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October 29, 2007

Wind, Water, Devastation: Restoration Priorities Meet Hurricane Andrew

Written by  Pat Williams Moore
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The best laid plans of mice and men...” would find it a struggle to deal with Andrew’s wrath and the damage it left in its wake. The psychological and financial scars will be felt for many years to come.

Physical preparation to “batten down the hatches” had guidelines to follow, but dealing with the intangible factors faced in the midst of 165 mph winds presented a challenge for even the most sophisticated of facility contingency plans.

Our phone began ringing on Sunday, August 23 at 7:30 a.m., with calls on our 24-hour hotline from companies who were pre-registered with us, and who knew their facilities had potential serious physical damage exposure to Hurricane Andrew. Requests to stand by to respond immediately were numerous, should their buildings, malls, municipal facilities, record centers, or data centers get hit.

By Monday morning, those calls were coming in from Louisiana, and later that day, from firms in the Golden Triangle area of Texas including Port Arthur, Galveston and Houston.

As our physical operation centers in those areas were battening down themselves in addition to preparing to respond to customer needs, our BMS CAT Catastrophe team moved into northern Florida to cities such as Tampa, Orlando and Fort Meyers on Sunday afternoon and evening. Knowing from past experience that airports and highways would soon be closed, our CAT Team took emergency and restoration supplies and moved into these outlying areas so that response time would be minimized. Once the hurricane moved out, travel to the areas further south could be possible.

Our supply trucks, carrying generators, fuel, radios, cellular phones, emergency lighting equipment, ladders, chain saws, dehumidifiers, corrosion control kits, restoration chemicals, drinking water, emergency supplies of food and first-aid kits rolled out to supply and distribution points in selected areas so that they could move in as quickly as possible.

As the storm moved out and it was safe to drive further south toward Miami, the physical property scenes became worse. Driving south we saw uprooted trees, twisted road signs, broken billboards and intermittent roof damage.

Once we reached south Miami, the devastation was much worse—roofs torn off, road signs missing completely, landmark building locations blown away and power lines down. Even the concrete poles holding the main power lines were snapped off.

Traffic lights, dangling perilously close to the cars, were not working. Police barricades were everywhere and traffic was backed up for miles. Unless you could prove you had a hotel reservation, a security pass or an emergency contractor permit, it was almost impossible to get through security check points. Fortunately, the companies who had called us had provided our names to security as part of their contingency plans.

An important factor in disaster recovery plans, especially for dealing with a “community-wide” disaster, is to include directions to your facilities that do not necessarily depend on road or highway signs, because those signs may not exist after the incident occurs. Landmark buildings, such as a specific gas station on a corner where you are to turn right, may no longer exist. It may sound strange, but if signs are missing, how do you find your client’s building which may have the address sign missing?

Once we arrived at the specific location, getting through the fallen roofs, uprooted trees and debris took time and maneuvering. In the initial stages of recovery, there were no working phones and no power. When we were lucky, we could communicate with our crews and warehouse via cellular phones—if the cells were not overloaded and when we were in an area where they were working. Available air-conditioned warehouse space was virtually non-existent, unless one had made arrangements prior to the hurricane.

A key operations factor in our catastrophe team’s emergency response plan has always been pre-planned arrangements with warehouse facilities for use of their space should a community-wide disaster occur.

Getting to and from different locations could take hours due to the traffic and debris. Vendors and insurance adjusters who did not house their personnel early enough after the disaster had trouble finding hotel rooms, and some hotels had no power and/or no water for at least the first week after the hurricane. Those who were able to find hotels with power and water were usually as far away as Fort Lauderdale or Plantation.

The initial stages of restoration involved removing debris, cutting away fallen trees, removing water and dehumidifying facilities. Generators and sufficient fuel were critical.

Project management meetings with many of our clients suffering the losses took place in the initial stages of recovery in buildings filled with mud, water, broken glass, sand, stench and even frogs and snakes.

Restoring facilities and their contents damaged by Hurricane Andrew resembled a battlefield triage operation. Our normal access to affected electronics, telecommunications, documents and media were severely hampered by extensive debris, structural collapse, highly corrosive salt water, lack of power and negligible support services. Removing debris and water, acquiring emergency power, clearing corridors and lowering the relative humidity were our first priorities.

Compared to damage from fresh water, after which equipment can often be successfully restored, the pervasive salt water and high humidity could quickly reduce success levels. It was imperative to get to those areas of the building where critical equipment and components were in operation or stored, and to apply emergency corrosion control procedures as quickly as possible. Separating the equipment that could possibly be saved had to be done immediately. Prioritizing thousands of pieces of equipment was a crucial function for the project management team.

Innovative project managers removed equipment from the damaged area and temporarily erected a substitute clean room environment. In many cases where the machines were not restorable, the hard drives could be cleaned and the data retrieved.

Archival documents, vital records and critical work in progress were scattered everywhere. Rusted filing cabinets, overturned racks and shelves, documents wadded up in blocks where the water had receded from them and bound volumes filled with debris and sewage were prevalent throughout the affected buildings. What was important and cost effective to save?

Even for those companies who had prioritized their records and work in progress, access to these documents and media was critical before mold and mildew appeared. Refrigeration trucks would serve as emergency freezing units, pending freeze-drying.

Because sufficient controlled environments did not exist for at least the first week after the hurricane, resource coordination was critical to successful restoration. Supplies, equipment, materials and labor were unavailable to those who did not pre-plan and contract for them in their contingency plans. Emergency authorities commandeered most transportation vehicles and available resources.

Before we arrived on the scene, our resource coordinator had emergency supplies on the way to our clients’ locations with more standing by, including over 50 portable generators and a 2500 hp diesel generator. Within 48 hours, over 80 supervisors and 300 general cleaning workers were in operation under the direction of our Project Management Team. Without prior arrangements, most vendors had difficulty locating temporary labor because so many people were affected and would not leave their damaged homes, property or temporary shelters.

Coordinating resources was also critical in locating air-conditioned warehouse space to provide off-site restoration for the contents of facilities whose roofs no longer existed. On the Saturday following the Monday hurricane and on the next Monday, torrential rain storms deluged Miami, virtually drowning those buildings whose roofs had not yet been repaired or replaced. Critical contents needed to be relocated as quickly as possible to a controlled environment for restoration and protection.

Financing an operation of this size also requires existing nationwide financial relationships for meeting payroll, renting equipment, finding supplies, and continuing one’s relationship with customers. For example, soon after Hurricane Andrew, a water main broke in New York, flooding basements and vital record storage areas, tornadoes devastated areas of Wisconsin, a major institution in the Northeast was heavily damaged by fire, and Hurricane Iniki hit Hawaii. All these disasters further tested contingency plans and recovery operations.


Pat Williams Moore is the Director of the Education and Disaster Recovery Division of BMS Catastrophe, Inc. (BMS CAT), an international corporation headquartered in Ft. Worth, Texas. She serves on the technical committees of NFPA, BOMA INT’L, and AH&MA .

This article adapted from Vol. 5 #4.

Read 3645 times Last modified on October 11, 2012