Hurricane Watch: Engineers Help Clients Before and After the Storm

Before this current hurricane season in Florida, the last time a single U.S. state was hit by four back-to-back tropical storms was Texas in 1886. The hurricanes that have devastated parts of Florida and ravaged large sections of the Gulf Coast this year have been a constant in the news during August and September.

By Maggie Koerth, Contributing Writer October 1, 2004

Before this current hurricane season in Florida, the last time a single U.S. state was hit by four back-to-back tropical storms was Texas in 1886. The hurricanes that have devastated parts of Florida and ravaged large sections of the Gulf Coast this year have been a constant in the news during August and September.

But the mainstream press doesn’t generally cover one big part of the story: the vital role that M/E engineers can play, both in preparing for these storms and dealing with the aftermath. For engineering firms, this means not only safeguarding their own facilities and operations, but also those of their clients.

I asked several engineers—some of them with lifelong experience with hurricanes—about their work during this year’s tropical storm season.

“I’m one of the original Floridians,” says Robert Rickets, P.E., principal and senior electrical engineer with TLC Engineering for Architecture’s Tallahassee office. “Very few people can say they were born and raised here. My earliest memory of a hurricane is probably from Hurricane Dora in 1964. I was really young and it was a rough one—quite an experience for a little kid.”

But many engineers are more typical of today’s Floridians—out-of state immigrants, most relatively new to tropical storms. Mike Head, P.E., associate senior structural engineer with TLC’s Fort Myers office, just moved to Florida from Atlanta in July of last year. “After the first one came through, people were saying, ‘I bet you wish you’d never left Georgia,'” he says.

James Wamsley, P.E., associate senior mechanical engineer in the TLC Cocoa Beach office, explains that he, too, is an outsider who had to be intiated to hurricanes Florida-style. “I came here from North Carolina, where the worst that ever happened was that I missed a day of work,” he laughs.

This, of course, raises a significant point: In order for engineers to serve their clients in an emergency, they must keep their own operations up and running.

Battening down the hatches

So how do engineering firms prepare their own offices for a hurricane? Being in a hurricane-prone area and acutely aware of the kind of damage these storms do to building systems, they must have a plan.

“Our company has a policy, but the weird thing about Fort Myers is that the last time we had a hurricane was, I think, in 1965,” says Head. “Fort Myers is actually known for not having hurricanes.”

In fact, says Head, this is why the inventor Thomas Edison had his summer home there. He chose Fort Myers because it had the tallest trees. And it’s the reason that people weren’t quite prepared when Hurricane Charley made a beeline for the city this summer.

“So even though we have a plan, we really aren’t used to using it,” explains Head. “Our main protocol was just to protect the computer equipment.”

Wamsley confirms this point about TLC’s policy. “Protecting the computers is actually the main thrust. We actually had to move the Cocoa Beach offices into the Orlando offices for a while,” he says.

Wamsley describes how they loaded up their server, took it to Orlando and packed their entire division into an unused conference room.

“Everybody had their computers and it was like a boiler room in there,” he says. “But we managed to maintain a 75% to 80% level of production, which was very surprising and very good.”

But even more important than concern for equipment is the welfare of anxious employees.

“We have a lot of employees who get nervous and want to leave a lot earlier than they need to and a lot earlier than we, as a small firm, can afford to have them leave,” says Bill Gieseler, P.E., vice president of marketing for W.H. Linder & Assocs., Metairie, La. “Once the storm comes, you just get out of the way. And that’s actually where our biggest pre-hurricane problems lie. We try to encourage employees to wait until the authorities recommend leaving town, but, as you can imagine, it’s a really touchy subject.”

According to Wamsley, it can be a challenge to keep people focused in these situations. “They’re concerned about their own homes and they get busy with that. So, we have phone trees. It’s kind of indirect, but it keeps everyone in contact,” he says.

But, in fact, engineering firms do manage to keep their computers running and people on the job, all with the intent of helping their clients.

Helping others

As much as consulting engineers work to prepare clients for intense storms—specifying emergency backup and designing hurricane-resistant systems—the consensus appears to be that only so much can be done about it. “There’s no real protocol for that,” says Wamsley. “They’ll call if they need something, but the real problem comes after the storm.”

But even though, at times, it may feel as if emergency preparedness is futile, it is still an essential engineering effort—especially for crucial life-support facilities such as hospitals and emergency centers.

Take the case of Maitland-based GRG Consulting Engineers, another Florida engineering firm that is used to being on the hurricane watch. One of GRG’s primary areas of specialization is health care, and the firm assisted more than 20 such facilities across Florida with preparations this season—always assuming the worst.

“Fortunately, most of these facilities were spared the brunt of the hurricanes,” says Joy Ashlock, GRG director of marketing. “However, GRG assisted with having arrangements in place to help with emergency needs had these facilities experienced significant damage.”

