Hope Still Floats

For electrical contractors in Louisiana and Mississippi, there is not much of a line between work and home. After all, when Hurricane Katrina destroyed houses and offices across both states, many had to take their work home and even more had to bring their homes to work. Unlike most hurricane victims, electrical contractors have the double hardship of picking up their own lives while responding to the emergencies of others around them.

Eight months after Katrina tore up nearly every Mississippi coastal structure in its path and levee breaks from the storm sent the city of New Orleans underwater, life is nowhere near normal. Electrical contractors have reconnected phone lines, located or saved at least a few vehicles and some tools, and, in many cases, are working 80- to 120-hour work weeks. It will not be business as usual anytime in the near future.

“It’s just another day in paradise,” said Ryan Armand Jr., president of Armand Electric Co. Inc., Chalmette, La., which is located in heavily damaged St. Bernard Parish.

His version of paradise includes working in a parish with just a fragment of its population back in business, many reconstruction plans mired in government delays, and work ahead that seems as if it will never be done. Like most contractors, Armand Electric is forced to get by with what the company was able to salvage.

In Armand’s case, that means two pickup trucks, a few tools, and a couple of places where it could set up a desk, computer and phone. In February, the business, which had been under 12 feet of water, was finally reopened. The phones were not hooked up, so employees communicated using cell phones and office phones belonging to those who offered them temporary tenancy.

Ryan Armand and his brother lost their homes and are staying in trailers—gained through the Louisiana Economic Assistance Program—that are parked on the office lot.

Further west in Metairie, La., Pflueger Electric Co. Inc. owner David Stoehr joked the business may have to be renamed “Pflueger Electric Co. and Trailer Park.”

Not only does Stoehr live in a trailer parked in the Pflueger Electric lot with his wife and six children, so do many of his new neighbors: Pflueger electricians who have either lost their homes or come from another part of the country to help.

While there is plenty of interest among journeymen to come help in the storm-damaged areas, the logistics are a big problem. There is simply nowhere to stay because a large percentage of homes in the area were destroyed, and local residents are living in Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) trailers just to have a roof over their heads.

Pflueger Electric weathered the storm better than most.

“Our office was pretty much spared,” said Stoehr.

Two weeks after the storm hit, Pflueger Electric was back in business. The company’s crew of 12, which has since swelled to 30, went to work reconnecting commercial buildings and homes, many of which suffered electrical damage in their flooded first floors. They reconnected a UPS warehouse, Domino Sugar processing facility and various other businesses throughout the New Orleans area.

Armand Electric got back to work removing, cleaning, repairing and reinstalling wet switchgear in flooded-out area homes and businesses. Post-storm work also included the Exxon-Mobile refinery and downtown New Orleans, helping government offices restore power. The company has since been working at Domino Sugar and petroleum coke producer CII Carbon in Chalmette. Armand Electric also connected several hundred FEMA trailers in St. Bernard Parish.

Although the company was down to six men shortly after the storm, it currently employs about 60, many of whom are staying in trailers at the sites where they are working.

“Right now, most of our crews are working six, 10-hour days or seven, 12-hour days,” Armand said. Armand said for himself, it is closer to seven, 14-hour days.

As residents and business owners consider rebuilding, the construction plans have come to a halt. City, state and federal government interests have many construction projects on hold as politicians decide how the city will be rebuilt. Many, hoping for government funding to rebuild, are waiting to see if the funding will be there or even if rebuilding will be authorized.

Recently, a “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” attitude has taken hold among many of Pflueger’s clients, and they have decided to rebuild with or without specifics from government agencies.

“There’s a lot of politics involved,” Stoehr said, “[Government agencies] want to have control and, in the meantime, everyone here is caught in the middle. Some people are getting fed up, they want to come back and rebuild. If the government would get out of the way, this city would be blowing ahead with construction.”

But just getting the materials needed for the massive reconstruction is a problem for contractors, since supply houses run out as fast as they get products into their warehouses. Because there is little being shipped out of the New Orleans area and so much being shipped in, transportation companies are reluctant to send trucks knowing they will be coming back empty.

“The supply house just can’t keep up with the onslaught of demand from contractors,” Stoehr said.

Other delays have further crippled reconstruction efforts. Areas of New Orleans are still without power, in part because utility company Entergy New Orleans filed for bankruptcy before reconnection was complete.

At Fisk Electric, Hammond, La., Norman (Pat) Clyne, vice president, said, it could put 200 electricians to work immediately if the workers were available. But without the proper housing for workers, Fisk Electric has the same problem all the other contractors do.

