On Record: Perhaps this is our chance?

If some graduate engineering student is looking for a research topic, I’d advise him or her to check out D’Iberville, Mississippi, during the next five years.

Not that D’Iberville is experiencing anything different than other towns struggling to rebuild across the Gulf Coast. But Mayor Rusty Quave and other city leaders made headlines earlier this summer when they entertained the idea of working with Chinese companies that proposed to bring in up to 4,000 Chinese laborers to help rebuild the town.

To date, nothing’s come of the proposal, but it does illustrate what interesting times – perhaps in a Chinese curse sort of way, if you’ll pardon the connection – these communities will be living in during the near future. With demands still off the scale and much of the resources to date coming primarily from the faith community, the plans are many, but the concrete pours are few.

“We’ve approved more than 16 apartment complexes, townhouses and subdivisions, representing more than 2,500 units,” says Quave. “Only two of the projects have started.”

Quave puts most of blame on insurance, which he says has increased by more than 400 percent last year. “The casinos can self insure,” he says, “but at these insurance rates new apartment rents will be out of reach for most workers.”

Even so, he expects the rebuilding pace to pick up this summer, when construction will begin on a casino, followed closely by a condominium project. We’re hearing the same from other sources: wait until this summer and into the fall, that’s when the real rebuilding will start. (Next month, Equipment World’s new senior editor, Georgia Krause, will take a close look at Katrina-based labor demands.)

But back to my idea for a graduate research project. D’Iberville and Biloxi and Gulfport and Slidell and New Orleans will be one giant construction laboratory during the coming years. And if we take a huge step and assume a world without corrupt politicians, inept bureaucracies and greedy businesses, this is our industry’s chance to shine.

Opportunities of this magnitude have occurred before, most notably the $8 billion Trans Alaska Pipeline in the mid-70s. But while the pipeline was a four-year construction job done under extreme temperature conditions, it had basically one mission: install a working pipeline.

In the Gulf Coast, the construction will be all over the board, from installing utilities to building roads, from building single-family homes to erecting high rises. Louisiana alone estimates it will need 20,000 more workers in addition to the ones already on site. This compares with the 21,600 construction workers contractors used at the peak of the pipeline construction.

When things occur on such a grand scale, it’s a prime atmosphere for efficiencies to develop. Since so many workers are needed, this is an opportunity for construction to create ways that truly recruit, train and retain people. And who knows what equipment solution will first be explored in this environment? It all bears close watching.