By Irwin Rapoport, tED magazine staff writer
When Hurricane Harvey hit Greater Houston and the Texas coastline on August 26 and hovered over the city for several days, it left behind terrible damage and destruction – conservative estimates have 37,000 homes severely damaged and about 7,000 rendered uninhabitable and having to be replaced. Many businesses also were affected. The total storm damage is still being tallied.
The floodwaters closed many streets and inundated many neighborhoods, which blocked off large areas to receiving immediate help from professionals such as electricians, be they firms that specialized in residential or commercial service or a mix of both.
To better understand how firms handled the flooding and aftermath, and how their distributors helped them out, tED magazine spoke with two commercial electrical firms serving the Greater Houston Area. The storm affected everyone, but these firms also demonstrated the strengths of Houston and Texas residents to persevere and help with the rebuilding of the city, which may take several years.
"We have a few bigger jobs from the hurricane," says Justin Fox, the Service Manager of Coastline Electric Co., Inc., owned by James Porter. "Most of what we are dealing with now is with people who had a few feet of water in their buildings. Many are having to pull out sheetrock, so we're doing a lot of assessing on the boxes and devices attached to these walls below the two-foot mark, and we're changing a lot of these devices.
A control room, shown damaged after flooding, and brought back to fully operational.
"In some parts of the city we've come across main switchgear that was underwater for days," he added. "In those instances, we had to clean them and replace quite a few breakers. Fortunately many of our clients did not have severely damaged electrical systems. This varies from area to area. The Humble/Kingwood area, in particular, got quite a bit of water. The electrical systems were not affected as much as the just the devices. Panels are mounted somewhat higher, so it compensates for the flood water heights."
While most buildings in Houston do not have basements and are placed on slabs, one of Coastline's Houston clients – a major retail restaurant - did have some basement levels that took on 22 feet of water in the lower levels.
"We're having to replace multiple panels and transformers," said Fox. "They have a lot of carnival equipment and fish tanks, which meant that a lot of the electrical infrastructure and control systems were submerged. We're helping them get back on their feet as quickly as we can."
Russell Casteel, Master Electrician with Coastline Electric, works on a new control cabinet for a client.
Coastline has 21 electricians/technicians that serve their clients via 15 vans and one bucket truck. When the hurricane hit, Fox's crews were very limited in what they could do.
"We had guys on the road as early as Saturday (August 26) doing preparation work for generators," he said, "but then we had to pull everybody off the road. We ran a few calls on Sunday and switched into high gear on Monday. Immediately after the flooding, they worked very long days – 14 hours– for about two weeks. It was demanding work, doing immediate repairs and getting the recovery process going. Since then it's slowed down a little bit. We still have a few recovery projects going on. The guys are now working 12-hour days for the most part."
While it was hard to determine what to stock up on prior to the hurricane, as it has a variety of clients with many different types of systems, the company ensured that its service vans were well supplied. It has been renting generators and working with generators owned by clients. Having the material to connect the generators to the electrical systems is key.
"A lot of our vendors brought in a lot of different configuration generator caps and cord caps," said Fox, "so that people could hook up supplemental power sources."
Coastline purchases equipment from Anixter Inc., Elliott Electric Supply, Wildcat Electric Supply Ltd., and First Source Electrical.
"The efforts of everybody has been great," said Fox. "Some our own peoples' homes were affected by the floods and the same goes for the vendors. The roads were highly affected initially and many still are. Supplies were hard to get to Houston, but our suppliers have done an excellent job of having what we need to stay operating and continue the recovery efforts.
"Before the storm," he added, "our vendors sent out emails letting everyone know they had generators on the way and different configurations for cord caps. As a precaution, they asked 'is there anything that we should be preparing for?' It's hard to be 100-percent prepared, but the best that you could ask for is that the materials be available to us if we need them. We haven't come across anything in the recovery process that we haven't been able to locate in Houston."
Fox praised the efforts of Industrial Equipment Recovery (IER) in Humble, Texas (a Houston suburb) that helped to rapidly replace a 1600 amp best weatherhead for a Food Town grocery store, which blew up following the storm.
"We completed that project in the first week and it was an urgent repair," said Fox. "IER had to build a new one for us – a pretty extensive job, and with the circumstances and everything, they did it in 1.5 days. I got the specifications over to them on late Wednesday and they had it for us on Friday morning. They really prioritized this job for us and it's not that we were more important or anything like that, but the store was trying to open to assist in the recovery. We could not have asked for better. Over the years they've come through in the crunch for us. IES does its own manufacturing in-house, and it's nice to be able to call them to say 'this is what I need and how fast can you have it.'"
As mentioned, Coastline crews are now in the assessment phase.
"A lot of the recovery phase process is going to be based on how the owner of the building foresees their future," said Fox. "We have a client, a restaurant in Humble, that took on a lot of water and their thought process is 'let's gut the entire building just because it's time to remodel – now's a better time than any.' Many are considering a new facelift and remodel rather than fixing what needs to be fixed and then coming back in a year or so and doing the remodel."
A major priority for clients is to have their systems checked to ensure they are operating properly and are not compromised, and to have temporary power. Regardless of the storm's impact, Fox sees the trend to replace old lighting systems with LED to continue for the next 10 years.
"What it comes down to is customers getting LED packages from vendors and distributors that make contact with them and say 'we can provide this lighting for an entire chain of restaurants,'" he said, "and we will ultimately be the installing contractor."
Coastline's distributors have lighting design teams that have designed systems for end-users.
CF McDonald Electric Inc. crews have been very busy since Harvey struck Houston, noted Landon Blair, the company's Project Manager/Estimator.
"A lot of us couldn't get out when Harvey hit," he said. "Our boss, Harry Keller, was able to get out and spent the night working on repairs at an AT&T facility. The rest of us were able to join him a few days later and give him a hand."
CF McDonald has about 100 electricians/technicians, each with their own trucks and about 20 staff at the office. Its clients range from small to large businesses.
"AT&T is one our bigger clients and they had a basement facility – a lot of their equipment went underwater and we had to get them back up and running," said Blair. "We've dealt with some of their temporary power issues and we have to go back later when the new equipment comes in."
The firm's suppliers are coming through for them.
"For the first couple of days they had some transportation issues – they couldn't get to job sites," said Blair, "but other than that, they went opened up and had supplies for us."
CF McDonald purchases from Gexpro Electric, Wholesale Electric Co. of Houston, Inc., Graybar, and Elliott Electric Supply.
Like Coastline, CF McDonald was in a situation where it could not determine everything it would require for the immediate aftermath.
"We made sure that all our trucks were full and hoped for the best," said Blair. "At first we worked around the clock, and have since backed off to work normal hours. Before the storm hit, our distributors emailed us to say 'if there is anything you need, give us a call,' and they had people at outlets overnight to give us what we needed. Gexpro was one of the big distributors that went out of their way to make sure that our needs were met. They had the wire that we needed and the correct size. They made a difference."
CF McDonald crews are also doing assessments and making sure that clients' premises are safe. Blair anticipates a busy 12 months of repair work, including office buildings, which will require a large amount of parts and materials such as switchgear, and basic staples. Lessons learned from prior hurricanes include stocking up on certain basics such as switchgears and breakers.