As is the case with all national disasters, immediately following Hurricane Ike’s devastation of the United States Gulf Coast last September, much of the equipment used by emergency crews, including utilities, immediately following the storm was rented.
With several small coastal communities engulfed by water and wind, much of the Texas and Louisiana coastal areas were without power and communications for an extended period of time. Early reports recorded 68 deaths with more than 200 people still missing, and preliminary damage estimates ranged as high as $27 billion and are certain to rise as clean up, repairs and rebuilding continues in the coming months.
With much of the equipment owned by area utilities and contractors, rented equipment became a key element in responding quickly to the emergency. Because the inventory of most area rental centers was damaged or out of service, rented equipment was brought in from other parts of the country.
Although every disaster is different, all have common problems, and United Rentals, the world’s largest equipment rental company, has emergency protocols in place for all types of national disasters.
“Our hurricane disaster protocol spells out a systematic approach for the days leading up to a storm, during the storm and in the aftermath,” says Michael Kneeland, United Rentals chief executive officer. “The protocol is essentially a framework that guides our emergency response team. Each disaster brings different challenges, but the end goals are the same.”
The company’s first priority in disasters, Kneeland continues, always is the safety of its employees and their families. The protocol covers issues such as payroll, temporary housing, water, food, fuel and insurance, as well as damage containment relating to company facilities and fleets.
“Our employees in the affected areas are able to contact our Customer Care Center to report on their situations and request whatever help they need,” he continues. “In the 48 hours after Ike hit, when communications on the ground in Texas were disrupted, the center played a key role in ascertaining that our employees were safe and accounted for.
“We also have a Disaster Recovery Vehicle equipped with satellite communications and computers. The DRV enables a branch to continue operations even if the branch has lost power and phones. It can even be used to cook meals if needed. That’s exactly what happened at our trench safety branch in the Houston area, after Ike moved through.”
Once safety of employees is confirmed, attention immediately turns to providing equipment and operational support to communities hardest hit by the disaster. However, to be able to accomplish that requires preparation, and one advantage to responding to a hurricane is that forecasters are able to predict with reasonable accuracy when and where the storm will make landfall.
“Our corporate fleet manager and regional fleet managers started staging fleets almost a week before Ike arrived, says Kneeland. “By the time the hurricane hit, our Austin command center had a detailed list of available equipment that could be brought in from branches outside the area without materially affecting those markets. The list was very fluid, as more information became available about the extent of the damage and recovery.
“We have strong relationships with our customers in the Gulf region. They knew that equipment would be hard to get once the storm hit, so a lot of them put equipment on rent several days in advance. Once it was safe for us to resume operations, we were able to meet the needs of our customers as well as provide support to government agencies, the utilities and the state of Texas.”
Chain of command
Logistics of marshaling and transporting equipment to affect areas is complex.
As mentioned earlier, a command center in Austin, with a point person at the company’s Connecticut headquarters and a corresponding point person in the field. All requests for equipment went to the command center, either via corporate channels or through the multi lingual Customer Care Center in Tampa. All phone calls to the affected branches were rerouted to Tampa, which operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“The equipment specialists in Tampa used information technology that can check availability throughout our branch network and reserve equipment at the branch nearest to the customer,” Kneeland adds. “It was very methodical and organized, despite the havoc created by the storm.”
Because United Rentals has been a first responder in many situations such as Hurricane Ike, company management understands the types of equipment that will be needed.
“First requests are usually for light towers, generators and material handling equipment,” Kneeland says. “We had an immediate call for generators ranging from 3.6 kW to 100 kW, and even larger – those machines were supplied by our Pump & Power branches.
“The second wave of requests is generally for equipment to move debris and reclaim damaged areas: backhoes, excavators with thumbs, boom lifts, loaders with grapple buckets, water trucks and all types of forklifts. We also stage smaller equipment such as chain saws, brush chippers, pallet jacks and pumps.”
In the first weeks after Ike’s landfall, United Rentals shipped more than 70 truckloads of equipment to the hardest hit parts of the Gulf Coast. More equipment has arrived since then.
“In fact, we have a continuous sourcing process going on to support our customers,” Kneeland continues. “United Rentals has a preferred arrangement with a national trucking company, so we can move equipment quickly seven days a week. If we have equipment orders in the pipeline with suppliers, we’ll often work with them to get the fulfillment expedited. We also stage contractor supplies in our warehouses, and put those vendors on alert.”
Employees from adjacent districts can deliver equipment to the disaster area as soon as it is safe to be on the roads.
“Occasionally, in extreme situations, we have had employees from branches in other parts of the country drive truckloads of equipment to the disaster area,” Kneeland continues. “The driver and truck may stay on for a while at the destination to help out. That happened after Katrina.”
Much of the rental equipment sent to the Gulf likely will remain in use there for a while.
How long is hard to predict, says Kneeland.
“Every storm is different,” he says. “Demand for generators obviously starts to tail off after power and basic services are restored; the same is true of light towers, although to a lesser degree. Equipment used in clearing up debris and reconstruction could be needed for anywhere from a few weeks to a few months or even longer. It’s common to see a shift toward longer term rentals within the affected areas, but the disaster itself has no impact on our rate structure or account arrangements.”
Kneeland says the size of United Rentals enables the company to respond to emergency needs following disasters of any intensity.
“We have the ability,” he explains “to pull a lot of resources together very quickly. Not just drivers, equipment and supplies, but also service techs for site calls, a 24 hour call center, even the number of delivery vehicles we’re able to put on the road – it adds up to a multitude of resources that can be deployed from over 650 locations.”
Kneeland praised United Rentals personnel who responded to Hurricane Ike not long after the company’s assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Gustav in Florida.
“Our employees come together time and again to support each other, our customers, and the communities where we operate,” says Kneeland. “We put a massive organization behind these efforts, but our employees are the ones who put feet on the ground where our help is needed.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
United Rentals, (203) 622-3131, www.unitedrentals.com