Stormy Weather

By Claire Swedberg | Mar 15, 2009




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Three years after Hurricane Rita, while electrical contractors in southern Texas were still repairing and replacing damaged electrical systems, Hurricane Ike surged into Galveston and brought contractors the most work they had seen in decades. Ike made landfall in Galveston on Sept. 13, 2008, bringing more flooding than wind damage. Although it didn’t receive the media coverage of its predecessors, this storm has left years of rebuilding projects in its wake—at least $27 billion in damage according to reports—making it the third-most destructive hurricane ever to hit the United States.

Mother Nature left a workload that some contractors have become experts at addressing. Those contractors, by choice or by geography, have worked to restore communities. Rewiring a city, or even part of a state, can go on for months or years, and it’s sometimes a challenge to get started working for local contractors who also have borne the brunt of the storm.

Flooding and winds from Hurricane Ike destroyed Galveston’s International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 527 headquarters. The union is now in a temporary location with plans to rebuild. Despite operating out of a hastily relocated satellite office, 527’s man-hours surged.

IBEW Local 479 in Beaumont, Texas, experienced similar labor surges. Before the storm, the number of man-hours at 479 was 136,310. In October, those hours rose to 315,541, a level that mostly has held steady since. Hundreds of traveling electricians who reported to the area have raised the number of men in the chapter from 887 to 1,573. The increased man-hours have meant long days for the electrical contractors, whether locals or traveling electricians. The Local No. 479 building also was destroyed, but the union is in the process of rebuilding in the same location.

According to Allen Grainey, executive director of the National Electrical Contractors Association’s (NECA) South Texas chapter, electrical contractors are heavily involved in the reconstruction work as well as in previously existing industrial projects. Galveston-area contractors doing reconstruction work include Amex Electric Service Inc., Texas City, and D & H Electrical Services Inc., Beaumont. Traveling electrical contractors include Fisk Electric Co., Houston; C W Henderson Electric Inc., Houston; Wayne Electric Inc., Houston; Schmidt Electric Co. Inc., Austin; and Lake Charles Electric Co. Inc., Westlake, La.

Traveling electrical contractors that came initially had to stay in tents, but by winter had more permanent housing.

Varied work available

Contractors often shift their focus during times of crisis. Some contractors are taking large numbers of residential rebuilds, while others are focusing on commercial and industrial tasks where the need is highest.

In the majority of those cases, the work is at the oil and gas refineries, where cleanup is expected to take years. Ike destroyed 54 oil and gas platforms, damaging 95 more. On 35 platforms, the damage was extensive, meaning it would take about six months to repair.

In addition to the oil and gas work, schools, public buildings and retailers need restoration and repair, and residential work opportunities are strong as well. Many of the homes and businesses in Galveston are only 10 or 15 feet above sea level, and there are no basements. So in nearly every case, the electric switches and conduit need to be cleaned out and often replaced.

The Lone Star Flight Museum suffered massive damage as the storm washed though the airport and hangars with about 8 feet of water. NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston suffered minor roof damage to Mission Control and minor cosmetic damage to some of its other buildings.

Caring for healthcare

The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) suffered some of the storm’s worst damage with cleanup projects gradually restoring power and functionality to its campus buildings. At press time, the UTMB had been laying off workers and downsizing as it attempted to recover from the storm.

“Hurricane Ike work will continue for at least three to four years,” Grainey said. “The level of devastation was extreme.”

Fisk Electric has been involved in telecommunications restoration work, replacing and repairing damaged wiring underground and in crawl spaces. At the UTMB, the entire lower level of the building was flooded, and the Fisk Electric crew pulled conduit cases apart to find water and mud pouring out of them. The electricians have been replacing switches and some cable, which in some cases have sustained holes blown through the casing from wet wires.

For the most part, said Charles Jordan, Fisk Electric project manager, the campus’ lower floors are nonfunctional, only consisting of framework. Jordan described being able to see through buildings on the lower levels where drywall and insulation were cut out to abate flood damage.

Fisk Electric came to the campus about one month after the storm had passed, Jordan said, as the school began reopening some of its classrooms. The earliest months were the hardest, Jordan said, since flood waters with backed up sewer water still pooled throughout the campus. Electricians did their work wearing abatement suits with respirators.

“For a while, it looked like a third-world country,” Jordan said, not just on campus but throughout Galveston. Six Fisk Electric electricians on the campus managed to get more classrooms opened by the end of 2008. They have taken part in two of the eight build-outs underway on the campus.

Lights for learning

Galveston’s Ball High School experienced some minor damage. Wayne Electric repaired 382 outlets on the first floor and repaired switches and breakers in the switchboard, said Andy Wilborn, master electrician, chief estimator and senior project manager. In addition, four boxes were flooded. Wayne Electric repaired or replaced those and cleared out the data plug insulation. It took the company 30 days to get the school into condition for students to return.

Central Middle School did not fare as well. Following the storm, the school was 50 percent under water. Wayne Electric’s task was the main switchgear in the school’s central plant, where the insulation had rotted. Once electricians got to work, the insulation was cracking and coming off in their hands, Wilborn said.

Wayne Electric installed new switches and ran new feeders in the ceiling. The switchboard and chillers had flooded, and the contractor put in a new cooling tower for the heating, ventilating and air conditioning contractor to install.

Wilborn said the contractor had to get four months of work done in one month, since the school needed to reopen for students as soon as possible.

Repairing resources

Months after the hurricane passed, the offshore oil and natural-gas industry was still struggling to get back to work. By December, nearly a quarter of oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico remained offline, according to federal data. That is an improvement from the 33 percent that was offline in late October, but progress has slowed from the first weeks after the storm.

In the meantime, some are finding creative ways to respond to the cleanup after Ike. Biofuels Power Corp., Woodlands, Texas, intends to construct a 4-megawatt power plant that will be fueled by Ike debris and woodchips that remain following the storm. To make the plant greener and more ambitious, the company claims it will capture and store the plant’s carbon-dioxide emissions at an abandoned oil field near Houston. The company also signed a preliminary agreement with a wood-waste storage operator DSMC, and with consulting firm Texoga Technologies Corp. to retrofit abandoned oil wells for carbon-dioxide storage.

Biofuels Power already operates two biodiesel-fueled power plants, a 5-megawatt facility in Oak Ridge North, Texas, and a 10-megawatt plant in Montgomery County, Texas.

D & H Electrical Services Inc. has been doing its work in the refineries where construction is expected to continue through 2009. The company has been doing repair work at BP as well as Anheuser-Busch in Houston. The damage D & H is repairing, said Duwayne Herrmann Jr., is the result of flooding more than wind. The storm passed 30 miles south of D & H’s Beaumont location, but the company is one of the nearby electrical contractors. It has increased its ranks as it provides restoration work on the Gulf Coast.

Initially, D & H Electrical Services had to take care of its existing customers, Herrmann said, but it also went into refineries to repair switchgear, instrumentation and cable.

“It all has to be replaced [in most cases],” he said. “Everybody’s working full throttle. You do what you can.”

In the meantime, in addition to the cleanup, the refineries are in the midst of $6 billion worth of expansion work, Herr-mann said, and that work needs to stay on schedule.

“That’s the biggest push right now,” he said.

Herrmann said he and his men still work from about 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., seven days a week, and they plan to keep it up until the work is done.

Severe storms, such as Hurricane Ike, certainly wreak havoc in communities. The bright side is that electrical contractors are needed to help reconstruct, and that means more work opportunities. Sometimes it can be a dirty job that someone has to do, but lending a helping hand can be more rewarding.

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].

About The Author

SWEDBERG is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at [email protected].





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