Total damage is not yet known, but Katrina stands to become the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history.

Jim Finley's home is on the outskirts of New Orleans, and his house fared better than most, he says. His plumbing company, on the other hand, he's not so sure about.

C.N. Finley Inc. has 12 employees, who were scattered when Katrina hit - and some had Finley service trucks with them. Though he knows they're all safe, when they'll begin working again, that's another story.

Flying over the city at 7,000 feet while piloting his own plane, Finley could see the devastation and described it as a “ghost town.” Water touched everywhere and everyone. He wonders when life - especially business life - will get back to normal.

“There is no working post office, no working bank, which means no checks being delivered, no funds being transferred,” he tells us. Finley, a new PHCC-NA vice president, is working on getting his technicians their last paycheck, and making them eligible for unemployment insurance, even if that means firing them for a while.

With dislocation so widespread, rebuilding seemed months down the road. The daily business transactions we take for granted - stocking at supply houses, depositing money, paying bills - are all wiped out. It's a “stone age” time, Finley admits. The money is just not moving.

Before the levee broke Aug. 30, and after Katrina had moved on, one long-time technician contacted Finley saying he didn't think he'd make it in to work the following day because his house had taken on water. Finley finds that amusing now, looking back on the aftermath of it all. One thing's for sure, the work at hand and the work to be done is massive, and Finley hopes his company will be a part of it.

Supply Houses Affected, Too

Parks, Peyton & Sasser's supply warehouse is in north Louisiana (Hammond), so it was untouched by Katrina physically. But its working offices are along the now infamous I-10 corridor toward southern Louisiana, and phone lines weren't working as we went to press.

“We need every last order we can get to survive, and we can't get any kind of phone calls or faxes,” says Frank Parks, one of the principals of the manufacturers rep firm. “Missed phone calls are killing us.”

Parks describes the whole situation as frustrating. Any of the shipments already en route to Parks, Peyton & Sasser customers in the Gulf Coast are lost in limbo. For anybody in the rep business, says Parks, regardless of your industry, if your territory was Louisiana and Mississippi, you just lost 40 percent of your territory.

“People say, 'Oh, what a building boom you'll have.' Yeah, if we can only stay in business until that happens,” Parks offers.

Currently, no commission dollars are being earned from the New Orleans to Pascagoula corridor, says Parks. How could there be, he muses. Even if the supply houses were open, who are they selling to? What will come first: businesses so people can get paychecks, or houses so people can live and go to work?

The industry at large, and the entire country, are watching and waiting to see the outcome.

When it entered the Gulf of Mexico, Katrina grew to Category 5 strength by Aug. 28, 250 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River. Peak winds were recorded at 175 mph. Photo courtesy of NOAA/National Weather Service.

Katrina In Action

According to the National Weather Service's National Hurricane Center, Katrina will likely be recorded as the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States. The storm produced catastrophic damage and loss along the Mississippi and Gulf Coast. The extent of the devastation has yet to be measured.

On Aug.23, Katrina formed from a tropical wave and became a depression roughly 175 miles southeast of the Bahamas. The next day it was classified as a tropical storm moving northwest, ultimately turning west to South Florida.

Gaining strength, Katrina became a Category 1 Hurricane the evening of Aug. 25, hitting Miami-Dade/Broward County. It dumped more than a foot of rain and toppled trees and power lines. The Florida Keys also were affected.

When it entered the Gulf of Mexico, Katrina grew to Cat. 5 strength by Aug. 28, 250 miles south-southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River. Peak winds were recorded at 175 mph. Pressure fell to 902 MB, the fourth lowest recorded in history.

Turning to the northwest, then north, Katrina slammed into Plaquemines Parish, La., as a Cat. 4 with 140-mph winds. Continuing northward, Katrina, now a Cat. 3, made a second landfall Aug. 29 near the Mississippi/Louisiana border with 125-mph winds.

Technically still a hurricane but weakening, Katrina carried on inland 100 miles near Laurel, Miss. It downgraded to a tropical depression in Clarksville, Tenn., Aug. 30. Remnants of Katrina raced east-northeastward to New York at month's end.

The Industry Responds

More than seven plumbing industry associations and organizations convened in a teleconference Sept. 2 to discuss the impact Katrina will have on the industry, and to join in concert toward relief.

Key individuals participating in the conference included: Ike Casey and Mary Garvelink (PHCC-NA); G.P. “Russ” Chaney and Allen Inlow (IAPMO); Inge Calderon (ASA); Hans Tiedemann (MCA of Alberta); John Gentille (MCAA); Barb Higgens (PMI); and Shannon Corcoran (ASSE).

While most of the organizations pledged money to various relief efforts in the days following Katrina, the group discussed the possibility of a plumbing coalition to provide resources and revenue toward the rebuilding effort.

