Industry on Hold

MWH was about 35 percent finished with a massive $160 million project to overhaul the New Orleans sewer and water system. Amitech USA was busy delivering pipe products to 17 different locations across the United States, including Hawaii, as well as sites in Canada. Just like most companies along the Gulf Coast, as the heat sweltered, the summer days were packed with the daily rigmarole of business.

That all changed Aug. 29, 2005.

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You’ve seen all the pictures, heard all the stories. Blown out windows on buildings submerged in water, people stranded on rooftop islands and possessions washed away by floodwater from Hurricane Katrina that seemingly crept up on the storm-savvy locals. And then a month later, there was Hurricane Rita. Ever since, the victims have been trying to rebuild their lives and their businesses.

That process is still ongoing.

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Through all the devastation, the catastrophic loss of life and landscape, the stories of the survivors have emerged as a sparking wheel of hope that New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast region will arise like Lazarus from the crypt and regain the vitality that once bubbled there. People continue to return and businesses slowly rebuild.

Among the industries that have been struck hard by the hurricane damage in the South are trenchless contractors and manufacturers. “Business as usual” would be a nice cliché to apply in place of the chaos that reigned after the storms and the struggles that exist now.

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In the hardest hit areas, it’s uncertain when business will ever be normal again. Water and sewer consulting company MWH still operates at roughly 50 percent in its New Orleans office, with 10 to 15 employees instead of 30, says MWH vice president Martin Dorward, who was in New Orleans as program manager for a sewer systems evaluation and rehabilitation project that the Sewerage and Water Board (SWB) had undertaken in the city.

The severe damage to New Orleans has put a hold on the SWB project that included roughly $640 million worth of sewer rehab, which according to Dorward, involved a large portion of trenchless work. The flooding damaged the water and sewer infrastructure, of which the distribution system was hardest hit, Dorward says.

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The damage is such that trenchless methods are not the most effective means of rebuilding, which has delayed the trenchless business in the region. However, Dorward contends that business is rebounding. An increasing number of trenchless projects will be up for bid as the region rebuilds and further assesses the damage caused or exacerbated by the storms.

In places where damage was less severe, like Zachary, La., business has regained a sense of normality for pipe manufacturer Amitech USA. Even so, the lessons from Katrina and Rita are every bit as poignant.

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Amitech has operated in Zachary since 2003, and this was the first time the company had experienced a hurricane. But, like most businesses along the Gulf Coast, the company had a well-prepared hurricane plan.

The first responsibility that Amitech president Maciej Korbasiewicz says the company had was to take care of its customers, let them know the situation and attempt to move up or otherwise change the delivery schedule for its pipe products. From there, the company took action to protect the facility and equipment. Making sure its employees had enough time to prepare their families and homes for the hurricane also became a priority.

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“We adjusted our schedules for almost two days to give our employees an opportunity to get better prepared for shortages of basic supplies and to take care of their families. As you know from the media reports, food and water became a real problem,” says Korbasiewicz, who had never experienced a hurricane before as he originally came from Poland. “Helping our employees to be better prepared for the storm and ensuring the security of the facility were top priorities in the last phase of our hurricane preparation.”

Amitech was shut down for eight full days, but problems of supply deliveries, crews not being able to get to the facility and downed communications made it difficult for the company to operate.

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“Initially, following Katrina, we were all very optimistic,” Korbasiewicz says. “We had not anticipated the impact to be as extensive as it ultimately was. There were broken trees near the factory, and some buildings lost roofs. Our factory roof was seriously damaged. But the main problems were not related to obvious damages caused by wind. We had not predicted the lack of continuous power supply, malfunctioning telecommunication systems, gasoline shortages and the unavailability of transportation to the extent that it occurred. The entire region was not able to restore normal operation for several weeks.”

In Zachary, most services were restored shortly after the storm passed. However, because the entire region was affected, the problem of restoring business became more apparent. Amitech imports raw materials and supplies from Europe. The ports were a mess.

The port at New Orleans was closed, as were all the other ports in the region, and like every other business looking to get deliveries by sea, Amitech sent its containers to alternate ports, such as Houston. Amitech couldn’t get supplies for almost four weeks, Korbasiewicz says.

Many companies sent deliveries to Houston, which quickly overloaded the port there. And then of course Hurricane Rita hit on Sept. 24, putting another major kink in the chain of supply. In an attempt to restore efficient customer service, Amitech had some of its deliveries air freighted from Europe, but that also proved difficult because of U.S. Customs clearance, which also had become overburdened with companies trying to get supplies from overseas.

In addition to the transportation issues, businesses struggled to find labor following the hurricanes as employees fought to keep their families safe, dealt with damage to their homes or were displaced from the area altogether.

“It was simply not possible to expect our employees to report for shifts in the factory fully prepared to work with 100 percent efficiency and devotion, while at the same time, their families were fighting for survival,” Korbasiewicz says.

The human element became the major concern of many companies along the Gulf Coast, Dorward says. Locating employees was a primary task.

“For well over a week, there wasn’t anything other than saving people,” Dorward says. “We were spending 15 hours a day trying to track down employees and make sure they were safe.”

The New Orleans office for MWH was shut down until New Year’s. Many employees ended up in the Baton Rouge office, but others who were displaced were reassigned to one of MWH’s many other offices in the region.

Neither MWH nor Amitech suffered any casualties to its workforce.

Because MWH was able to transfer its workforce to other offices, the company didn’t suffer much downtime. MWH went to work assessing the damage to water and sewer pipelines immediately after Katrina. However, communications and housing were major obstacles to operations.

“Communications was the hardest part,” Dorward says. “Cell phones started working again about a month after the storms, but there was so much volume [of calls] that it was difficult to communicate for months.

“Housing was the other hard part. To get business mobilized again, we had to find ways to bring people back to the area, and there was no housing in New Orleans. Just the logistics, for a month after, it was chaotic.”

MWH had to find labor or bring displaced workers back to the area. To do so, the company bought or rented trailers, rented hotels, found employees willing to put up co-workers in their homes and located any other spare rooms. One displaced worker drove to New Orleans from the Lafayette area everyday — 135 miles one way.

The reality of the hurricanes — the damage and the aftermath — has provided a sense of gravitas for those who were there. It has stressed the truly important aspects about life.

“It’s all about people,” Dorward says. “Business is business, but this affected people’s lives, where and how they live. It changes the focus from business to the basic needs of people. Because without that, you’ve got nothing. That perspective will always stay with me.”

Bradley Kramer is assistant editor of Trenchless Technology.

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