This guide was updated on August 31, 2020, to reflect the most current information.
Hurricanes, floods, wildfires and other natural disasters can lead to high demand for debris cleanup and reconstruction, and an opportunity for contractors to provide much-needed services. But being in a position to provide those services takes careful, advanced planning before a disaster strikes.
“It’s always better if a company gets ahead of a disaster,” says Cindy Carrier, program manager for the Louisiana Procurement Technical Assistance Center. “Because sometimes when the disaster happens, things are happening so quickly.”
Multiple states in the path of Hurricane Laura were impacted by the storm, but the brunt of the damage occurred in Louisiana and Texas. The storm made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane, slamming into the Gulf Coast, leaving hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses without power and strewing trees and power lines across highways throughout the region. As of Aug. 31, 16 people were confirmed dead as a result of the storm, according to various reports.
And the government entities, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that are seeking contractors for post-disaster work require registration within their procurement systems. “If you have to register with FEMA and get on their database … sometimes they’ve already let a contract while you’re still trying to register,” Carrier says.
Jane Dowgwillo, program manager for the Florida Procurement Technical Assistance Center, says her office quickly gets swamped after a hurricane strikes, with calls and emails from all over the country from businesses looking for contracting opportunities. They want to come right to the state and want to know where they should go.
“Back up, you need to get prepared,” she says. “You really need to be properly registered before you even think about it.”
How to get prepared
Both Carrier and Dowgwillo say the first step for any contractor looking to perform disaster-response work should be to contact their state’s Procurement Technical Assistance Center. That’s true even if the work is in another state. Contractors can find their local PTAC by going to the Association of Procurement Technical Assistance Centers website and clicking their state on the map on the home page. They will then get a list of centers and contact information.
There are 94 such centers around the country, in each state and in Puerto Rico and Guam. They are partly funded by the U.S. Defense Logistics Agency with the rest matched by state and local governments and nonprofit organizations. Many of the centers are on state university or college campuses, and there are more than 300 PTAC local offices.
Their services are free, including one-on-one counseling. Services include helping to register with the proper government procurement systems, as well as finding bidding opportunities and preparing proposals.
The PTACs also reach out to their counterparts in other states to help businesses find opportunities there. “So if it’s an Arkansas company, but the bid lead is coming from Louisiana, they’re still going to get it,” says Carrier. “They can meet with their Arkansas PTAC to help them with quoting it, or writing a proposal if they have to.”
Carrier says her office searches 3,500 websites each day for bid leads for clients. It uses keyword searches for the type of contracts the busines wants, such as “debris removal.” Relevant leads are then emailed to the client.
“If our Louisiana-based companies say, ‘We can do business across the United States,’ then we’re searching all of the counties that are in all of those states,” Carrier says. “And then there may be small local governments that maybe post in a newspaper. So we’re looking for those opportunities as well.”
After contacting a PTAC and setting an appointment with a counselor, the next step involves registering with the federal government’s System for Award Management (SAM).
The system is run by the U.S. General Services Administration, and any contractor that wants a federal contract has to be registered in it. That includes performing work for FEMA or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also handles debris cleanup after disasters.
The free SAM registration process can be tedious, and minor errors can cause delays, such as entering a slightly different company name than is listed with the Internal Revenue Service, Carrier says. The IRS is linked to the system to make sure companies registering are legitimate.
Though some for-profit companies advertise they can guide businesses through the process, PTAC counselors will help businesses register at no cost. Dowgwillo says the companies make claims to register clients in record time and land contracts. They charge $300 to $600 and some as high as $2,000 to $3,000. But she says they have no special “in” with the GSA.
“We, unfortunately, deal with a lot of disappointed people that have handed over their credit card details and never get to see that money again,” she says. To register with SAM.gov, you’ll first be asked to create a login.gov user account (if you don’t already have one). You will use that login.gov username and password every time you log in to SAM.gov.
Registering on SAM also requires a DUNS number. This is a unique nine-digit number that identifies each location of your business, according to Dun & Bradstreet, which provides the number. The number is free and can be obtained by clicking here.
You will also need to provide SAM with your business’ tax identification number, as well as bank account information. During the registration process, indicate that you want to participate in the Disaster Response Registry. That way contracting officers can locate your information when performing a search of the registry. SAM also requires a notarized letter stating your firm’s “entity administrator.” However, the letter does not have to be approved before SAM registration is activated.
The process culminates in being assigned a Commercial and Government Entity code. This five-character CAGE code is issued by the Defense Logistics Agency to identify a specific facility at a specific location. It’s required for businesses to get paid for federal contract work. To find federal government contracting opportunities over $25,000, go to beta.sam.gov, which has replaced FBO.gov and will eventually replace SAM.gov. The beta site – so named because it
is still being tested – is underway to becoming the GSA’s primary clearinghouse for government contracting but is still a work in progress. Carrier says PTACs across the country have reported some issues with the beta site, but PTACs can deal with the site so contractors don’t have to. There are other databases for federal contracts under $25,000 that PTAC will also help businesses register for and will monitor for them.
The amount of time it takes to register with SAM varies. Carrier says it usually takes three days after hitting the submit button on the registration. Dowgwillo says registration can take as long as three to four weeks, or longer if there errors or problems with the application.
State and local contracts
One thing contractors should be aware of is that FEMA is required under federal law to contract with businesses located in affected areas when “feasible and practicable,” according to the Association of Procurement Technical Assistance Centers. That can make it more difficult for contractors outside of the disaster area to win contracts, and all the more reason it pays to make plans before a disaster strikes.
Many states have their own contracting and procurement systems, which contractors will want to register for. Again, PTACs can help by contacting the PTAC in the state where the contractor wants to work to find out what steps are required there, Carrier says. For state contracts in Louisiana, businesses need to register with LaGOV. The state government posts bid leads in the Louisiana Procurement and Contract Network, or LaPAC. In Florida, contractors can register for the MyFloridaMarketPlace and for the Florida Emergency Supplier Network for state contracts, and local contracts administered through the sites.
Dowgwillo also recommends that contractors interested in disaster work in Florida contact individual counties, cities and towns they could potentially work in and register as a vendor. She says many of these local governments will handle their own cleanup with vendors they have received cost estimates from before a disaster and then later seek FEMA reimbursement.
Another place to check for disaster work is with insurance companies.
According to the Insurance Information Institute, most insurance companies maintain a list of approved private contractors that they share with their policyholders in a claim situation. These approved contractor lists are not shared with the public. Now is the time to get on these lists, assuming you meet each company’s qualifications.
To get on a list, the institute suggests contractors call the insurance companies and ask to be directed to the “property repair program” in the claims department. Each company will have its own requirements for insurance, bonding, etc.
Marcia Gruver Doyle contributed to this article.