Gentile spoke about the requests he fielded from MCAA members wanting to help in a specific or individualized way, so progress can be seen. He mentioned that many members from the affected areas took company trucks home with them, which were subsequently lost in the storm, compounding an already devastating disaster from a business standpoint.

The group also convened as a way to prepare for any future disasters, so response from the industry can be unified.

The yet-to-be-named coalition will determine if there is existing infrastructure - possibly through FEMA - to act as a clearing house for rebuilding efforts, which could include materials, manpower and money.

Projects like Rebuilding Together, a national charity supported by the PHCC, offer individualized help to those in need. Other avenues and relief organizations will be contacted as well (including the World Health Organization, the Red Cross, The Army Corps of Engineers, and the Salvation Army) to determine the best course of action for the coalition.

The WHO reported to Chaney two paths to consider before relief can begin: 1) assessment of the situation at hand with specific attention to sanitation; and 2) preparedness to ramp up support and supplies to affected areas so rebuilding can begin as soon as possible.

As of this writing, assignments were handed out and fact-finding was to continue leading to a second conference call in late September.

Opening Their Hearts And Their Wallets

Plumbing & Mechanical's parent company, BNP Media, joined many other industry firms in donating funds and/or services to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts with its $25,000 pledge to the American Red Cross's International Response Fund. Organizations and manufacturers pledging support include:

  • Ferguson, Stock Building Supply and Wolsely Canada have offered a corporate donation of $200,000 to the Red Cross, as well as four tractor-trailer loads of emergency supplies, such as generators, extension cords, gas cans, batteries and flashlights, shovels, pumps, water hoses and electrolyte drinks.

  • Hughes Supply has pledged supplies and $25,000 to the Red Cross and Salvation Army, and is matching its employees' contributions to those organizations. The company also has pledged $21,500 to its Family Fund, created to assist fellow employees during urgent situations.

  • Quality Service Contractors is accepting donations for QSC Family members affected by Katrina. The funds collected will be distributed equally to the QSC-PHCC members affected to help with rebuilding their lives. It also is looking into mounting a future labor effort to send volunteer QSC members to the area.

  • The Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors-National Association set aside a fund to immediately provide $2,000 to any member in the hurricane damaged areas who requests assistance. PHCC also agreed to waive two years of national dues payments for those members. Contributions are being accepted for the fund. Call 800/533-7694, or e-mail In addition, a task force (including members from New Orleans) has been set up to determine ways to find jobs for those who cannot go back to work in the hurricane-stricken areas.

  • The Mechanical Contractors Association of America contributed $25,000 to the American Red Cross. MCAA also has established the MCAA Member Relief Fund, where financial assistance can be provided to members. MCAA donated $50,000 to the Relief Fund.

  • Peerless Pump Co. has promised some of its high-powered pumps and technical assistance to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the City of New Orleans as it relieves its flood waters. Indianapolis-area workers volunteered their time to assemble horizontal split case single-stage pumps capable of moving up to 25,000 gallons of water per minute. Peerless is also matching its employees contributions to the American Red Cross.

  • The American Society of Plumbing Engineers offered to become a clearing house for to help members affected by Katrina. Specifically, ASPE is looking for job openings to temporarily provide opportunities for the displaced plumbing engineering community.

  • The Canadian Institute of Plumbing & Heating has sent its contribution of $2,500 to the Canadian Red Cross.

  • The United Association reportedly offered its Gulf Coast training facilities as staging areas for relief supplies and temporary housing. The international plumbers and pipefitters union also extended the terms of its Gulf Coast Agreement to all hurricane emergency work throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

    Almost immediately, that agreement was deployed for high-skill HVAC and refrigeration repair work on Wal-Mart stores throughout the region. The UA's Gulf Coast agreement provides for flexible terms and contract administration, as well as portability of craft workers across the region, and will facilitate fast and flexible response to emergency conditions. The agreement is available to all UA-signatory mechanical contractors responding to the rebuilding emergency.

    We're sure there were many other PHC industry groups and individuals who responded magnanimously to this unprecedented disaster. These were merely those that came to our attention in the immediate aftermath.

    Free Advice ... With A Catch
    by Al Levi

    I have written my columns in PM magazine for more than three years; written “Hot Topics Cool Solutions” for Air Conditioning News online; I've offered free half-hour phone consultations to contractors like you, and I've been writing a free monthly e-newsletter to offer solid business advice.

    It was all designed for me to, in some small way, repay the kindness of the great people in the PHCE business who reached out a helping hand to me when I was a contractor. Just to name a few of these giving people, there is Dan Holohan, Ellen Rohr and Frank Blau, and many more who deserve mention.

