Houston-Based Family Tree DNA Weathers Hurricane Harvey, Raises Funds for Disaster Relief

By Diane Haddad
Family Tree DNA Houston Hurricane Harvey
Getty Images News/Win McNamee/Staff

When DNA test-takers think about security, they’re usually concerned about their genetic profiles—not the DNA samples themselves.

Genetic genealogy testing service Family Tree DNA, located in the suburbs of hurricane-prone Houston, does think about the samples. Its lab was ready even for Hurricane Harvey, which poured up to inches of rain on the Southwest Texas coast starting Aug. 25. Massive flooding caused at least 70 deaths and damaged roughly 185,000 homes and businesses. About 9,000 of those were destroyed.


Being prepared

Back in 2008, Hurricane Ike severely damaged Family Tree DNA’s headquarters, leaving the company homeless for 14 weeks.

“After that, we invested in a backup power generator, which we’ve had wired to light the entire lab floor of our building,” says President and CEO Bennett Greenspan.

Family Tree DNA uses only a little of your DNA sample to run your test. Because the company offers multiple types of tests—autosomal, Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA—it stores the rest of your sample so you can order another test without sending more DNA. This is especially important if, for example, your father has passed away since taking his DNA test.

“We need to look at samples differently,” Greenspan says. “For me, it’s inventory. I have your DNA and I have an active program that offers you different things genealogically that you can do with your DNA.”

Test kits contain two collection devices you use to gather cheek cells. One is kept at room temperature, preserved by a buffering agent. The rest goes into a minus-20-degree, high-capacity robotic cooler—which the generator kept alive when Houston went dark.


Weathering the storm

Once the rain stopped, no one on staff could get to the building where Family Tree DNA occupies the eighth floor. “We had rivers going through our streets,” Greenspan says. But on Monday morning, Aug. 28, enough of the water had drained away. “I grabbed my rain jacket and fishing boots and drove 10 miles to the office. It took me an hour.”

Some rain had gotten in and the building had lost power, but damage was minor and the generator was running. “All of those first-line items that we wanted to keep powered were powered,” Bennett says. The stored DNA samples were fine.

Customers who didn’t know the company is in Houston likely didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary; the website stayed up throughout the hurricane. “Our ISP [internet service provider] is pretty much bomb-proof. It has multiple backup generators and T1 lines. The city lost power but they didn’t lose power.”

Some employees were able to log on from home and answer emails. The office reopened Sept. 1 to a backlog of messages—now cleared—and 20 just-dropped-off mail bags of customers’ test kits the local post office held during the storm.

The main post office had suspended delivery so local offices could catch up. “We’d just about worked through the kits,” Greenspan says, “and the post office started delivering again.” All told, he says, they had 10,000 to 20,000 samples to run—and they’re almost caught up.


How you can help

Five employees of Family Tree DNA lost their homes and everything inside. The company launched a fundraiser to help them at the YouCaring website, and opened it for public contribution at customers’ request.

Family Tree DNA also is donating a portion of its September test sales to hurricane relief across the city. More than $9,500 has been raised so far (see the updated total on the Family Tree DNA home page).

“Now a week and a half out, we’re feeling good about having dodged a potentially worse bullet,” Greenspan says. “We want our employees’ lives to get back to normal, just as the company is getting back to normal.”