Cleaning Up On The Clean-Up of Natural Disasters
On The Ground
Hurricane Ike flooded nearly all of the 3,500 homes in Bridge City, Texas, in September 2008, LeJeune recalls.
“The homes needed to be gutted, sanitized, and rebuilt. Most residents did not buy flood insurance since they had not been flooded in over 100 years," says LeJeune.
A nearby refinery LeJeune declined to name hired the firm to rebuild its employees’ homes, picking up the tab.
“They figured that if their people were panicking about their own houses, how were they going to help get the refinery up and running?” he says. “We had to muck out, take out all water, all the furniture and drywall, and start drying their homes.”
Sixty-five Signature Group employees worked on rebuilding after Hurricane Ike, but the company hired another 700 employees locally. That’s a typical ratio of company employees versus temps. With Katrina, Signature hired 3,700 people for 45 days.
ServiceMaster just hired hundreds to clean up after the flooding in Minot, N.D., says Chris Curran, director of public relations.
“We had a bunch of our franchises go to the area — some from as far as Minneapolis — but mostly we end up being managers and facilitators. We couldn’t bring 400 people to Minot, there was nowhere for them to stay,” he added. “Plus, you have all these local people out of business. We stimulate the economy and put people back to work.”
When a large-scale catastrophe wipes out entire neighborhoods, towns or small cities, the president declares a major disaster and the Federal Emergency Management Agency oversees the emergency response. Much of the work is ceded to huge engineering contractors like The Shaw Group , Tetra Tech or CH2M Hill.
As a response to some of the stinging criticism FEMA received over its handling of Katrina, the agency has split the country into four sectors, with CH2M Hill overseeing the hurricane-plagued southeast quadrant.
“FEMA has invested more in readiness, putting contractors in position to prepare for disasters,” says CH2M Hill’s Melchiorre, who’s in charge of the company’s U.S. disaster response. “A fixed-price FEMA contract pays us once a month to maintain readiness. They’re buying insurance.”
For instance, in May 2007, a tornado destroyed almost all of Greenfield, Kan., and killed at least 10 people. CH2M Hill came in and “worked around the clock to build a community site with 300 temporary housing units,” says Melchiorre.
He says the company made $150 million over the course of the contract.
When Hurricane Ike hit the Houston area, CH2M Hill built 2,500 temporary housing units, on baseball fields and parking lots, within 30 days, recalls Melchiorre. “We put in underground utilities, roads, even mailbox posts,” he said.
Forty company employees supervised 400 locals, who did the heavy lifting and hauling. "We pride ourselves in using small business," he says.
Still, when Melchiorre supervised CH2M Hill’s Katrina work he had 600 of the firm’s employees there, many of them away from home for 12 months, with four days off a month.
“We hear all the time ‘You guys are making money off other’s misery,'" said Signature Group’s Chiasson. “I turn it around. That’s not the case, I say. We can’t stop Mother Nature. We take time from our families to put your community back together."