“There’s just no place to stay,” Clyne said.

Fisk Electric is also connecting power to FEMA trailers for displaced New Orleans residents. In addition, it is also working for the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) of New Orleans to power the city’s electric trolley buses and public transit.

Fisk electricians are busy working at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, on the Baton Rouge federal oil reserve and for other oil companies, such as Texaco and Shell Oil. Fisk Electric is also helping rebuild Biloxi, Miss. The company has come a long way since last August when it was shut down by the storm. It reopened a week after the hurricane, with 85 percent of its work force gone.

Even today, Clyne said, “Our problem is getting electricians.”

Mississippi and the Gulf Coast

New Orleans has much work ahead, but so does Mississippi. The state’s waterfront towns were hit by both devasting wind and sea water. Thirty-eight foot surges in the Gulf accompanied 140 mph winds that pounded structures for six hours. Reconstruction is expected to take at least five years.

“We’re working fast and furious,” said Jim Haynes, J H Haynes Electric Co., Gulfport, Miss.

Although his office suffered major damage, he and his staff worked in a double trailer behind the office to keep the business running until mid-February when the office was tenable again. The company, which usually employs 100 to 150, is now up to 350 electricians, many of whom are living in travel trailers or trailer parks in the vicinity.

With approval from the state legislature to rebuild casinos within 800 feet of the waterfront, casinos that had been previously built on barges—and, consequently, were destroyed by the storm surge—are now rebuilding on solid ground. J H Haynes completed IP Hotel and Casino in Biloxi as well as a temporary Isle of Capri. It expects to have Harrahs Grand Casino reopened for the Fourth of July.

J H Haynes is also replacing and repairing Gulfport and Harris County ball fields, reinstalling lighting and replacing wiring in the areas where they were under water.

Wanted: project managers

The greatest shortage for all the contractors interviewed for this story is in project managers. While many contractors have more than doubled their electricians, they don’t have enough supervisors for the projects they are bidding on.

“We’ve been looking for project managers, supervisors, engineers,” Haynes said. “If anyone is interested in a long-term job, this is the place to come for that.”

Aside from the casinos, the Mississippi Gulf Coast has just begun the rebuilding effort. About 65 percent of the debris is removed, but more of it needs to be removed before reconstruction.

“We’re just in the start of reconstruction,” said Frank Russell of Bagby & Russell Electric Co., Mobile, Ala. “Nobody on the Gulf Coast has enough manpower.”

Some coming to the state are parking at the union halls, and many are bringing their own campers and trailers.

Russell has helped lead a campaign raising money for contractors affected by the storm. The fund has grown to $363,000, of which $330,000 has been dispersed to area contractors

“A lot of contractors lost their office buildings, their trucks were underwater, and a lot didn’t have flood insurance,” Russell said.

The fund will help contractors pay for rebuilding their offices and replacing equipment destroyed in the storm.

David Roberts, Southeast District executive director, is helping oversee that fund, which was the brainchild of Kansas City National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) Chapter Executive Manager Kenneth (KC) Borden, who also owns a home in South Florida. As a resident of Miami, Borden had experienced Hurricane Andrew and understands the devastation people are facing.

Originally, Borden e-mailed all NECA chapter managers about a fund that has since been transferred to the Electri International—The Foundation for Electrical Construction.

Electrical contractors get “double whammied” Borden said, since they suffer the same hardships as all other residents, but must be prepared to grow their manpower and provide more services than they do during normal conditions. The fund was intended to help “NECA families,” meaning it could be used for both business and personal losses.

“Originally, we thought we would pledge $1,000,” he said. “If everyone did it [there are 119 NECA chapters] it would be the same as $119,000. [Instead,] donations just started pouring in.”

The fund “helped keep some contractors in business and it was enough encouragement for others to stay in business,” Roberts said.

Russell said NECA is hoping to maintain a permanent emergency fund for any U.S. natural disasters that affect contractors. Roberts, who lives north of Lake Pontchartrain, was spared the worst of the storm but was strongly affected by what the rest of the area is experiencing.

“The homes are still there but they’re deserted. There are just thousands of homes that way-—nobody is home, everything is a dingy gray, the color is gone from everything,” he said.

In the meantime, he said, “They’re working hard over there to bring semblance of a new normal.”     EC

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



About the Author

Claire Swedberg

Freelance Writer
Claire Swedberg is a freelance writer based in western Washington. She can be reached at claire_swedberg@msn.com .

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