When Disaster Strikes

What Will You Do If You Suddenly Face Chaos?

Mark L. Johnson / August 2018

All told, 2017 saw what seems like a never-ending string of natural disasters.
    
Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Nate and Maria caused hundreds of billions of dollars in damage in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico. Earthquakes, tornadoes and fires have caused destruction elsewhere. Reuters reported in January that U.S. insurers will have to pay claims of around $135 billion for 2017 disasters. Some have estimated the costs of recovery just from the hurricanes alone to be $306 billion, a figure that includes the rebuilding of insured and uninsured structures.
    
Was your area affected?
    
Western wildfires drove residents from their homes, ravaged hundreds of thousands of acres of picturesque vineyards and farmland, destroyed about 15,000 structures and caused 54 deaths in 2017, according to PBS and the Los Angeles Times. One media source said the cost of fire suppression and recovery could total $180 billion.
    
Hurricanes in Texas, Puerto Rico and Florida caused billions in property damage. The Associated Press reported in April that the administrator of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, Brock Long,  said it would take up to an estimated $50 billion to help rebuild Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, and he warned that the U.S. territory is not ready for another disaster. PBS pegs Maria’s costs at $90 billion, Hurricane Irma’s damages in Florida at $50 billion and Hurricane Harvey’s damages in Texas at $125 billion.
    
The National Centers for Environmental Information tallied 16 “billion dollar” disasters in the United States in 2017. That tied the 16 billion-dollar disasters that occurred in 2011, PBS reported. In addition to these 16 disasters, there was also a spat of tornado outbreaks in the South and Midwest and hail damage in Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska. The year 2018 has already seen catastrophic flooding from Maryland to Maine, and recently in Texas.
    
We have to ask: Are you prepared for a disaster? What would you do if a catastrophe occurred? Here’s what some AWCI members had to say on the subject:

Take Care of Customers
Bill Larson is the Cedar Rapids branch manager of Foundation Building Materials, a 14-location supplier and AWCI member. In 2008, the Cedar River flooded, displacing 9,000 people, damaging 3,200 homes and inundating downtown Cedar Rapids with floodwaters for weeks on end, according to the Des Moines Register.
    
Larson says the flooding affected the supplier’s delivery operations. All bridges and roadways providing access to downtown Cedar Rapids, where much of the damage occurred, were closed for about a week. What did the supplier do?
    
“We put together a priority list,” Larson says. “We told our customers, GCs and subs, ‘You call us, and we’ll get the material to you.’”
    
Clients with projects in outlying areas, far from the damage, had to wait their turn for deliveries, Larson says. Foundation Building Materials just worked the problem. “We kept trying to do things as soon as customers called us,” Larson says.
    
In the end, the supplier never ran out of material. Management kept a close eye on inventories, which Larson says is a normal everyday activity. “Maybe we adjusted some stuff that we needed to purchase, but it wasn’t much,” Larson says.
    
Foundation Building Materials’ example shows that when a disaster strikes, the relationship aspect of one’s business becomes exceedingly important. Larson says Foundation Building Materials’ established customers could count on the supply yard’s fair prices and on getting top priority for delivery to impacted areas.
    
“That’s what you do as a community member,” Larson says. “You don’t take advantage of the situation.”

Help Employees
Floyd Huguley, estimator at Fickling Brothers Inc., Jacksonville, Fla., says his company’s disaster-related work occurs before the storm. Every hurricane season, Fickling Brothers crews board up windows and other openings at certain contracted facilities. The contracts include structures for several important financial services firms, hospitals and manufacturers in the area.
    
In 2017, the city of Jacksonville experienced some flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. But Hugely says the damage was minimal for his company and its clients. Fickling Brothers had no trouble securing materials—in fact, in past storms it has always had a ready supply of materials.
    
As the firm enters the hurricane season, its foremen and superintendents work together by telephone to coordinate the pre-storm board-up work required by each client.
    
“We just have to make sure all of our material is tied down. Then we offer help to the facilities,” Huguley says. “We do what they want us to do.”
    
An important part of preparing for a hurricane is the company’s stocking of board-up materials on behalf of its employees. “We have plywood stored in the warehouse cut to fit for all of our employees’ windows,” says Huguley. The firm has 90 employees. Each season it has cut plywood ready for employees’ personal homes.

