Damage Assessment Continues as Cleanup Begins

Thu September 18, 2008 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson




The first few days after the wind and water of Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston and littered Houston streets with window glass from skyscrapers, Texas state authorities, local emergency management officials and contractors were in the same boat: They could see the breadth of damage wrought by the storm but could not say how deep it went into the area’s infrastructure.

Debris and leaning telephone posts in Harris and Galveston counties visibly attested to the hurricane’s nearly 100 mph winds. Newly created lakes in what used to be open fields testified to the surge of tidewater and heavy rainfall that inundated the coastal region. However, still to be determined in some parts of the region is what damage lies beneath the water.

“Some of the area is still under water and impassable, so we can’t as yet complete a report about what needs to be repaired and what needs to be replaced,” said Chris Lippincott, spokesman for the Texas Department of Transportation. His analysis of damage came in a call-back from Austin late in the evening Sept. 16, well after the department’s normal hours of operation, evidence that south Texas as well as much of the state’s bureaucratic support system has been knocked far out of its routine by the giant storm.

How far from normalcy Ike left the construction industry was hard to determine quickly. A.P. Boyd, Houston and east Texas area manager for the Associated General Contractors of Texas, said Sept. 17 that he was still pretty much in the dark.

“I don’t know,” he said when asked about the commercial impact of the storm south. “It is hard for me to find out. All I know is that they can’t get fuel and most of the contractors are out of work.”

One person in Houston’s office of emergency management even blamed slower than usual Internet service on Ike. “All I know is we’re in a slow boogie down here trying to get back to normal.”

Contractors prepared for the storm’s arrival by readying job sites for wind and water, then hunkering down for the onslaught. Several days after Ike’s rough passage through the area, the contractors were cautiously counting their losses and their blessings.

“Freeport has been essentially rubble-ized. Galveston is severely, severely damaged and uninhabitable, but Houston came through much better,” said Wendy Burke, vice president of client development at Linbeck Group, a Houston-based national construction management firm. Burke reported Sept. 16 that just three of 15 to 20 Linbeck project sites had access to electric power. The company has about $700 million in current projects in the Houston area.

She noted some irony in post-storm developments. For example, most of the Houston flooding occurred not over the weekend from surging Gulf waters but on Sept. 15 after trailing bands of rain dumped inches of water on the city. For another thing, one of the Linbeck project areas that did have power after the storm is situated next to the Housing shipping channel, which was considered one of the most vulnerable areas for destruction; sites in more protected sites were without power.

“Our jobsites came through pretty well,” Burke said. She cited a project that was a particular concern for Linbeck heading into the storm, a $300 million 10-story structure at Rice University, which is about 75 percent enclosed at this stage of construction. The collaborative research center will be the largest building on the university campus when it is completed next year and features both a rectangular wing and a round tower — each of which contain innumerable glass surfaces, large and small.

With Ike’s 100-mph winds headed straight for it Sept. 13, Linbeck managers feared the worst for the windows. Their fears were not realized.

“The building had some flooding, but we didn’t have any wind damage,” Burke said. “Some, but not a lot. We’re trying to get that fixed now, which is difficult to do without electrical power.”

The university project probably was the hardest hit for Linbeck, she said tentatively in the absence of a thorough inspection of all company sites. “We didn’t have any projects on the coast, but we do have personnel who, in a couple of cases, have lost everything.”

Nor was any Linbeck employee killed in the storm, though an equipment operator was injured after a car ran into him while he was riding his motorcycle on a Houston street.

“I’m not aware of any problems at our work sites so far, but we’ve got lots of damage around town,” equipment manager Billy Mitchell said two days after the hurricane moved away from Houston. Mitchell is an employee of Texas Sterling Construction Co., a highway and waterworks contractor, at the company headquarters on Fernbush Lane in Houston. “We’re just trying to help our people put their houses back together and get the trees and branches cleared away. We haven’t started operations yet.”

The Sterling jobsites that most concerned Mitchell prior to the arrival of the storm seemed afterward to have been spared major damage. They are Texas DOT projects along Interstate 45 south of Houston. One of them is a bypass road leading to a major National Aeronautics and Space Administration facility, the Johnson Space Center.

On Sept. 17, assessments of damage at the center were under way, but the facility has power and apparently survived pretty much intact. A Texas Sterling crew issued a similar report after traveling to its projects near the space center: its heavy equipment had not been damaged. Prior to the storm, booms of Link-Belt and Grove all-terrain cranes had been lowered and secured and all pieces of heavy equipment had been moved to earthen bridge approaches and other high ground on the sites. “Everything seems to have held for us,” Mitchell said.

