Mega Projects

After Irma

The storms of Florida and Texas have passed. Sort of. While the waters have receded and the winds are a memory, the residents and businesses of the area still have some cleaning up to do, and that clean-up may stretch for as long as a year.

Michael Matthews, PMP, is a Business Integration Champion with Caterpillar working in the heart of Houston. He says he and those around him are actually faring rather well, thanks to excellent preparation.

He says he was

right in the middle of Hurricane Harvey when it hit Houston. We knew the storm was coming so we definitely had food, water for everything, batteries and power pack. All I needed ready. Being an Eagle Scout it was natural. Preparations were successful.

As a result, he says, most of the effort to put things back together was focused on neighbours helping neighbours.“We had lots of drama here around assisting flood victims before and after the water receded. Water rescues of people and animals were common place. “It was amazing. Total strangers just jumping in to help and there was no one in charge. Everyone just knew what to do. In the days following I worked to gut houses and since I believe children need to be in school, I worked to gut a school.”

He says that a lot of the rebuilding is being mitigated through the kindness of others.“Many lost all they owned and the kindness of others is helping them get on with their life.”

He points out that part of the strain was the one-two punch of Harvey followed by Irma. “There was even more drama as Harvey was followed by Irma on the other side of the Gulf.”

Vashti Watson is a senior manager with a project management thought leadership organization, StrategyEx. She lives and works in Naples, Florida, and witnessed the centre of the eye of Hurricane Irma first-hand. She laughed about walking outside to look up at blue sky. Watson thought the storm was over, but her neighbours explained that only the first half had passed. Like Matthews, she feels her rebuilding efforts will be minimal because of all of the preparations she put in place.  “I ensured I knew the elevation of my home. I put all the supplies in the windowless room in the interior of the building. (Flashlights, transistor radio, cooler, animals, supplies, buckets and coolers and bathtubs of water). It was like Armageddon was coming in here. I was laughing”.

She stresses that the cost of preparation was directly proportional to the amount of time until landfall. “I paid $250 to have the shutters put up. Two days later, the neighbours had to pay $600 to have them put up. It was everyone who was rushing”.

She says the power restoration is the big concern. While well over 95% of Florida is expected to have power restored by the time this goes to press, the more remote areas, particularly in the Florida Keys, have no idea when the lights will be back on.

Just up the road from Watson, Wayne Brantley, PMP shares a similar story. Preparation is everything, and lessons learned from past storms saved the day. He stresses that he lives in a relatively new neighbourhood where all of the power lines are underground. That’s a requirement for new neighbourhoods after Hurricane Andrew blasted across Florida in 1992.

“We never lost power. I had a brand new generator in the box, ready to go.” Brantley, an Associate Vice President of Professional Education for Bisk, says if there’s one thing the storm did, it was to bring the community together.

“From a project management perspective, or an Agile perspective, we did a lot of ‘sprints’. Brantley says they travelling from house to house in their neighbourhood, doing what had to be done. “We were putting up shutters for the seven or eight homes that came with them.”

He points out, “It’s the law to provide them with new homes. They’re 5-6 foot tall galvanized steel. We got teams together in the neighbourhood. We had some elderly neighbours in particular who needed help, and with my own two-story house (and a recent knee replacement), it took the 30- and 40-year-old neighbours to climb the ladder to my second story.”

Brantley stresses that the effort was not one without injury. “We were bleeding and bruised getting ready for it. Neighbours were bleeding and kept on working. Not a lot of time to heal your wounds.”

Putting the Pieces Back Together and Looking Forward Back in Houston, Ellen Greenfield, a senior Autonation project manager says her personal damage was minimal, but on the project side, recovery will be more significant.

“A tree fell on my husband’s car. The actual trunk missed the car but the branches totally covered it. He parked it horizontally against the garage door to protect it from flying debris. Luckily there was no serious damage to his vehicle.”