    If you've found my advice has been of service to you, I have always asked you share it by reaching out a helping hand to other contractors who are still struggling.

    In the wake of the devastation to the Gulf Coast from the fury of Hurricane Katrina, I'm now asking you to reach out a helping hand to our fellow Americans in their time in need.

    Those of you who know me know that I have a more than a passing interest in the fate of New Orleans. Both my daughters had lived in New Orleans until late May this year. My youngest had graduated from Tulane in New Orleans, and only a few short months ago we celebrated a very warm and moving graduation ceremony in the New Orleans Superdome. From those beautiful moments and memories, we have all seen the faces of desperation and loss in those once beautiful places.

    So, what should we do? We should first recognize that we are one country and these are our fellow citizens. I learned firsthand how much this is truly the “United States” when I lived in New York full-time in the wake of 9/11. Although it was a devastating and desperate time, we New Yorkers were moved by the caring and the generosity of our fellow Americans.

    It was also a frightening time. I did not directly lose loved ones, but all of us who lived in the New York area knew of someone who perished or whose business and home were wiped out.

    I've been blessed because my oldest daughter, Pam, lost only her job in New Orleans and the brand new condominium that housed all she held dear. She's alive and heading home to us. She will rebuild her life and she'll find work shortly. Pam wants us to remember those who need our help.

    Do what you can - and then try to do even more. In the near future, I'll be asking you to help contractors directly in the Gulf Coast area.

    Small Businesses Fear Hurricanes Most

    In an industry primarily consisting of small businesses, a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina can be devastating, even after the flood waters are pumped out and rebuilding begins.

    The National Federation of Independent Business, the nation's largest small-business advocacy group, conducted a poll in late 2004 to determine what type of impact disasters, both natural and man-made, had on small-business owners (7.3 percent were in construction, 5.9 percent were in the wholesale trade).

    However, the random-sample survey on which the study is based was interrupted by the series of hurricanes that struck Florida late last summer, causing an under-representation of difficulties, especially severe difficulties, reported. The fact that many small firms hit by natural disasters do not recover also affected the results, as these firms were not included in the sample.

    Nevertheless, poll results show that, in the last three years, the loss of sales and customers was cited by nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of the respondents as the biggest problem brought on by natural disasters. While winter storms affect larger numbers of businesses overall, the study reports, hurricanes, tornadoes and typhoons are significantly more destructive in the damage caused.

    Given that the loss of sales and customers is so important, the amount of time a business remains incapacitated is vital, the report states. Nearly one-third (30 percent) of operating small businesses in the United States have been forced to shut down for 24 hours or longer due to a natural disaster.

    Extreme impacts, defined as those forcing a business to shut down for at least one week or causing $100,000 or more in damages, were highly concentrated in the study - only 2-3 percent reported experiencing such an event in the last three years. (Remember: This poll occurred right before the series of hurricanes in Florida last year, and the impact of Hurricane Katrina on small businesses in the Gulf is still unknown.)

    Fully operational different than partially operational, and poll results indicate that it takes 11 1/2 days to become fully operational after a disaster. However, only about 10 percent of respondents say it took them a week or more to become fully operational, while 74 percent were at full speed in 72 hours or less. But these numbers only reflect the experiences of those who survived the disaster; they do not reflect those that were destroyed or mortally wounded.

    Eighteen percent ranked expenses/damages not covered by their insurance policy as a major difficulty, although many believed their insurance coverage was adequate. The lack of insurance coverage was more often related to continuing operations than to property damage.

    Advance warning is crucial to the ability of a small business to minimize the damage of a natural disaster, the NFIB report notes, yet nearly half (44 percent) of respondents said they had no advance warning, and 5 percent reported receiving only one hour's notice before the blow.

    Two in five (38 percent) small-business owners have an emergency-preparedness plan on hand, almost all of whom confirmed communicating it to their employees.

    Water is pumped out to the Metairie Outfall Canal after repairs were made to the levee were completed Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2005 in Metairie near New Orleans. Photo credit: AP/Wide World Photos.

    River Of Life

    In terms of the U.S. economy, getting the Mississippi River operational - a lifeline of the United States - is essential to the country's vitality and economy, says The Ports of Indiana. It is a gateway for international trade, and a crucial part of the freight system of the Midwest. The New Orleans-Gulf Coast is home to six of the top 15 tonnage ports and handles more than 500 million tons of cargo a year - more than all the waterborne shipments of California, Florida, New York and Alaska combined.

    Mississippi River barge traffic took a major hit from Katrina. The port of New Orleans opens to a river system serving 33 states and connecting to six railroads. Initial reports estimated river traffic to be shut down for months in the vicinity of New Orleans, although evidence of American resiliency could be seen in the opening of limited barge shipping as of this writing on Sept. 13. That was also the day of the first commercial flight into Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport since Katrina struck on Aug. 29.