Most notably, temporary generators were shipped to these facilities, and tanker trucks with potable water were in place. In fact, most of GRG’s clients lost power at various times during the succession of storms. Many of these facilities also experienced some minor water intrusion due to heavy rain, and some minor roof damage associated with these storms.

Other facilities were not as lucky. “Two facilities that felt the full impact of Hurricanes Charley and Ivan were Charlotte Regional Medical Center in Punta Gorda and Santa Rosa Medical Center in Milton,” says Ashlock.

Serving as the owners’ representative, GRG assisted in evaluating the damage, designing solutions and physically assisting the facilities with these solutions. For example, at Charlotte, engineers arrived on site to find utility power lost and emergency generators damaged; 20 rooftop exhaust fans missing; inoperable chillers due to low system pressure; and loss of potable water.

On the electrical side, GRG secured and connected a 1,250-kW rental generator. They also acted as the facilty’s liaison with the utility.

GRG engineers began to specify electrical and mechanical requirements for a new permanent emergency generator and assisted with its installation. Work on the mechanical side was even more extensive. GRG surveyed damage to rooftop units and specified new equipment for immediate shipment. Moreover, they designed new mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire-protection systems requirements for water-damaged areas that were demolished, as well as for new spaces that had to be constructed.

And, considering the unrelenting nature of this year’s hurricanes, all of this transpired with remarkable speed.

In the aftermath

Each time, once the hurricane had passed, it was then time for engineering firms to mobilize and assess client needs. “Basically, we just wanted to get communication lines open and resume some normalcy,” says TLC’s Rickets. “For our clients, we were mostly helping agencies that had offices around the state to make sure they could get in contact between areas.”

The job for engineers at W.H. Linder in Louisiana had its own special challenges. Some of the firm’s main clients are from the petrochemical industry—with facilities both baseonshore and off.

“The traffic coming back into New Orleans was horrendous—half a million people on the road at the same time,” says Gieseler. “But we wanted to get back to business.”

He explains that while their onshore clients were mostly fine, the offshore oil rigs had suffered a lot of structural damage, losing components such as stairways and walkways. On some, whole decks failed, and Linder engineers spent a lot of time surveying to figure out which ones were safe and what needed replacing.

But they did have plenty of onshore work, as well. “We had to assess a lot of buildings for our clients, including many of the local schools,” says Gieseler. “The results were heartening for me, as a structural engineer because, for the most part, the newer buildings held together.”

Lessons learned

Hurricanes have their unique characteristics, and there are lessons to be learned from every storm.

“I think over the years we’ve refined our procedures and we’ve learned how to work with our clients—and with one another—in a way that’s pretty efficient,” says Gieseler. “The way we deal with hurricanes has really changed for the better in the last 20 years; it’s a matter of learning what works and what doesn’t.”

Wamsley reports that one thing they learned is the importance of a good IT staff.

“We’re so dependent on computers that the only way to maintain production is to have them up and running,” he says. “Thankfully, our staff have been real troopers.”

The multiple storms have been hard on everyone, and the shared hardship causes people to pull together in the wake of these storms—not just within these engineering offices but entire neighborhoods and communities.

“You can’t really buy or cook food at home right now,” says Wamsley. “My neighborhood got together and threw a big barbecue. We all brought stuff and grilled it up in someone’s backyard. It was kind of like summer camp.”

He suggests that people have more confidence now—and a better sense of what to do and when to do it.

An Engineer Gives Her Support Back to the Community

As president of a successful woman- and minority-owned engineering consulting firm, Haila Hudson, P.E., has always believed in combining success in business with helping others. The volunteer efforts of Milestones Engineering P.C., based in Morris Plains, N.J., are constantly reaffirming Hudson’s fundamental belief that “giving makes one feel good.”

“I recently had the opportunity to volunteer my time and expertise to two worthwhile New Jersey organizations,” says Hudson. “Having had the opportunity to work on other volunteer projects, I knew that the time, work and energy that would be asked of me, and those I enlisted to assist me, would not be easy.”

Hudson has employed her own skills and experience in electrical work—as well as those of her staff—to assist in volunteer projects through organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Rebuilding Together Organization and Bonim-Builders for Bergen.

Volunteer projects often translate into having to take time off from work, spending time and money purchasing needed items and after-hours time spent completing the tasks. Most people find it difficult to reach beyond already stretched schedules, explains Hudson.

But Hudson has found that her attempts to enlist other colleagues in volunteer work generally meet with enthusiasm.

“Years ago, I was one of the first licensed female electricians in the state,” says Hudson. “My colleagues at that time helped me realize my professional goals, and I have ever since felt the need to pay it forward. Now, as a professional engineer, I continue to rely on their kindness.”

“Being able to assist a neighbor and improve one’s own community is a good reason for people to come together and realize a common goal,” says Hudson.