On Record: Old pros

Since FEMA could use a few lessons in how to conduct its basic mission, I offer up the expertise of the construction industry. Several companies, old pros at responding to disasters, mobilized early for Hurricane Katrina.

“We put an emergency response team together more than three years ago,” says Michael Kneeland, vice president of operations, United Rentals. In emergency mode on the Saturday preceding the storm, United distributed satellite phones and established a 24-hour bilingual emergency response center. In the first 48 hours after the hurricane, the center fielded more than 1,100 phone calls. Also en route on Saturday were truckloads of generators, chain saws, pumps, boots, gas cans, safety equipment and bottled water.

Hertz Equipment Rental mobilized both its fleet and operations divisions, moves that have been well rehearsed with previous hurricanes. With fuel in such short supply during the days immediately following the storm, the company brought two fuel trucks in from Canada and purchased two others in New York. NationsRent topped off all its storage tanks and positioned fuel trucks prior to the storm. While phone lines were down, the company ran its operating system off laptops with satellite capability.

As soon as it was clear New Orleans would take a direct hit, Andress-Walsh, a Gormann-Rupp pump dealer out of Houston, started working with other Baker Tanks companies to move all available pump inventory into the area. The company now has more than 50 4-inch-and-higher pumps in the city.

Noting the dire predictions for this hurricane season, CE Attachments had additional inventory on hand, says Eric Hoefert, purchasing and inventory analyst for the wholesale attachment distributor. While 2004 had been a big year, “in the week following Katrina we sold the same amount we had during two months last year,” he says.

On the Tuesday morning following Katrina, working without power, employees of Jackson, Mississippi-based Great Southern Tractor started loading up a truck with water, cleaning supplies, sanitary wipes and snacks – all directed toward immediate needs of the employees of their Biloxi branch, which had been destroyed.

Setting up shop in a trailer behind the rubble, employees started securing the facility and clearing the way for equipment arriving on trucks making three-times-a-day runs between Jackson and Biloxi. The word got out: Customers found that in addition to skid steers, excavators and loaders, they could get water, ice, first-aid kits and flashlights.

In their trailer-turned-office, the dealer set up a financing station, relaying all information by cell phone. Jim King, vice president of support, parts and facilities, says Komatsu gave Great Southern and its Louisiana dealer, H & E Equipment Services, corporate allocation priority. “Our finance contracts also have first dibs, which speeds up the process tremendously,” he says.

“You have to make sure you’re well coordinated,” sums up Chris Bowers, senior vice president, customer strategy, sales and marketing, NES Rentals, “and you have open lines of communication and are able to respond. People are looking for responsiveness. You can sort through the red tape in the future.”