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Winter Journal

Volume 31, Issue 4

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To those of us in the restoration business and the disaster and continuity planning fields, it is not news that a deadly tornado ripped its way through downtown Fort Worth, Texas this spring. Nor is it news that the same thing happened in the central business districts of Salt Lake City, Nashville and Clarksville, Tennessee in recent years.

Forever it has seemed like these monstrosities of nature only hit small prairie towns, farms and trailer parks but as our urban areas continue to grow and our severe weather seems to be worsening, large downtown areas, complete with high-rise residential buildings and skyscraper office towers, are increasingly in harm's way. Of first concern is always the human life, health, and safety as it should be. Considering the dozens of buildings in downtown Fort Worth that took a direct hit and the hundreds of people who were in those buildings at the time, not to mention the thousands of commuters still on the streets that afternoon as the rush hour was winding down, it is a miracle that so few were injured or killed. 

The terror that this scenario strikes in the hearts of business owners and building managers who are responsible for their employees and the general public with whom they do business is indescribable. But what happens after the first forty-eight hours or so passes and the news media and camera crews begin to turn their attention elsewhere? The recovery begins and situations present themselves that no one ever thought of. This article is about that time period when the real recovery begins.

Only moments after an event like this occurs the local authorities move in to take control. In the case of this disaster and those in Tennessee, the entire downtown area was cordoned off to the general public. The reasons are many but primarily this is for public safety and security. In other words, they do not want anyone else hurt and they do not want additional property damage or theft. Unfortunately, their efforts to protect your property often serve to delay your recovery efforts no matter how well thought out and planned.

(PLANNING POINT #1) It is imperative that any disaster/continuity planner has, at least, a general knowledge of their local fire and police department's chain of command and knows the public information officers of these authorities. This will give you a level of familiarity that may facilitate a better understanding of how the emergency security procedures are going to be implemented thereby giving your company better representation with these officials. The Incident Command System is implemented as quickly as possible, and the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) opened for centralized control by the Incident Commander. This group of public officials is the only key for ingress into the cordoned area. I have seen this in action numerous times and it works. In the case of the Fort Worth tornado, our company is based in this city and because of our longstanding reputation as a part of that business community we were able to contact our customers, to facilitate speedy assessments, and to provide a quicker response than others. While this worked for our company in our hometown, the efforts of a knowledgeable and aggressive business continuity planner in their own city will pay off in a situation like this.

s one would imagine, downtown Fort Worth sustained damage that ranged from minimal to extreme. Yes, numerous buildings were swept away and others, left standing, were so severely damaged that they still had to be razed. Structural engineers were in prime demand to determine structural stability and safety of damaged buildings. For the purposes of this article I will address several issues that were very important to the business community of this Texas city as they pertained to the services that our firm provided.

Moisture Intrusion was a serious problem with several high-rise buildings that lost considerable quantities of their glass. Two buildings, in particular, lost more than 80% of their windows and several others lost as much as 30% to 50% of their glass. You might expect that rain from the initial incident was the problem but it was not, the primary water damage in most buildings was from debris that set off the fire sprinklers on impact. In some buildings the water damage from this source was considerable. In the days that followed there were several thunderstorms that only added insult to injury in as much as materials and laborers had to perform board-ups and make-safe services were stretched to the limit. As with any water damage in a commercial building, wet carpet, ceilings and walls were a problem.

However, in this situation, several buildings were so severely damaged that they could not effectively run their air-conditioning systems and interior offices, away from the open window walls, began to mold and mildew. Fungus can begin to grow after 48 hours at conditions of 70 ' F and a relative humidity of greater than 60%. Those are the exact conditions presented by this loss. If mold has previously bloomed and is in stasis when the environmental conditions exceed the above conditions, mold can bloom in only a few hours because digestive enzymes are already on the (usually cellulose) food source. After 6 - 8 days (same caveat as above for pre-existing colonies), secondary species of fungi can also begin to grow and blossom. Some of these fungi generate mycotoxins toxic to humans and can create health problems (example-Stachybotrys A). If this is allowed to occur, trained technicians in Tyvek suits, full-face respirators, boots, and rubber gloves must accomplish the remediation and restoration. Recovery time and costs increase by at least a factor of 3. The proactive dehumidification is certainly more economical than the reactive mitigation of fungi.

