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Contractors Offer Tips on Bearing Weather’s Woes

Mon October 30, 2006 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson

Mention big storms and the word Katrina springs to mind. Hurricane Katrina was, of course, the most memorable of the devastating Gulf of Mexico storms of 2005 and had thunderous impact on individuals, communities and construction activity in the United States.

In the aftermath of that hurricane, some contractors took steps to mitigate the danger that future storms — big and small — pose for their companies on the Gulf Coast and elsewhere in the United States. But not all storms bring such change in planning, with company responses to weather misfortune ranging from new precautions to “business as usual.”

Unwelcome weather events fall into one of two categories: catastrophic and inclement. The first totally disrupts construction routine, shutting down entire projects; the second merely delays the work for a few hours or days. Either interruption is costly for an industry in which time is money.

Construction contracts stipulate that contractors either can be compensated for a delay or have a contract extended to offset the delay, or both, depending upon the nature of the interruption. Bad weather typically results in a contract extension without additional compensation, though there are exceptions to that.

For example, an Italy-based contractor, Astaldi Construction Co., was granted an extension in January by the Florida Department of Transportation on a highway-widening project. The extension kept the company eligible for a $400,000 bonus for finishing the project “on time” by April 11, even though the original completion date was late 2005. The company was granted the extension because Hurricane Wilma interrupted its supply of asphalt.

Catastrophic weather includes the aforementioned hurricanes, as well as firestorms, mudslides, earthquakes, floods, winter cold and snow, and tornadoes. When such extreme combinations of wind and/or rain boil up and sweep a region, making a dollar or finishing a job necessarily takes a back seat to staying alive and handling emergencies.

But after the water recedes or the wind abates, the need returns to complete a project ASAP. In those post-storm periods, some firms are able to move ahead a little wiser, having taken from the experience whatever lessons they could find.

“I think everyone learned from this one,” said David White, vice president of Roy Anderson Corp., a Gulfport, Miss., contracting company that felt the brunt of Katrina.

“Everyone in the industry is paying a lot more attention,” said White, speaking from his office a year after the massive hurricane struck. “People going back are doing it a lot differently.”

The Aug. 29, 2005, storm hit the state’s second-largest city with a ferocity that amazed long-time residents. It wrecked the courthouse from which Confederacy President Jefferson Davis gave his last public speech and swept away other historical structures that had survived 100 or more years of hurricanes. Homes were destroyed, a barge was left high and dry on property in West Gulfport and debris was strewn across a wide area inundated by surging Gulf water before it finally retreated.

“We were a lot more casual before this monster,” said White, who is a south Mississippi native and 31-year veteran with Roy Anderson Corp. “We’ve been through a couple dozen of them, but we’ve never seen the water we did on this one. We expected it to be one of the storms we had been through before. But when it made that little jog back toward us, we sit in a little hole and all that water pushed up in here.”

Katrina cost the company approximately $4 million in cranes, backhoes, forklifts and other pieces of heavy equipment, not including rented equipment. On job sites, the company’s trailers and some early stages of construction work simply were washed away.

The havoc spurred the company to begin a new regime of responses to approaching storms. Gone is the casual perspective on weather. In its place is a formal, systematic decision-making process.

White said the company has adopted what he calls a “pretty detailed four-part system” that anticipates and reacts to a hurricane from almost the beginning of its formation out in the Atlantic.

“Once a storm actually enters the gulf, we start taking action,” he said. “We are demanding of our superintendents much more awareness as a storm approaches. There are certain steps they have to take.”

A second stage of alert is triggered whenever a wandering storm turns one way or another. If tracking finally indicates the hurricane is heading anywhere near Gulfport or any Roy Anderson projects, orders will be given to tie down everything that can’t be moved and to move the rest of the equipment to higher ground. A fourth-level response is to shut down a job in a timely way and evacuate the area.

White said that project owners and developers in the Gulfport area are “demanding” a more formal hurricane response plan in contracts. The company had been developing such a plan, the vice president said, but Katrina was the incentive needed to complete it.

The other side of any storm story is that contractors generally have more work opportunities afterwards. The building industry naturally benefits from major rebuilding efforts. That has been true for Roy Anderson Corp. after Katrina.