Maintain Quality Standards
Barry Frey owns Frey Plastering in Novato, Calif., which is not far from the 2017 fire-ravaged Napa and Sonoma counties. While Frey did not have any jobs succumb to fire and his operation was unaffected, one of his employees, his chief estimator, became an evacuee for two weeks and the firm had a delay due to fire on one project.
    
So far, the wildfires have not landed any business for the firm. But this is by choice. Frey’s business is 95 percent commercial, and his residential work is exclusively high-end lathing and plastering. He’s considering taking on a small residential rebuild for a friend, but he has not submitted bids for fire-damage work. At the moment, Frey has a backlog of work to fulfill.
    
“I’m getting calls to look at some of the fire-related projects,” he says. “It will be hard to fit them in, and I haven’t seen any commercial builds yet.”
    
Frey has priced a few residences that burned, but has held out on submitting those bids and securing those contracts. He doesn’t plan to add this work unless it meets the firm’s high quality standards.
    
“It’s just like the Oakland fires back [in 1991] when I don’t think we did even a single job,” Frey says. “People have a tendency to get their insurance money, and they want to go cheap. They want to make money on the transaction. They want a building, but they want to profit, too. That tends to be the M.O. for many people at times like this. They want something for nothing. Well, that doesn’t fit with our operation. We’re looking for people who want the job done right the first time.”
    
One of Frey Plastering’s biggest projects right now is the repair of the historical Napa County Courthouse, which was damaged in the South Napa earthquake in August 2014. Frey’s work includes plastering over new structural elements. It’s another example of how big projects don’t always come right after a disaster takes place.

Register with the Government
Jonathan Lee, senior business development manager at The Blue Book Building & Construction Network, says wall and ceiling contractors can register to work directly for the government. Lee’s service area includes Northern California, and he is helping contractors there to register for upcoming repair and rebuilding work.
    
Lee says the place to start is the System for Award Management (sam.gov) website, an official website of the U.S. government. There’s no cost to use SAM, which allows firms to register to do business with the government. However, third-party companies will charge a fee to shepherd the SAM registration process on behalf of a contractor. This may be a worthwhile price to pay for some. But Lee says SAM registration has taken some contractors that he knows only 90 minutes to complete. Most need to set aside a day or two to do this paperwork.
    
SAM registration puts a firm “in the line of sight,” Lee says, for a variety of government projects, including those from the Department of Transportation and the Department of Defense.
    
Other government websites Lee stresses to his clients include the Federal Service Desk (fsd.gov) and the Procurement Technical Assistance Center (aptac-us.org).
    
Lee reminds contractors that government jobs must be completed using labor paid at “the prevailing wage.” He says the requirement is both good and bad. On the one hand, prevailing wages are set for the duration of the project. On the other hand, the wages tend to be high for most markets.
    
Contractors should remember that, in general, FEMA does not enter into direct contracts with construction companies to rebuild structures. Instead, the agency provides grants and loans to state and local agencies, which in turn grant money to entities who hire contractors for their projects.
    
Huguley says Fickling Brothers always documents its work so building owners can get the aid they applied for after a disaster. While he’s not sure how long it takes owners to receive their payments, he says their claims do not affect his firm’s getting paid.
    
Anyway, registering to tap government-awarded money is a long road to take. “Most contractors don’t want to go down the road of government programs,” says Larson. “That road is a delayed road.”

Preparedness and Priorities
Disaster preparedness is difficult to gauge. One can only do so much to prepare for earthquakes, tornados, wildfires, mudslides and hurricanes. Some wall and ceiling contractors might consider retrofitting their operational facilities to withstand the next calamity to come. But others practically minded don’t see the point in doing so.
    
“I’m in a tilt-up, concrete building,” Frey says. “I don’t know how seismically sound it is. I’d have to get a structural engineer to look at it and tell me how I could make it safer for the next earthquake. It’s not a high priority right now. We have too much on our plate.”

Mark L. Johnson writes regularly about the wall and ceiling industry. Reach him at @markjohnsoncomm, and at linkedin.com/in/markjohnsoncommunications.