In the facilities where BMS CAT was fortunate enough to be involved, we were able to quickly introduce desiccant dehumidification to these interior core areas to immediately control the high humidity conditions. In these cases, we introduced dry air to the most enclosed areas and controlled the environment there. As board up or glass replacement was completed in a given area, we simply included that area in the drying efforts and brought it under control. In the ensuing days we were asked to assess the damage in other buildings. Interestingly, we saw that the board-up procedures, though very important, actually had a detrimental effect on buildings that did not have adequate air-conditioning or dehumidification in place. You see, while the floors that were exposed to the elements were susceptible to collateral water damage from rain, wind, and theft, they were open to the air, sunlit by day and allowed to ventilate. Once the boards were in place, the air became still, moist conditions were contained and mold growth was thereby actually encouraged by the conditions. Without proper drying and ventilation the board-up was actually a large 'Catch 22'. Needless to say, many tenants were quick to enlist the services of qualified restoration companies. 'Pack out' was the word of the day and many companies like mine began the arduous task of retrieving customer's contents to protect them from further damage. (PLANNING POINT #2) It is imperative that disaster restoration companies be interviewed and pre-qualified so you know them and they know you BEFORE a disaster strikes. Which brings me to the next subject.

Content removal, restoration and temporary facilities were the objectives for hundreds of companies in this disaster. BMS CAT was fortunate enough to handle recovery services for half a dozen buildings to include the Ft. Worth Public Library as well as more than two dozen companies that were tenants in one of the damaged buildings. In the normal 'singular disaster' scenario, such as a fire, one might expect that you simply pack up and clean every thing that a customer needs and take it to their new or temporary facility - but not in this disaster! What we found here was in some buildings there were so many companies needing to relocate that the logistics of the situation made it necessary to perform these services in carefully planned stages. As you might have expected, there are only so many elevators in any given building. Since every tenant did not move into the building all at once, the contents will certainly not come out that way. In a nutshell, what was done here to meet this need came much in the following order:

1. As soon as the authorities allowed us in, we retrieved every loose paper (business records) that we could possibly collect to keep them from blowing away. This was a considerable task in every building where large quantities of glass were lost. Also, this retrieval was of particular importance to legal and accounting firms. After this we covered and protected contents, as much as possible, with plastic to prevent additional damage from wind and rain.

2. During this time, our clients were compiling lists of bare essentials that they needed from their space as soon as we were allowed back in to collect them. The second trip into the building usually involved collecting computer servers, personal computers and various critical records. Due to the time of the year in which this storm occurred we were faced with the challenge of retrieving multiple thousands of tax return files for the accounting firms that hired our company. (PLANNING POINT #3) In this case we learned that many of our customers found their business came to a complete standstill without these items. Efforts to store data off site with a simple computer backup service would have prevented this problem for many.

3. Once the customer obtained temporary quarters (or new quarters as the case may be) we began to arrange for an orderly removal of general contents to include, file cabinets, law libraries, and furniture. Some clients had very expensive artwork and antiques that required special handling and extraordinary recovery efforts. Interestingly enough, these items were seldom the client's top priority as they realized the resumption of their business was much more critical. However, by the time their employees were either working in temporary quarters or working from home, attention turned to a more permanent solution to the problem and most, if not all, of the remaining contents were needed. This process was perhaps the slowest of them all. By this time it seemed that every one was in the game and a mass exodus was taking place in many buildings with only limited elevator service. (PLANNING POINT #4) While most tenants had a restoration company working on their behalf by this time, a new problem was developing - where could they set up temporary quarters? It is critical you not only know who is going to move your contents, but you have at least a minimal relationship with a good commercial realtor who can and will deliver in a time of need such as this. If you need a place to go to then know the person or company that can get you the place! You will also need telephones and communications lines transferred as well as power and utilities. Temporary office furniture and other critical equipment may need to be rented if it is impractical to move them from the damaged building.

4. As contents were removed from the building they were separated into three primary categories, undamaged and usable, slightly to severely damaged and in need of (and worth) repairing, and damaged beyond repair. Of course, by this time most of the client's insurance adjusters were deeply involved in the claims process. For this reason, it was imperative that careful inventories were made and preparations were made to provide the appropriate recovery services. Nearly all of the clients that we were involved with needed contents cleaning due to the dust and debris created by the tornado as well as the fine glass particles that are deposited on every thing during the tornado. In some cases water damage necessitated cleaning and drying of computer equipment and related magnetic media. Wet business records and books required freeze-drying and furniture needed touch-up and refinishing. Much of this work is still going on as this article is being written.
While I acknowledge the brevity of this article, I need to state that we still have the confidentiality of our clients to consider. Much more will be learned from this incident and many of our clients will allow us to share their experiences more specifically in the future. I was fortunate to be able to respond to so many of our neighbors in Fort Worth in a time of genuine need and it was a pleasure to work with the many clients that had solid disaster plans in place. However, as with any community-wide disaster we learned much and are pleased to report as much as we can at this time. As a former resident of Fort Worth, Texas, I must admit that I was greatly saddened to see my hometown damaged so but I am very proud to be a part of the fabulous recovery still underway.

Dean McKinney is the Vice President Regional Project Manager for the Northeast Region of BMS CAT. Although he is primarily responsible for the Northeastern United States, he responds to losses across the country and internationally.