“We have been able to pull more resources back into home base. We’ve been able to consolidate somewhat. That’s going to go on,” White said of the company’s post-Katrina business plan. “It means a huge construction boom for the Gulf Coast, absolutely.”

Municipal officials learned something from Katrina, too, White said: City building codes were changed. The immediate effect of the change was to slow recovery efforts, but property owners and contractors eventually moved ahead.

After a storm strikes, companies and construction workers sometimes rush to an area to aid in recovery, which can leave other areas of a state understaffed for ongoing projects. Todd Bruce, the new executive director of the Mississippi Associated General Contractors, said the association has begun to do a lot more training of employees in coastal areas, both to prepare them for future post-hurricane activity and to swell the ranks of trained workers along the coast.

West Coast Storms

Across the country on the West Coast, catastrophic weather doesn’t often arrive on hurricane winds. It is more apt to come in a firestorm that sweeps across rolling hills of brush and trees before dropping down into canyons where Californians have built their homes.

“California is a land of fire and water. Our issues always are essentially about whether it is raining or not raining. If it is not raining, we are going to have a fire season,” said Bill Davis, communications consultant for the Southern California Contractors Association and editor of its publication. “It is fire season and mud season. That’s the reality.”

Three years ago, a catastrophic fire swept through the interior region west of Los Angeles down toward San Diego, consuming more than 600,000 acres of trees and brush, destroying nearly 2,000 houses and killing 20 people. Tens of thousands of Californians evacuated popular mountain lake and orchard areas as the infernos bore down on them.

“It has been this way for the history of the state,” Davis said. “Before the Spanish came here in the 1700s, most of southern California was an arid desert. Then when the settlers started arriving, they planted a bunch of trees and added to the fire problem. The fire this year was in an area that had not burned in 60 years. Consequently, there was a lot of fuel there.”

A logical way to minimize the loss of homes and lives is to separate fire-prone areas from residential and commercial neighborhoods. But relatively long periods between fires lulls local officials into believing it is safe to build homes in the midst of forests and scrub brush areas. Contractors, of course, will build anywhere building is allowed by governing officials.

Then, after fires break out in built-up areas and the roaring flames eventually are snuffed by thousands of firefighters, contractors line up to repair roads, replace bridges and build new housing in a state where the cost of a new house can be a half-million dollar proposition. “Everyone understands these risks,” Davis said. “Essentially, it is business as usual.”

“Mud season” sometimes arrives soon after the fires. Denuded slopes lose their grip as they turn to mud under autumn rains and crash down onto highways and houses. While seasonal heavy rains can cause this slippage, the arrival of an “El Nino” weather pattern from the Pacific Ocean almost certainly will produce more.

El Nino is the cyclical warming of surface waters in the central and eastern Pacific, with normal weather patterns disrupted by the change in meteorological conditions. A strong El Nino can bring an inordinate amount of rainfall to southern California.

“We’re expecting this year to have an El Nino event, so we’re looking at a lot more rain than usual,” he said. The last major storm of this type was in 1997 and brought about three times more rain than normal.

Midwest Challenges

Midwest contractors have neither hurricanes nor firestorms to worry about. Tornadoes, floods and snowstorms generate the weather disasters in the center of the country — and produce major headaches for contractors.

One of the planned responses to these storms in the greater Kansas City, Mo., area is that contractors pitch in to help with relief. After a twister wrecks a neighborhood or a river bulges out of its banks to run through streets, contractors come together in something called “Plan Bulldozer.” The joint effort involves the volunteering of equipment and manpower to open closed streets, remove debris or take whatever action is needed to restore function to an area.

“If a major disaster comes through, you are doing it [the emergency work] for nothing. There is no bargaining on price,” said General Superintendent Bob Fry of Clarkson Construction, a family-owned highway and site preparation contracting company dating back to 1880. “You deal with the cities or whatever afterward to try to recoup some gas money or something, but that’s for later.”

Fry said most contractors try to take care of a home area first but are on call to help across the region.

This industry-wide response to disaster is not unique to Kansas City, but contractors in the Missouri-Kansas region do seem to have a weather anticipation tool that is not widely employed elsewhere. Numerous companies in the region have developed an on-call, hour-by-hour relationship with a weather service that allows them to stay ahead of routine weather events.

