Riders on the Storm

Craig Wood

June 2006

In the past nine months since Hurricanes Rita and Katrina devastated the Southern United States, the media have been focusing mostly on the political fallouts of the storm: harsh criticism of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, local and national leaders pointing the finger of blame at one another, and a White House administration undergoing a "restructuring.”

In an industry that is dependent on weather conditions and variables, being prepared to adjust and adapt accordingly to the elements is essential. In light of the devastation we saw throughout the 2005 hurricane season, how have members of the wall and ceiling industry evolved to brace for the impact of another possible Katrina and/or Rita? What, if any, obstacles do they still have to overcome?

With all the negative press surrounding the hurricanes’ aftermath, it seems as though the public has been kept in the dark about the progress that has occurred Florida, Texas and New Orleans. We wanted to know what was happening on the local level to see what changes were being implemented by contractors to prepare for the start of the 2006 hurricane season, which begins this month. After a couple hundred phone calls to contractors throughout the shorelines of the Southern United States, we were able to obtain a better idea understanding of what they were dealing with, and how it was affecting their companies and clients.

Preparing for the Worst

The most common response we received from contractors is that the uncertainty of severe weather is a threat that must be addressed as it becomes apparent. It is this uncertainty that has kept contractors from taking steps such as adjusting production schedules to avoid severe weather-prone seasons—to do so would result in a devastating loss of business or major scheduling conflicts.

Uncertainty, however, has made contractors plan well in advance for any possible catastrophic situation. Many of them have begun stockpiling materials that would be essential in emergency situations.

Jon Leibowitz, safety and claims manager of M. Ecker & Co. of FL, Inc., in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., knows firsthand the importance of maintaining operations in the event of an emergency; past hurricane seasons have left his company stagnant for three weeks.

"In addition to increasing our number of tanks and generators, we have completely hard-wired our building so that in the event of power failure we’ll still be able to effectively operate,” Lebowitz says. "Our generators can also be taken to our job sites so that immediate assistance can be provided once the storm finally passes.” Aside from stockpiling in order to maintain functionality, some contractors have begun storing additional equipment and supplies in multiple locations scattered throughout their region.

"We have to be ready to fully work in any bad situation,” says Mike Core, president of Southland Industries Inc., Thibodaux, La. "Not only have we begun stocking up on additional materials, but we have placed them in storage units all over the area, some away from the site so that the storm won’t even reach them. This way if a storm damages a job site or nearby surrounding areas, we always have a backup means to get what we need immediately.”

Maintaining business operation and material acquisition are both important goals when readying for a storm. An actual project job site, however, has to be attended to for storm preparation as well.

Like Leibowitz, many contractors have hurricane procedures in place as well as protocol when it comes to securing a site for the storm’s impact.

"Removing debris from a site is always important, but the real damage is caused by failing to secure items like scaffolds and ladders,” Leibowitz says. "Our company uses swing stages frequently, and we are sure they are secured when the possibility of a threatening storm is present.”

While securing items such as scaffolds in the event of hazardous weather conditions may seem like common sense to the industry, this is not always the case. Leibowitz explains: "I recall seeing another company on a site that failed to deal with their swing stages prior to the storm hitting us. One ended up wrapping around a crane and striking the building they were working on! That oversight led to costly damage to the project’s exterior as well as windows. Thankfully no one was hurt.”

Reinforcing the actual project has also become the case for some contractors.

"Right now we’re on a job, Heritage Key, that’s rated to withstand winds up to 220 miles per hour,” states Mike Purtz, project manager for Salvador Construction, Kissimmee, Fla. "We’ve got 8 inch paved concrete ceilings, floors, walls … and it’s also structured with red iron trusses.”

Being Sure About Insurance

In light of the massive damage caused by 2005 hurricanes, it should come as no surprise that insurance companies have become stricter in terms of coverage types, liability and eligibility.

Mark Marlow, president and COO of Marlow Company Ltd. L.L.P., Victoria, Texas, understands the importance of insurance handling: "The two most important things anyone can do in the case of preparing for severe weather, besi des reinforcing the importance of insurance, is to be sure you clearly understand what exactly is covered within your plan and to document anything and everything.”

Victoria, Texas, is a special case when it comes to insurance coverage; it’s only miles from Corpus Christi, a city located along the coast of Texas and one of the areas hit hardest by the year’s past storms.

Because it is located directly on the coast near the ocean, Corpus Christi is also known as a Tier 1 area. Tier 1 areas in Texas are not covered by insurance. Tier 2 areas, which may be only 20 or so miles from the coast, are still classified a step above its counterpart—meaning these areas are eligible for coverage.