    Port companies, such as steel traders, had to divert shipments through the Lake Michigan port for inland distribution. Two Ohio River ports also considered using railways, alternative routes and expanded storage capacities. However, to replace one tugboat hauling 15 barges by land means, two-and-one-quarter 100-car unit trains on two-and-three-quarter miles of track, or 870 trucks stretching over 34 miles of highway would be needed.

    Increasing fuel costs makes waterborne transportation an important cost-saving mode for shippers.

    Katrina Impacts Construction
    Now & In The Future

    While the full extent of Katrina's wrath has yet to be determined, the number of homes and businesses lost to the hurricane surpasses any previous storm in U.S. history. (Destroyed houses by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 was estimated at more than 28,000. Last year's storms, Ivan, Frances and Charley, destroyed nearly 27,000, according to the Red Cross.)

    Most damage was caused by high winds and the storm surge. But the flooding that occurred in New Orleans, Mobile and elsewhere has made many more homes uninhabitable.

    “The repair process will absorb much of the construction labor near the affected area and several key materials that would otherwise have been used to build new homes,” reads a National Association of Home Builders economic report. And while prices may drop at first because many projects will initially have been cancelled, the rebuilding effort will increase demands, especially in lumber, cement, steel and plywood.

    “Although the loss of tens of thousands of homes implies increased demand for, and construction of, new homes,” the report concludes, “past experience has shown that there is no massive surge in home building in affected areas. Replacing units destroyed by the storm will not begin for many months and will take place slowly, over a number of years.”

    The Associated General Contractors reported that July 2005 construction activity showed widespread improvement (9.3 percent higher than January-July 2004), but Katrina's economical impact for the rest of the year and into 2006 will vary, according to Ken Simonson, chief economist of AGC.

    The growth figures, for instance, do not reflect “real” growth, he says, since they don't adjust for a large run-up in the cost of materials: cement, steel, copper, gypsum and petroleum-based inputs. Katrina, says Simonson, will push these costs much higher.

    Diesel fuel for equipment, trucks and deliveries plays a large part, as well as petroleum and natural gas for asphalt, plastic pipe and insulation manufacturing.

    “The disruption to ocean, barge and rail transport from Katrina will cut further into cement supplies,” the economist says. Also, urgent needs for rebuilding infrastructure - roads, bridges and buildings - will increase demand and diminish supply.

    At press time, AGC has urged the Commerce Department and the Southern Tier Cement Committee to allow Mexican cement into the Gulf states without the 55 percent duty now in place. AGC also has been working closely with the Army Corps of Engineers to provide equipment and expertise.

    Pumping Out New Orleans

    Edward Allis, an engineer with Peerless Pump Co. of Indianapolis, with 34-years experience in the pump industry, commented on some of the challenges of pumping flood waters out of New Orleans and surrounding areas hit by Hurricane Katrina. He is among the company's team of experts who have offered their help with pump technology.

    As of press time, he hasn't been sent to help directly, but his company has volunteered to provide a number of high-powered pumps to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the City of New Orleans and Jefferson Parrish. The company's main concern is to help the people in New Orleans get the water out of the city.

    Allis guesses there are 148 pump stations around the city. “Some of them were undoubtedly damaged - the motors, pumps and/or controls. The pumps in New Orleans are, for the most part, electric motor-driven pumps. So when the levee failed and everything flooded, because of the loss of electricity, nothing worked. These pumps were never intended to be able to pump out water from a broken levee.”

    The pumps needed in New Orleans are high capacity, low pressure pumps designed to get the water from the canals, pumping it across the levee, and out of the city (to Lake Ponchatrain or the Mississippi River).

    The control panels - basically the brains of the pumps - will have to be dried out, inspected and possibly repaired. If the motor has been submerged, that will definitely need to be inspected, maybe even replaced. Service engineers and quick-response centers from Peerless are being made available to do these inspections if asked, he adds.

    The pumps being offered to the Army Corps of Engineers are considered to be temporary. It's helping, but there's still a lot of water to be pumped.

    When asked about the challenges he sees, he hesitated. “I haven't been down there. None of our service people from Indianapolis are there. But the Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA are. And even though we have no one directly down there at this point in time, we're willing to do whatever we're asked to do,” says Allis.

    “The Army Corps of Engineers has a huge task on their hands. The important questions to ask right now are what's the most effective way to de-water New Orleans, and how do you sanitize it.”

    Peerless is able to provide low-volume, high-pressure pumps that might be helpful to the washing down of things regarding sanitation, but it might not be necessary without knowing how much bacteria there is/will be, he notes. Peerless Pump is concerned with helping with as much pumping capacity as possible, not just with New Orleans, but all the Gulf Coast.