URS Helping Rebuild Gulf

October 7, 2005
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NEW ORLEANS — For the straight third week, URS Construction Administrator Dan Van Dyke will rise at 5 a.m. for a 90-minute drive across Louisiana, to the recently reopened URS office in Metairie, just outside of New Orleans.

Under contract with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Van Dyke will start the day with dozens of right-of-entry forms from displaced New Orleans homeowners, and begin working his way through 20 to 40 roof inspections a day.

He checks for holes in the roof, shingles torn asunder, and determines if a temporary cover or other repairs are needed. He sketches a diagram, writes up an estimate and moves on to the next house.

Then, somewhere between 6 and 6:30 p.m., Van Dyke and the rest of the URS detail pack up for the 90-minute drive back to Baton Rouge. Over the next month, the weary volunteers will inspect 28,000 homes, working 12-hour days, seven days a week.

"I thought it was a great opportunity to help out," said Van Dyke, who normally calls Grand Rapids home.

FEMA is one of publicly traded URS Corp.'s largest federal contracts. In recent years, URS has dispatched workers to the 2001 terrorist attacks on the WorldTradeCenter, and to Florida following last year's devastating hurricane season.

The FEMA contract is managed through the Gaithersburg, Md., office, which has a contingent dedicated to emergency response. Those resources are limited, however, and when a large-scale disaster strikes, a call for help is sent throughout the entire company.

Last winter, the Grand Rapids office cycled a dozen employees through Florida. Over the next six months, the response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita will require 1,000 URS employees.

"It's a tall order for any company," said Mitchell Watt, vice president and managing principal of the Grand Rapids office. "Everyone is working on things, and our first priority is still to make sure our clients' needs here are met."

Simultaneously working to transition 480 GulfCoast employees, URS put together its response team over the course of one day. With three hours' notice, Van Dyke was on his way to Baton Rouge for a 30-day tour starting Sept. 19. A second Grand Rapids volunteer was dispatched to the Carolinas last week.

"This particular arrangement has been interesting," Watt said. "Just finding housing for our staff and getting them to work has been a challenge."

FEMA provides a significant per-diem allowance, Watt said, but there are no operating hotels within three hours of New Orleans. When Van Dyke first arrived in Baton Rouge, he was sleeping on the office floor. He is now lodged in a guest room at a private residence.

"It was a real eye-opening experience, much more challenging than Florida," Watt said. "We're asking our staff to go down there and work 10-hour days, seven days a week, and we couldn't even get them showers."

To make matters worse, the staff was evacuated during Hurricane Rita.

For all the challenges of the initial response, Watt believes it will pale compared to the long-term efforts facing URS and other providers involved in rebuilding efforts.

Following the initial structural evaluations currently under way, URS will aid a deeper examination of the true cost to rebuild the region.

"It'll be probably a 10-year process," Watt said. "It's a matter of, 'How do you avoid this happening in the future?'"

As the region rebuilds during what appears to be an ongoing cycle of high-wind hurricanes, the architectural design community will face the challenge of how to build structures and cities resilient to that abuse.

As one of the company's three largest design houses, the Grand Rapids office should see significant growth through the rebuilding efforts. In addition to FEMA, URS has already been contracted by a bank client of the Cleveland office for assessment work, and is in conversation with other clients. Most of the contracts will be massive, Watt said, as the entire utility and transportation infrastructure of many communities will need to be completely rebuilt.

"More than likely it will be a huge windfall for the entire company and a nice windfall for Grand Rapids," Watt said. "A large number of projects on both the private and public side."

Because the rebuilding will likely be phased over a decade, Watt is unsure — but nonetheless hopeful — that the growth will translate into hiring in the local market.    

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