"There’s a lot of work to be done along the coast,” Marlow says. "The problem is finding available insurance plans to cover us. Most companies will not offer any type of coverage for Tier 1. If we had been doing work in Corpus Christi and had to evacuate the site for a hurricane or severe storm, nothing would be covered: equipment, supplies, site damage. The cost for us to repair and replace our losses would be overwhelming.”

High Demand, Low Supply

Perhaps one of the most astounding discoveries we found was the lack of resources and materials for contractors. The destruction of New Orleans’ shipping ports and Corpus Christi’s distribution/manufacturing centers has both impacted the availability and delivery of essential materials.

In Texas, drywall and insulation demands are soaring, yet the supply is very limited.

"Most of these materials are being bought in high volumes for use in residential areas,” Marlow says. "The problem is that new residential areas are popping up every day, all over the place. A lot residential building is happening on the East Coast, and that’s where the majority of our materials have been going. We have manufacturers and local distributors of the materials here in Texas, but everything is disappearing as soon as it’s been fabricated.”

Texas is not the only state feeling the effects of a materials shortage. In Lafayette, La., in addition to drywall and insulation, important industry staples such as cement and specialty plasters are becoming harder to obtain—or are increasing significantly in price.

"There is a definite problem, whether it’s due to materials being out of stock, under-stocked or just too expensive,” says Brian Delahoussaye, president of Robert Delahoussaye, Inc., Lafayette, La. "The problem is the large influx of people moving into this area over such a short period of time. Everyone from Southern Louisiana is coming here at once. While this is good for business, there’s a downside: With so many contractors working on such a large number of new developments, materials are always scarce. I’m still waiting on some specialty plaster I ordered some time ago.”

While some may ask why more supplies haven’t been delivered, Delahoussaye has an immediate answer: "To tell you the truth, they don’t want to ship anything. I’ve talked directly with our area’s major distributors, and their reps are telling me that unless I want to buy an entire truckload of what I need, I’m going to have to wait for it.”

Because of the cost, it makes no sense to have to order an abundance of materials in order to acquire the needed amount. If a job requires only a certain amount of drywall, it wouldn’t make sense to have to spend 10 times the budgeted total just to have it in your possession. Luckily, Delahoussaye has gotten around this by financially teaming with other local contractors to purchase the required truckloads.

The Trauma Team

Thus far we’ve taken a look at how contractors are readying their businesses for the 2006 hurricane season, but what about dealing with clients following the immediate aftermath of a hurricane?

John Piotti, president of R.D.C. – USA in Seminole, Fla., really knows how to deal with clients who have had their property wiped out from a hurricane. (In fact, Piotti has even been on sites repairing when additional hurricanes have struck). After two years of intense hurricane seasons, his company has excelled in repairing sites upward of 140,000 square feet in a matter of weeks through a systematic plan to deal with damaged areas; he has a trauma plan.

"There is a tremendous amount of intensive planning and organization that goes into our trauma plan,” Piotti states. "As soon as a storm has hit, we’re making contacts immediately, whether it’s through phone, Internet or showing up in person. This is necessary because we have to set up housing for workers, materials, and obtain the necessary help. We have to be persistent—very persistent. We’ll keep calling and calling until we finally make contact despite busy signals or even phone lines being down. We have to act as fast and efficiently as possible because if a building owner waits more than 48 hours after a storm has hit to contact us, chances are all of our required necessities will be reserved for another contractor, and that prevents us from doing our job.”

Piotti also develops relationships with local manufacturers and suppliers in the areas affected by hurricane damage by showing up in person to discuss matters—an approach that adds more integrity to the contractor than a quick and pointless cold call.

The one factor that has caused some difficulty for Piotti is finding housing residences for his workers.

"Most contractors will buy up as many hotel rooms as they can get their hands on,” Piotti says. "The problem is once an area has been declared a disaster area, the government has the right to come in and take over the hotel for their own employees, which would cause us the grief and loss of time in order to find new housing arrangements. However, we have found a way to prevent these conflicts. It’s one of our secret tricks of the trade.”

And that’s a secret Piotti is keeping to himself.

The Aftermath

All in all, contractors throughout Florida, Texas and Louisiana have experienced change (internally or externally) due to the omnipresent chance of severe weather. Some have adjusted on the business front by buying additional supplies and power sources to ensure business operation continuity. Other contractors have had to come up with new means of securing needed jobsite materials. And then there are those who have created action plans to follow once a storm has hit.

The cloud of uncertainty (excuse the pun) that was once something feared by contractors has now become something that is being addressed head on. Of all the contractors with whom we spoke, no one better summed up the most important theme when it comes to dealing with hurricanes than Partick Fross, vice president of Suncoast Wall & Ceiling Systems, Ocala, Fla.: "We have to base the future on the past and implement the necessary changes. To deal with present problems, we must learn from the past.”

About the Author
Craig Wood is this magazine’s designer, but he is looking forward to seeing his byline many more times in the future.