, and some, like housekeepers, had to be let go. Finding ways to communicate with confused and disgruntled customers was a challenge with phone lines and internet service inconsistent at best.
A lot of these problems will take time to solve. But Huff said having a steady stream of income to help rebuild offices and pay her staff will help her get closer.
Vacation houses are still in shambles, but for Willey, in Florida, it’s the little conveniences that count as success.
“I’ve been able to keep staff employed who have come back,” she said. “To me, my success was that I was able to tell someone they could use my fax machine. We don’t expect people to do all the work for us. But hold my beer, so to speak, so I can get my people back to work.”