Katrina’s Damage Shakes Veteran Cleanup Crews

Fri September 09, 2005 - National Edition
Lisa Coston

For veteran disaster contractors and their employees, Katrina is proving to be worst disaster they’ve ever witnessed.

Phillips and Jordan, a disaster recovery firm out of Knoxville, TN, and one of many companies with pre-positioned and on-going contracts with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is already on the scene in pre-staged areas in and around the Gulf Coast.

“By far, this is the worst I’ve seen,” said Ken Graham, a project manager in the disaster recovery unit for Phillips, heading up a recovery team on the Mississippi Gulf for at least five districts.

Graham has a tangible memory from which to base his assessment.

Besides working on the recovery and clean up after Hurricanes Ivan and Andrew, Graham was working with Philips and Jordan when it was hired as the prime contractor for debris removal at the World Trade Center immediately after Sept. 11.

“Katrina is totally different; the debris is so bad and so widespread,” he said. “To give you an example, it’s like we could almost line up 20 bulldozers and push most of Mississippi in one area and just bulldoze it toward the ocean. That’s about the scope of the damage we are dealing with at this point,” he said.

Until the floodwater recedes or is pumped out in and around the debris sites, and the power companies have time to get downed lines out of the way of the debris, Graham and his team are on perpetual hold.

“There are so many things that you do at the beginning, but we are on hold. It’s like a domino effect.”

While waiting for the green-light to begin, Graham plans logistics in a 50-foot mobile logistics van, called a Mobile Command Unit, complete with food, water and power generators.

From this vehicle, Graham is coordinating several staff employees and sub-contractors while planning the first stages of the massive clean up.

But hotels, motels and other possible housing options — under 30 feet of water in some areas — are proving to be the biggest obstacle standing in the way of sending laborers into the affected areas.

“Right now, the biggest problem is logistics. We have no where to put these guys, so they have to bring in everything that they need to live during the day, and haul it out at night,” explained Graham. “You don’t want to be hauling this stuff 40, 50 miles every day, in and out. Our people have to have somewhere to stay.”

Once the living arrangements are secured, Graham, and his team, will have the daunting tasks of identifying landfill and debris sites, as well as establishing emergency routes and identifying which schools can be re-opened and which schools to be razed.

But without the fuel for the bulldozers, generators and other equipment needed, Graham and his team may be sidelined indefinitely.

“We’re just waiting for FEMA to pull the trigger and activate us,” Graham said. “At the same time, we’ve got to get fuel for the generators, or we won’t be doing much.”

For Sheldon Yellen, CEO of Birmingham, MI-based BELFOR, the largest insurance restoration contractor in the world, the devastation of Katrina, along with the daunting task of the clean-up, packs a double-whammy of emotions.

“I’ve been in this business for 21 years, and I’ve worked though Andrew, Hugo, Opal — I’ve been through all of them. This one is unbelievable,” Yellen said.

Under the Red Alert system, large retail companies and other commercial businesses are able to contact BELFOR immediately after any disaster.

Currently, more than 400 BELFOR employees, including workers such as carpenters, laborers and roofers, have been dispatched to more than 69 commercial facilities damaged in outlying areas as they make their way to the heaviest hit areas in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

Once the BELFOR teams enter the most affected areas, they’ll use their own water extraction vehicles to pump out the excess flood waters out of businesses and private homes, and employ the use of their own Desiccant Humidification Systems, to dry walls, floors or carpeting.

By activating the humidifiers, they can get an idea of what can be salvaged and what must be ripped out or removed. Once they know, an estimate is given to the insurance company and reconstruction can begin.

Roofers will be in big demand, fixing leaking roofs, and most likely replacing whole roof systems, because “the one thing nobody needs down there is a rain storm to pass by right now, with a leaky roof or no roof at all,” Yellen said.

Most of these teams will be working on a 90 day, rotating schedule, and he estimates the rebuilding efforts to take, at least two years.

But the hard work and stress is shared by the whole BELFOR team, not just those working in the field.

“We have people working all day long in our war room, here in Michigan, making living arrangements for workers onsite, to our workers, onsite, making sandwiches and taking care of laundry all night long, while our guys are sleeping,” Yellen said.

Associations Gear Up

Two of the nation’s largest general contractor associations, Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) and the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), along with all of their affiliated members, are on stand-by mode as the waters recede and power is slowly restored, waiting to send help into the affected areas.

Representing 23,000 firms, with 79 chapters across the United States, ABC is currently working with FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine how its affiliated members can assist in relief efforts and help begin the process of rebuilding.

“ABC has offered its assistance to the appropriate federal agencies to ensure that those in need receive our resources as quickly and efficiently as possible,” said Kirk Pickerel, ABC president and CEO. “ABC National, our chapters and members stand ready and able to do whatever is necessary to provide essential resources to those in the devastated areas. And we remain committed to offering ongoing assistance in the weeks and months ahead.”

Two ABC chapters located very close to the worst hit areas are ready, willing and waiting for a green light to send members.

“Right now, we are on hold, awaiting an answer from our safety committee chairman,” said Alabama ABC Vice President Jay Reed.

Reed’s anxiety over the fate of his fellow members was evident, when he commented that the ABC branch in Mobile was unreachable by land line or cell phone, as well as the ABC branch in Mississippi. Repeated calls to the branches by Construction Equipment Guide were met with a constant busy signal.

“We can’t even get through to them down there. A majority of our members are on the coasts of Alabama and Mississippi, performing work from Florida to Louisiana, but once they are back online, I know that they will want to join forces and help out.”

With most of the Alabama and Mississippi coastline under water, one of the closest branches not hit by Katrina is in Houston, TX.

As they await word from federal and state officials, ABC of Houston members are poised and ready to roll up their sleeves and help in any way possible.

“We are in conference, right now, as to how ABC of Houston is going to approach this situation,” said Jennifer Woodruff, director of marketing and communications for ABC Houston. “Once we get a green light, I know our members are going to want to get there and start helping out in this effort.”

The AGC is the largest and oldest national construction trade association in the United States. AGC represents more than 32,000 firms, including 7,000 of America’s leading general contractors, and over 11,000 specialty-contracting firms.

In a statement released by the AGC, Chief Economist Ken Simonson commented on the agency’s involvement with rebuilding efforts.

“AGC members have been working closely with the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal and state agencies to provide equipment and expertise,” Simonson said. “We will also work with our 98 chapters nationwide to offer help to the stricken region.”

’We’re People First’

Yellen expressed several times how the gravity of this disaster has really affected him, as well as all of BELFOR’s workers in a profound way.

“We aren’t just general contractors. We’re people first, but we do deal with tragedies every day,” he explained. “We have to know how to deal with human emotions, because someone has just lost everything. You have to be sensitive to what’s going on there.” CEG