But in her project world, the next steps are a bit more significant. “I am running a 12 million IT DR project for Autonation and the build out of the new facility started the week before the storm. It pushed my timeline out by about 9 days because I had to bring my teams back home early from Plano TX so that they could be there with their families. Now we are scrambling to make up for lost time.”

For her next project, she says she’ll push for management to avoid this type of work during hurricane season or at least build in some contingencies. Matthews says the days following the storm involved him towing a boat around the neighbourhood with a generator in the boat. He says that for a brief time, their business projects had to wait.

“With a majority of our team in Houston nearly the entire team was impacted and all the projects we were working on were delayed due to unexpected events.” He says that the event gave his employer a chance to show their civic commitment. “These events were definitely the unknown unknowns in the world of risk. It is wonderful our employer, Caterpillar fully supports us helping others and sent generators and 300K to the Red Cross.”

Matthews says it took about a week to get back to work, and that was when some of the criticisms to the response began. “There was a lot of criticism directed at officials for not evacuating the 6 million people in the Houston metro area. We were preparing for a severe tropical storm and not a hurricane.”

He says he’s moving forward with one valuable lesson learned. “When it comes to nature and projects, prepare for the worst always consider the unknown unknowns and stay ready.” Back in Florida, Brantley says the differences in outcome between Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Irma provide a sense of what’s going to be happening in the future.

When Andrew hit in 1992, roofs were torn off, houses were destroyed, and impact-resistant windows were a rarity. Fast forward 15 years. Roofing practices have since changed. Houses are built to a higher standard, including impact-resistant windows and shutters. But Brantley points out that the newer practices don’t help those living in older homes.

“Most of the damage was done to homes built to pre-Andrew standards” And he says that may not all be bad news. “Those destroyed will be built to the post-Andrew standards.” And it’s not just about the man-made structures, either. “For the major population areas, the older vegetation, the trees, this may be God’s way of clearing things out.”

Still, some solutions have to be worked out as Florida’s population booms. In 1992, when Andrew struck, there were just over 13-and-a-half-million residents of the Sunshine State. Today, that number is over 21-million. The evacuation is one of the key considerations moving forward. Brantley echoes Matthews comments in Houston about the need for officials to seriously review the evacuation plans. “As density goes up,” Brantley points out, “you have to have the ability to evacuate.”

He points out that the drive time from the Tampa Bay area to Atlanta, Georgia is normally a 6- to 7-hour trip. Friends who evacuated told him it took 15 hours to get to Atlanta during the height of the evacuation.

“How do we change the evacuation plan? There’s going to be a real good look at the lessons learned… and a lot of improvements.”

Perhaps the greatest improvements required will be for the Florida Keys. Rebuilding there will be far more extensive, as the damage was more akin to that of the rest of the Caribbean.

“They’re going to have to look at Highway 1. We have a problem there. One road in and one out. If any of it is damaged, there’s no way in to the Keys. It’s 70,000 people that are living out there…and then there are the tourists on top of that. There’s only one way in or out. Do they build another bridge just in case? If they ever lose that bridge, there’s a major problem.”

The Keys that were hit by Irma were not the same Keys that existed 15 years earlier. Monroe County had stepped up to the challenge over a decade ago by creating stricter building codes to prepare for Irma’s seven-foot storm surge.

Those codes require that homes be elevated above the flood plan to create room for the storm surge to pass underneath the living areas. Ground floors can only be used for storage and non-living purposes. So while the damage to the Keys was extensive. Many more homes survived than otherwise would have. And looking forward, hope springs eternal. Watson says the brightest side was neighbours helping neighbours.

“One of the nice things is the way the neighbours all come together. I’ve always known my neighbours, but they sent over their sons to check on me. People went out of their way to ensure that they were all OK.”

Brantley contends that the biggest element of the aftermath will be looking forward to the next storm. “Every time, we get better, we get smarter.”

Carl Pritchard
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