The electrical industry in Houston is still reeling from the impact of the record-breaking floods brought by Hurricane Harvey two weeks ago. Since that time every resource has been devoted to making sure associates, customers and neighbors were out of harm’s way and beginning the process of assessing damage and starting the restoration.
“The recovery is clearly just beginning, and it’s going to be a really, really long recovery,” said Jeff Metzler, CEO of Lonestar Electric Supply. “At first it was all about getting people safe, and now it’s getting them relief and getting them back in business. We have truckloads and truckloads of stuff coming in.”
Some major thoroughfares on the east side of the Houston metropolitan area are still under many feet of water at press time, but Houston-area electrical manufacturers, reps, distributors and their customers are now fully engaged in getting needed products into the hands of customers. The road to recovery is expected to be a very long slog.
“I was to the east of Houston in Beaumont yesterday and their rivers and bayous aren’t set up for this,” Greg Russell, VP of rep firm Burrus & Matthews, said Thursday. “The industrial and petrochemical plants in that area sustained more damage. Exxon, Valero and Motiva are all still down and the water’s still not gone there. We were there expediting CRC shipments from Philadelphia. Wholesale Electric has 36 people working there and a third of those people are displaced. We went over and cooked steaks for them and helped out however we could.”
Such stories of electrical industry people helping each other out, of competitors calling to check on each other, of flotillas of fishing boats and long lines of people volunteering to help with rescues and remediation are a highlight everyone pointed to as a source of hope as the area rebuilds.
The eye of the storm came ashore Aug. 25 at Rockport, TX, as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of 130 mph. The real damage came after, as Harvey weakened to a tropical storm but lingered in the area, dropping torrential rain for four days. By official measures Harvey set a new record for rainfall totals with 51.88 inches, the most ever seen in the continental United States from a single storm. Unofficial totals ranged even higher. John Peterson, Houston-based executive VP of Global Sales for Emerson Industrial Automation, said they measured 56 inches in his zip code, though his home didn’t sustain any damage.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm the first priority was to contact every employee to make sure they were safe, and to help them find shelter if they needed it, Peterson said. Emerson organized and mobilized teams of employees to help employees who were affected with remediation — ripping out drywall, pulling up carpet, hauling out furniture and removing the moisture before everything molds. The company shipped in safety equipment and truckloads of its Rigid wet/dry vacuums.
“We all know many people who have been impacted, so rather than assuming responsibility for just our people and facilities, we’re making sure to get supplies like respirators, masks and gloves available to all our employees even if they were not impacted so they can help others. We don’t want them going in and breathing mold and toxic fumes,” Peterson said.
Some electrical businesses were spared any damage and were able to get back to work right away, but business was quiet the first few days as moving about the city was hazardous or impossible with many major thoroughfares under 10 feet of water. By Labor Day weekend, a week after the storm, electrical companies in Houston were working around the clock, contacting customers and suppliers and arranging shipments of product into the area.
“We had four days of sleepless nights while it rained, then once the rain stopped and we started digging out; since then we’ve been asking people to step up and work long hours. It’s been very demanding,” Tom Hardey of rep agency Enhanced Electrical Sales said. “Labor Day weekend was a blur; we worked all through it. So now we’re making sure our people are okay, not getting burned out, because we’re asking a lot of them.”
By late this week Houston’s highways were again full of traffic and most of the city was back in business, which has meant a deluge of work for the electrical people. Truckloads of transformers, wire and cable, water displacement chemicals, temporary lighting, portable cord and other supplies normally needed to recover from a flood are flowing into the area. There are reports of distributors bringing in all kinds of unusual supplies such as washers and dryers to help out their customers.
The most widespread damage was residential, with estimates ranging as high as 200,000 homes with significant water damage. Keith Hessemer, president of Wildcat Electrical Supply, said several of the large office buildings downtown were closed while pump trucks and remediation crews work.
Among the area’s many refineries and petrochemical plants the initial assessments of damage and plans for the best ways to get the plants back to safe operations are ongoing, Emerson’s Peterson said. “It’s actually a national security issue, to get gas to the rest of the country, get the refineries back up,” he said. “But safety is at the top of the priority list. They may be postponing some longer-term remediation to be addressed in turnarounds and shutdowns down the road.”
One major problem now across the flood damaged area is the freight backlog, said Russell of Burrus & Matthews. Several key freight warehouses flooded and orders for products already in the warehouses are taking seven to 10 days to get delivered, he said. Products usually available in three days are now shipping in 21 days.
Hessemer of Wildcat Electrical Supply said he’s seen PVC pipe pricing increase 25% in a week, which his supplier told him was due to a major PVC resin producer in Lake Charles having shut down.
As Houston’s electrical industry struggles to get everyone back on their feet, they also are keeping a close eye on Hurricane Irma, expected to hit Florida as a Category 4 or 5 hurricane this weekend. When that happens Houston’s electrical supply chain expects to find it even harder to get what it needs.
“CRC said get your orders in now because we’re already seeing big orders from Florida in preparation for Hurricane Irma,” Russell said.