The destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina is unfathomable to me. To think about the reconstruction seems premature and pointless; a self-serving distraction to take my mind away from the tragedy. But as Americans, this is what we do, and I believe it is why this country succeeds. We push forward—through the destruction—and we come out on the other side ... better, stronger, united.

We are already looking to the future repair and reconstruction. For me, this generates a major question: How will they rebuild it all? I do not ask this question in disbelief. No, I ask it in pure, scientific curiosity and with great optimism, because my life’s knowledge of the American spirit tells me, we will rebuild it. We will survive.

Of the many things needed, one of the most important will be working electrical systems. The faster they can restore electricity, the faster money can be made. When the lights come back on, the true recovery begins.

Unfortunately, water is an electrical system’s worst enemy. In New Orleans and some parts of the Gulf Coast, most buildings—if not every building—were severely flooded. Flooding damages switch gear, transformers, generators, wiring systems, lighting, receptacles, and all telecom systems. Anything that had juice running through it at the time the water arrived is probably shot.

Even after flood waters recede, much will stay behind, trapped in the conduit systems. Water wells up into switchgear and panelboards, ruining interior bussing, electronics and pretty much everything else. Water can work its way into the insulation of stranded copper wiring and cause oxidation, which will eventually lead to poor conductivity and more short circuits.

There will be many projects to estimate and most will need a price now. It will also be necessary to price projects without any plans or designs. Many jobs will simply be “T&M” and crisis-management situations.

Accurate pricing will be extremely important, both for getting the client what is really needed at a fair price, and for protecting your company from losing money in the process.

Most buildings will be torn down and rebuilt, which may be the most economical solution. However, there will be many commercial and industrial buildings whose structures are basically intact; only suffering damage to their internal infrastructures.

How do we accurately estimate the repair and reconstruction of partial devastation?

When you estimate flood damage to an electric system, you need to remember there will be many areas of work, issues, etc., that you do not normally include in your everyday bidding—things such as draining, swabbing and pressure-testing conduit systems and cutting, splicing into or repairing existing conduit systems. Gutting panel interiors and installing new ones. Testing and checking the existing systems.

Remember, pulling out existing wiring requires the same set-up and equipment as pulling in new; it is often harder to do and it creates a risk of damaging the existing conduits.

Don’t forget your warranty issues. If you are the repairing contractor, you will be responsible for the entire system when you leave—whether you touched it or not. Make sure to include additional costs for potential warranty issues and service call returns. Also, do not forget the price of fuel for generators that may need to run 24 hours a day for several weeks.

Speaking of rising costs, what will happen to the price of steel and copper in the coming months? Steel and copper are the two primary elements from which almost everything we install is made Then there is plastic, made from petroleum. The cost of PVC conduit and plastic boxes will be on the rise, along with anything else that contains plastic. Delivery costs are already becoming higher and will get worse due to gasoline shortages.

All these factors need to be included in your estimates. Forget one and you will work at a loss and not be able to accomplish your client’s needs.

This is not the time to get rich. I can only hope that the contractors who are given the opportunity to help rebuild New Orleans and her neighbors do not see this as a chance to make money. They should price the work fairly and accurately. If they can, they should donate it.

There is still a need to protect their companies and their workers by making sure they include enough cost to cover the many unforeseen situations and working conditions they will face.

They will need to cover out-of-town expenses such as travel time, lodging, gasoline, food and other amenities. Nothing will be cheap, and no one should expect easy installations.

As we learned after 9/11: out of disaster, greatness emerges. This is a time to show our country how great the electrical construction industry can be.

NECA, the IBEW and many electrical contractors will be out on the front line, leading the way for all the other trades. Because without power, the nights will be very dark and the reconstruction will take a lot more time. EC

SHOOK is the president and chief estimator for his estimating company, TakeOff 16 Inc. He has worked in the electrical construction industry for more than 18 years. Reach him at 707.776.0800 or sfs@TakeOff16.com.