When NECA Gulf Coast chapter manager Tracy Landers took his first tour of his chapter’s contractors in the Biloxi, Miss., area, he was prepared for the worst. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans area in August, it took several weeks before Landers was able to travel some of the roads leading to the chapter’s contractors. What he saw, he said, was hard to take.

“That was heartbreaking,” said Landers. “When I saw what happened to J H Haynes, especially ... it was heartbreaking.”

J H Haynes Electric Co., one of several Biloxi-area National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) members, was directly in Katrina’s deadly path. By the time the storm blew through, the office was gone, although the warehouse—which flooded several feet deep—was salvageable.

Phone lines, records, computers and nine pickup trucks were gone. In addition, a trailer full of tools vanished. Jim Haynes, president of J H Haynes, said he has given up searching for the trailer that blew or floated away somewhere in north Biloxi.

While some people might throw up their hands and abandon the region, none of these contractors intend to do so. J H Haynes has 200 electricians at work on projects throughout the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Many of those electricians are without homes. Without an office, computers, records or company trucks, work is being done by hand, and amazingly still being completed.

With a shortage of tools—tools as basic as 6- to 8-foot ladders, drill motors and battery-operated tools—progress is slow. Any donation of tools would be a tremendous benefit.

Currently, the majority of J H Haynes’ projects involve establishing temporary housing. The men, Haynes said, are at work connecting temporary wiring and chillers for the top floors of five hotels across Biloxi.

“Our main concern is the upper levels of these hotels,” he said. The intent is to get the top floors to be habitable.

Because the first three levels have been gutted by the storm surge, they will be uninhabitable for some time. Luckily, the structural integrity has remained intact on all five buildings.

About a month after Katrina’s landfall, the Gulf Coast and New Orleans still have not reached the reconstruction phase. The chaos experienced just after the storm’s passage is under control, and some order is being restored. As homeowners and businesses assess the damage, a vow is made: “We will rebuild.”

In the meantime, the simple things are posing the most complex problems.

“There’s 15 feet of debris on both sides of the roads,” Haynes said, but this is true only on the roads that have been cleared at all. Highway 90 was still largely impassable by mid-September, and most roads into and out of Gulfport, Miss., were either closed or reduced to one or two lanes. Traffic is worse than anyone has seen, despite the fact that many residents have not yet returned.

For any mobility at all, it helps to know the back roads, but the thousands of out-of-state linemen working in the area aren’t familiar with them.

Once inside the region, contractors are having problems finding the necessities. Lodging, food and plumbing were almost nonexistent in the first few weeks after the storm.

Hundreds of linemen from the Northeast headed south in the last week of August in convoys of a dozen or more trucks each, said Michael Gilchrist, manager of the Northeastern Line Constructors Chapter. They’re going down south with little organization or instruction, he said. Many planned just to drive south until they were called in by the utilities there.

Until they are called, Gilchrist said, “There’s obviously no electricity, no place to stay. Most of them will be sleeping in their own trucks.”

Many of these linemen are the same ones who made a similar trip after the series of hurricanes hit Florida in 2004. Some were on hand for months restoring power, following four separate hurricane landfalls.

The Southeastern Line Constructors Chapter began receiving phone calls from contractors countrywide before Katrina hit. The phone calls were to gain information about union wages and other membership information before setting out to the Gulf Coast.

In some cases, the Southeastern utilities had contacted some Northeastern utility companies. Those Northeastern companies were sending some of their own linemen as well as spreading the word to other contractors. Not all Northeastern utilities could afford to send all their contractors, however.

“A lot of Northeast utility companies have said some can go,” Gilchrist said. “But they also didn’t release a lot of crews from their jobs.”

Robert LaLumiere, manager of the American Line Builders Chapter, could only guess how many crews left from the Ohio area. Hundreds, maybe more, was his estimate.

While many of these linemen were already in the Southeast for other hurricane-restoration efforts, nothing can compare to Katrina, he said. This storm wasn’t a matter of reconnecting downed lines; the line contractors were rebuilding entire systems.

Utilities in the stricken areas contacted utilities in the American Line Builders’ district. The chapter’s utilities ultimately had to determine how many crews they needed, and the rest were given permission to travel south.

“The unfortunate part is that the utilities [in the north] may have to call them back,” LaLumiere said.

Those who arrived in the Gulf Coast were greeted by the sight of refugees, flooding and stacks of power poles thrown into the roads.

“I don’t know where those poor people are going to start,” LaLumiere said.