Linbeck managers followed similar procedures in advance of the storm, Burke said, including reducing the height of booms on cranes and positioning them according to manufacturers’ recommendations so the ungainly machines could best ride out high winds. No equipment damage was reported.

The other pre-storm preparation that proved valuable was to remove any construction material and refuse that could become destructive missiles in a high wind. “We picked up debris, that was the biggest thing,” Burke said, “getting the sites as clean as we could make them before the storm arrived.”

County authorities in Harris County — in which most of Houston sits — said at mid-week that infrastructure damage in Houston was limited to above-ground structures, as opposed to eroded roadbeds or undercut bridges.

“There are a lot of ongoing assessments, but from what we can tell we primarily are dealing with downed signal heads and traffic signals as a whole,” said Jackie Freeman, deputy executive director of infrastructure, one of seven divisions in the county’s Public Infrastructure Department. He said the need for debris removal is pervasive and power loss is the single largest problem, with power expected to remain off in some areas for two to four weeks.

The city was spared a more damaging storm surge because Ike veered slightly to the east, which Freeman termed “a little saving grace.”

He added that after drenching the city with about five inches of rain, the clouds cleared away and the weather has been “absolutely beautiful.” He said the practical effect of the good weather pattern is that low humidity allows people in homes without power to leave their windows open at night for cooling.

By mid-week, the governor’s office still had not released an assessment of damage and cost estimates from the storm. Any figures trotted out for media consumption were being given in big round numbers. Lippincott of the Texas DOT also was reluctant to put a price tag on the storm’s impact. He said a sound cost figure for damage to the state highway system awaits further analysis but that “it will certainly be several millions of dollars.”

He did say that 500 DOT employees were sent to the storm-ravaged area to supplement 1,200 employees already stationed there. The total DOT workforce dedicated to the task of recovery now exceeds 10 percent of the department’s employees.

“Some of the employees the night before Ike arrived were sleeping out in the back of their trucks ready to go down there in a moment’s notice,” he said. All DOT equipment considered to be in harm’s way had been moved from the area before the storm struck.

Probably the hardest hit stretch of roadway is state Hwy. 87, which runs along the ocean side of the barrier island separating the Gulf of Mexico from East Bay and Galveston Bay. The highway’s condition always is problematic given its vulnerability to Gulf storms of any size. Lippincott said it was “significantly damaged” by Ike. The Port Bolivar section of the barrier, which is connected to Galveston by ferry service, also was damaged significantly, he said.

A bridge between Bolivar and Gilchrist, a few miles northeast, reportedly was destroyed.

“We are pleased to find, as water has receded, that the Interstate 45 causeway running south from Houston was, though full of debris, otherwise safe to travel. We had been concerned about structural damage,” Lippincott reported. “The issue is debris, including boats.

“Our primary requirement right now is to clear away the debris so that professional companies — such as utility companies — can use the roadways,” he said. He explained that flood-deposited material will be shoved out of the way, as opposed to blocking traffic with loaders and trucks in a debris-removal exercise.

Besides the hundreds of DOT workers and pieces of equipment, the department has begun soliciting for help from private contractors, the DOT spokesman said. “This was a large storm, and we are committed to having the resources there that are needed to rebuild. The department will continue to do a large component of the regular work as well as the emergency work, but we will be issuing contracts for debris removal and other tasks.”

A “bidder’s questionnaire” for emergency contracts has been posted for downloading from the Texas DOT Web site, along with answers to questions from potential bidders. The form identifies the company and the type of work to be performed and the location where the company wishes to work. Bidding was set to begin the week after the storm so contractors are invited to fill out the questionnaire “fully and accurately,” Lippincott said, and fax it to DOT’s construction division in Austin.

“Opportunities for contracts are presenting themselves pretty quickly and the recovery efforts will be ongoing,” he said.

Companies allowed employees to evacuate as deemed necessary by local authorities and that dislocation of manpower along with damaged communication centers created some difficulties right after the storm. “We actually are having a very, very difficult time finding crew members,” Linbeck’s Burke said. “And our sub-contractors are, too.

“But our biggest problem,” she continued, “is no power, no fuel, limited water, and if someone doesn’t get some groceries headed this way pretty soon…”

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials have initially reported no damage to hurricane protection structures near the coastal cities of Freeport, Texas City and Port Arthur. The levees were built by the Corps but are maintained by local authorities. The structures were built to withstand surges of 14 to 15 feet and apparently did.

The Corps also went into the storm confident that two retention reservoirs built for flood control, Addicks Dam and Barker Dam, would retard flooding in the Houston and Galveston area by temporarily impounding floodwaters. The structures are part of the Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries Flood Control Project and seemed to have worked as designed. CEG