As parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast await the impact of Hurricane Laura—strengthening in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and forecast to be first major storm of what is anticipated to be a historically active hurricane season—contractors in the storm’s path should be aware that the coronavirus will add complications to both storm preparation and response, says Jim MacDonnell, director of BDO’s McLean Office and a risk management expert.
These changes will affect how you can help your personnel evacuate, the access you have to your jobs and even whether or not you can get the required Covid-related PPE to get back on site after the storm.
Evacuating employees presents a list of problems under a pandemic. Stay with grandma who’s located more inland? You don’t want to expose her to the virus. Shelters have greatly reduced capacity. Get on a crowded bus to move to safer ground? Uh uh. This all means your personnel may have to move further away or go through other hoops to get out of the storm’s path, further complicating their return, MacDonnell says.
It also means your communication with your workers before and after the storm takes on even more importance, especially with hourly personnel who may struggle paycheck to paycheck. If they don’t hear from you—or receive help from you—they may feel they are forced to look elsewhere.
After seeing to the health and welfare of your people, another critical item is access to your jobsites.
“That only happens when the state and local authorities allow you to move in,” MacDonnell says. “For this year, though, things are going to be quite different because there will be fewer resources available to go to impacted areas. It’s just going to take longer to do damage assessments because they are operating under limited resources. So contractors should talk to the local authorities to get a good understanding of what the access requirements are going to be, and educate themselves on the response plan.”
Also know there will be fewer boots on the ground to help out. There’s usually a “whole community” response after a major storm where governmental authorities, first responders, utility companies, non-profits, etc. all play a part, MacDonnell explains. “FEMA has issued a statement saying they will limit field deployments of additional personnel to minimize the potential spread of Covid-19 from relocating people,” MacDonnell says. “The Red Cross is adopting a similar methodology.”
This means that, for example, the workers you rely on might not be able to move back into their homes as quickly because the damage assessments haven’t been completed. The same goes for the support infrastructure—such as gas stations—that will not likely come back online as quickly as they have in the past after a storm.
Response entities are also dealing with first-time experiences, which will add time to the overall process. The extra time allowance also extends to your own crews, MacDonnell says. If your shut-down or start-up procedures involve a crew instead of just one or two, you may have to rethink how you do a task if local social distancing requirements are firmly in place.
There are always items in short supply after a storm. Add anti-viral PPE and mandated items to that list — particularly masks, hand sanitizer, washing stations, etc. Having those items stored and handy, yet away from the impact area, will put you ahead of the game.
What to do now
While it’s best to have a disaster plan in place—one that names a lead person and/or team and what triggers a company decision to evacuate—there are things that can still be done as a storm gathers strength.
But first things first and that’s your people. They need to have time to evacuate their homes and seek shelter for their families and pets in advance of a storm’s landfall.
Here’s a quick list of other things to consider:
Revisit your disaster hazard analysis and response plan with the crews and begin early preparations if weather forecasters are predicting threats. Establish priorities so that crews aren’t scrambling to get all of this done in the last 24 hours before a storm hits.
Line up your trucking assets well in advance of a storm or flood and keep in mind, many unpaved access roads will become impassable after a day or two of heavy rains. Even paved roads may washout under relentless rains or floods.
Top off the fuel and DEF on all your machines and gasoline or diesel in your trucks. If you have a diesel fuel tank on the site or in your equipment yard, get it topped off as well and ensure that it’s braced against wind or water.
Remove or secure all loose materials—lumber or metal offcuts or other scrap, plywood and sheet goods, PVC pipe, trash barrels, and toolboxes—appropriate to the anticipated wind speeds or flood/high water dangers. During the hurricane or tornado seasons it’s a good idea to clean up loose debris on the jobsite daily as storms heavy rains and high winds can pop up unexpectedly.
Secure or remove hazardous chemicals from jobsites or buildings that might be imperiled. This might be bulk materials like solvents, lubricants, acids or other caustic compounds.
Empty and/or remove dumpsters.
Move heavy equipment to high ground. Evaluate whether it makes sense to return rental machines. If you can move them to a safe place, they will likely be in high demand during cleanup.
Remove signage, fence screens and portable toilets.
Take down and store scaffolding and form work, if time permits
Shut off the power, water and gas and other utilities if possible.
Build berms or install silt fencing to protect areas already cut to grade.
Sandbag critical structures if high water or flooding is predicted.
Board up windows and doors on structures to protect them from wind-driven rain and flying debris.
Remove computers, office equipment and records from jobsite trailers.
Cancel material deliveries and in-coming rental equipment.
Reinforce partially built structures. If you have framing lumber or steel erected but have not sheathed it or put in the necessary bracing, get as many people as you can spare working on that, so the structures don’t come apart in the force of high winds or water. If the project is large, have an engineer make recommendations as to securing the structure before it’s completed.
Lower crane booms to the ground if time permits. At a minimum, put cranes into the slew mode so that the wind doesn’t turn the boom into a sail.
Take photos of work completed and any assets in the field for insurance purposes.
Note: Tom Jackson contributed to this report.