About 300 linemen from Dillard Smith Construction Co., Chattanooga, Tenn., have started work across Mississippi and into Louisiana.

“It’s absolutely fabulous the way these workmen have come together for humanitarian relief,” said Turner Smith, president of Dillard Smith. “It’s tremendous that they have that kind of morality when folks are in need ... Folks need their electricity.”

Many of the crew members were still sleeping in their trucks, Smith said, while the company looked for hotels with vacant rooms and electricity. In the meantime, others were sleeping in tents.

“It’s hot, it’s dirty, there’s standing water, trees are down everywhere,” Smith said.

The Dillard Smith crews spread from Mobile, Ala., to Biloxi, Pearl River and Hattiesburg in Mississippi-—in about 10 sites altogether. Smith said he had little communication with his crews since the cell phones rarely made connections.

Hawkeye Construction Electric LLC, Patchogue, N.Y., sent about 200 men to work for the devastated Southeastern utility company, Entergy Corp., New Orleans, as it picks up the pieces throughout the Gulf Coast region.

The men were called down before Katrina struck, said Hawkeye owner Bill Haugland. They stayed in a Boy Scout camp, sleeping on cots until they were able to get to work. Within a week, they were putting in 16-hour days, erecting thousands of poles, running wire and setting up transformers.

The work began in the outlying areas and began moving south, toward the gulf. Haugland has been able to maintain contact by setting the men up with local cellular service. The Northerners, most of whom are from Westchester and Boston, commented on the heat and the task at hand. For these men—who are operating on less than adequate sleep—keeping safe and hydrated is difficult.

“I do worry about them,” Haugland said, who traveled south to see the operation in person during the second week of September.

Tom Wolden of New River Electrical Corp., Cloverdale, Va., said his 55 linemen were divided between the Jackson, Miss., and Mobile areas initially, and then began mobilizing south as the work continued. Crew members in Jackson were intercepted by local individuals threatening them with assault rifles.

“We got off to a rocky start,” Wolden said. “They pulled out of there that day.”

Crew members only returned after police secured the area.

“They spent the first couple of days restoring electric lines in those areas that could be readily put online,” Wolden said. “That gives the assessors time to put together a game plan.”

From there, New River crews also began heading south, some for Entergy and others for the Southern Co., Atlanta—the parent company for Alabama Power and Mississippi Power.

Crews praised Entergy for being very safety oriented, according to Wolden. They conducted daily tailgate safety briefings. The group was housed, at least temporarily, in a vacant office building that had once housed telecommunications company, WorldCom.

“They had electric power and access to cooking,” he said.

Time to help

In Baton Rouge, La., IBEW Local 130, 5th District, headed by Mike Clary, was housing the Red Cross in its office building. Refugees doubled the size of the city in the first week. Clary said the local group was offering support to the utilities but had yet to be called in to New Orleans.

“We’re just ready and willing to go,” he said. “That’s what the brotherhood is all about.”

Once the utilities are running and debris is cleared, the task of reconstruction will begin a mammoth project that is likely to last several years.

“I hope we’re going to get some good NECA contractors down here to help,” Landers said.

Already, delegates from the Detroit chapter were coming down to assess the damage.

There are plenty of jobs for contractors. In Biloxi, J H Haynes crews were working on temporary housing for utility workers, but also schools. About 30 area schools hoped to be opening in October.

Frank Russell of Bagby and Russell Electric Co., Mobile, Ala., said his own crews were not finished cleaning up from last year’s Hurricane Ivan when Katrina arrived. He initially teamed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to prepare a game plan for setting up temporary housing. However, they ran into logistical problems and parted ways.

Much of Bagby and Russell’s work is on homes already struck by previous storms, and the greatest demand now is for generators.

Doleac Electric, with an office in Hattiesburg, Miss., as well as Biloxi, fared better than many because the facility in Hattiesburg was largely undamaged.

“We held up pretty good,” said Donnie Doleac, co-owner with brother Larry Doleac.

He described his own operation, with about 270 electricians as “controlled chaos.” A large percentage of his crews were reconnecting Northrop Grumman shipyards, “starting with the primary, and going through every circuit before we re-energize.”

That project, he estimates, will take many weeks before it is completed. His employees are working 12 hours a day, seven days a week—a schedule that takes its toll on everyone.

“People get on edge, but we’re managing pretty well,” he said.

While most expect to rebuild, it will be a long time before the remaining floodwater is drained and that process can begin.

“This is all emergency repair work. We haven’t even thought about rebuilding yet,” Doleac said. “For the most part people are real thankful to still be able to go to work.” EC

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com.