By Irwin Rapoport, tED magazine staff writer
Within hours after the city of Houston and much of coastline Texas experienced severe damage from Hurricane Harvey, which struck the region on August 26 as a Category 5 storm, the repair work and recovery process began. It's expected to take many years, and will require input from electrical contractors and support from electrical distributors to make sure the necessary parts and materials are available.
Graybar, having dealt with the immediate aftermath of the storm, is preparing for the rebuild process. The hurricane severely damaged more than 37,000 homes and essentially destroyed 7,000, and figures are still being tabulated on the impact for businesses and industry. The total damage could far exceed the current estimate, as parts of Texas are still flooded.
Between Beaumont and Corpus Christi, Graybar has six outlets and one distribution center, which employ over 200 people. The company has thousands of customers in the Greater Houston Area and thousands more along the coastal areas impacted by Hurricane Harvey.
Like other companies, Graybar did all it could to ensure that its employees and their families were safe and prepared as best as possible for Harvey.
"Unfortunately we had about 13 Graybar families that were severely impacted by the storm," said Greg Hochheiser, Graybar's Dallas District Vice President, "and we wanted, first and foremost, to take care of their needs, which were our first priority. Our office in Deer Park, which is primarily a sales office, was severely impacted and we have moved 17 employees off-site to a temporary location for the next couple of months."
"Once employee safety and security was taken care of," he added, "we have shifted to helping communities recover and rebuild. We have positioned a significant amount of inventory within all the key locations locally plus our two primary hubs, one in Houston and another in Dallas. We have a significant amount of critical products – including Square D and other power-related items – that are needed first to get temporary power back and do immediate repairs."
None of Graybar's inventory was damaged by the flooding.
Assisting Hochheiser in these efforts is Mark Mason, the Director of Electrical Sales for Graybar's Dallas District.
"We've also focused, with Mark's team, on maximizing the efforts of our technical staff in assessing and evaluating the properties of our contractors' clients," said Hochheiser. "This free evaluation provides customers precise recommendations on what materials are needed for replacement to original specifications or upgraded to meet new code requirements.
"We are also working with key manufacturers to dramatically reduce lead times, especially for engineered and custom products," he added. "This is very important because typically to bring commercial, industrial, and some residential properties back up, there can be long lead times for some products. We have worked with key manufacturers to reduce lead times significantly. For example, on average, electrical switchgear may have a 10 to 14 week lead-time and we've worked with suppliers to bring the product to us in two weeks. That's a huge benefit during this time of recovery."
In order to provide the best possible service, Graybar has been collaborating with contractors to see what products they need, and the company has been utilizing historical data from previous events such as Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy.
"This started on day one," said Hochheiser. "Once we confirmed the safety and security of our staff, we set-up an emergency after-hours system and we're basically operating 24/7 in each of our locations in the greater Houston area. We also moved about 10 trained internal staff members to help with calls and we have a commitment from Corporate for up to an additional 20 more Graybar employees that will help with customers in the affected areas." Hochheiser stressed that Graybar constantly hones its emergency preparation and responses.
"From my perspective," he said, "The key is to be readily available, have product when and where our customers need it, and be consistent in pricing – right now is not the time to be unreasonably pricing product."
"We reached out to our contractors early on in the process," said Mason, "and asked them to help us find appropriate stocking levels to take on the rebuilding process. We're putting large residential, commercial and industrial packages in place. We'll need to have a diversified inventory to meet the various needs for all vertical markets."
For temporary power restoration, Graybar has a large stock of portable cord, generator and cord caps, equipment cleaner, line devices, breakers, and switchgear. For the rebuild, it anticipates major calls for transformers, switchboards, panel boards, and exterior lighting.
"The amount of damage is almost hard to fathom, so this is an all-hands-on-deck situation," said Mason. "That's why it's important to have our technical people in place to work with our contractors to identify their needs to get ahead of the curve. This is why we're being proactive to meet customer needs at all of our locations."
Hochheiser noted that logistics also must be considered as getting around Houston and affected areas during the flooding was difficult at best and many areas are still severely impacted.
"You can still see this on the news," he said. "Beaumont was completely flooded and many of the major roadways were impacted. Houston is a very densely populated city and it's still hard for contractors to reach some customers. This is one reason why we're sending our technical people to visit our contractors' clients to help with assessments.
"We're doing the same thing for our delivery service and daily stock and flow," he added. "Our fleet is entirely company owned and operated. We have eleven delivery vehicles dedicated to just the greater Houston area in addition to our existing partnerships with local logistics companies to provide both dedicated customer delivery service and overnight cross dock service to all of our locations impacted by Hurricane Harvey. This is being augmented by a sizeable increase in our local stock in both our Stafford National Zone and Houston branch locations."
In the weeks after the flooding, Houston authorities ordered an evacuation of homes that were deemed uninhabitable, and many people are still living in hotels or staying with family. Thus, in many cases, affected homes have not been assessed.
"Every hotel I've been to is either full of hurricane victims or FEMA or insurance personnel who are assessing the damage," said Mason. "We still have roads that are out, which has some of our employees in some cases taking two plus hours to get to and from work, so you can imagine what the traffic patterns are like during the middle of the day. Logistical capabilities to get projects underway are challenging."
Hochheiser anticipates that many systems will have to be replaced.
"On the commercial side," he said, "we've been involved with many commercial facilities and retail commercial centers. In most of these environments, the electrical hardware is at the lowest level of the building. They were impacted immediately by water and many were destroyed. The owners will have to replace their systems and in some scenarios, replacements are required to meet new codes. This can be a very complicated, cumbersome process."
Graybar customers have expressed their appreciation for the company's efforts as assessments and environmental testing continues.
"We've gotten an overwhelming response," said Hochheiser. "We had employees, during the flooding, using their personal boats to help not only their neighbors and people in the community, but also driving our customers out to their flooded jobsites. We utilized our trucks for emergency water and food deliveries. In Beaumont, we opened our facility in the middle of the height of the flooding to provide critical items, including fuses to a local CBS affiliate so that they could stay on on-air and update the community about the storm. We utilized our assets in many areas for the good of the community and our customers. That speaks to type of company we are."
The next few weeks will provide a better idea in terms of the damage inflicted upon electrical systems.
"People are starting to get over the shock of the storm and are now in the 'what are we going to do about it' stage,'" said Hochheiser. "This will be a multi-year recovery and rebuild."
In addition to securing the help of manufacturers, Graybar is leveraging its nation-wide network to secure necessary materials.
"One of the great advantages of working with Graybar is that we are like a local company in that we are invested in the local communities in which we do business," said Hochheiser. "But we have the strength, reach, and heft of the nationwide, Fortune 500 company that we are. The ability to pull support from across the country certainly gives us an advantage in a situation like this."