The service company, Weather or Not, bills itself as “the forecaster that finds you.” The Shawnee, Kan., firm relies on technology and professional judgment to give construction companies daily and hourly forecasts, including text messages sent to specific job sites — with superintendents and job foremen calling in for up-to-the-minute information about an approaching storm.

“If it gets dark in the middle of the day, they get a little nervous,” said Sara Croke, company founder and meteorologist, speaking of contractor clients who have come to depend on her company in their decision-making. “Or they’ll hear there is rain at another guy’s job site and are wondering if they’ll get rain, too. ’Call me if you think the rain is one hour away,’ they’ll say, and then they’ll time their pours or move their crews from one area to another.”

The bigger weather picture is kept in focus, too, she said. “When we see a blip in northwest Missouri, we have to decide if that is going to cause a problem for the guys working south of St. Louis. It’s critical we let them know before they get hit or, more importantly, that they won’t get hit so they can keep going.”

With night work more common, the Weather or Not staffs its weather center 24 hours a day to be available whenever a crew is working.

“There are guys out there in the pitch dark and no one back in the office and they can’t see a storm coming. Or a company will need to make a decision at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning. We have to have full-time staffing to cover all that,” Croke said.

Contracts with the meteorological company range from six months (parks and recreation departments) to a year (large construction contractors). With an annual retention rate of clients approaching 100 percent, the forecasting service seems to be effective.

A St. Louis street department employee praised Weather or Not for an August consultation that allowed the department to complete a chip and seal project. “I told him [the Weather or Not meteorologist] that I needed an hour notice to stop applying material prior to rain in order to avoid a big scale mess; he said he would update,” Todd Waeltermann reported later. “And that he did, talking me through the next three hours, as I fended off many calls from my superintendent and foreman to stop work.”

Clarkson Construction also uses Weather or Not. “It works all the time, Fry said. “Rather than speculate about a storm, we can wait up until the last minute. We don’t have to make our decision at five in the afternoon and have a dry night. We can push our limits a little more.”

Some other weather forecast services are available for contractors here and there across the country. One that is not around any longer was a product offered by USA Software that gave contractors decades of weather history near job sites so contractors could better calculate delays as they worked up bids for a job.

“It was a nice concept and a great software, but it is no longer available,” said company president Tom Henry. The creators of it decided for some reason not to continue to support it. “Too bad, too, because it’s a really nice program.”

New England Winters

Massachusetts contractors work through winters with an average high daily temperature in the 30s and an expected seasonal accumulation of nearly 40 in. of snow before April thaws the region. It follows that the winter season is not the one that contractors most happily anticipate.

“We try to prepare for the season. We start keeping things buttoned up more,” Timothy P. McLaughlin, senior vice president for construction at SPS New England Heavy Highway Division, said at the approach of the season in late October. “We make seasonal provisions, such as going through projects and making sure there are no drainage situations, so no washouts occur when a big storm hits. We try to think ahead.”

In the weeks leading up to the seasonal drop in temperatures, the push by SPS and other Massachusetts contractors is to finish as many temperature-sensitive projects as they can, including concrete work and paving. Left for later are demolition projects and steel erection jobs that can be handled, albeit with gloves, after the cold weather arrives.

During his 12 years with the Salisbury-based company, McLaughlin has not seen much change in the way the company approaches seasonal challenges. What he has seen is growth in the diversity of equipment with which operators can respond to unusual concentrations of snow or cold.

Materials have evolved, too. He specifically cited development of new erosion control materials, which can be used effectively on banks of rivers swollen with melted snow runoff.

McLaughlin said he knows of no coordinated standby system of post-storm response in the state, but an ad hoc working arrangement between public agencies and contractors has developed, he said.

“Massachusetts Highway [Department] is our biggest client,” he said. “They know they can call on us to use any of our equipment. For instance, this year when we had the big flooding, we got the call to have some equipment standing by where they expected some bridges to fall apart.”

Heavy rainfalls in May sent rivers in northeastern Massachusetts to levels expected once every 40 to 150 years. The Ipswich River peaked, for example, at a level not seen since 1930.

But that was then. Winter looms now. The Massachusetts construction company executive said he is going into the winter of 2006 “hearing that it is going to be milder than usual, so we are hoping to get some work done this winter. I am guardedly optimistic.” CEG

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