Hurricane Katrina Creates Big Job for Small GR Firm

October 29, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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GRAND RAPIDS — Two years after Hurricane Katrina almost washed away U.S. Highway 90 on the MississippiGulfCoast, the expertise and technological investments of a small Grand Rapids company have landed it its biggest job ever: a supporting role in a $48 million project to rebuild part of the battered highway.

Five employees from Diamond Concrete Sawing at

855 Godfrey Ave. SW
will start work Nov. 5 on a $1.2 million subcontract to cut off 30 miles of curbs on U.S. 90 between Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss. The Grand Rapidians, with their specialized equipment, will be there for four to six months.

Diamond president Aaron Louisell said two factors — its employees and the company’s highly advanced machines — have made it one of the top concrete sawing contractors in the U.S., out of as many as 2,000 or more such firms in the United States. Before the U.S. 90 job, the largest projects Diamond had were in the $200,000 range.

Some of Diamond's 27 employees have been with the company for 20 years or more, and about half of them have at least 10 years experience. In addition to the high skill level of its cutting machine operators, all of them also undergo regular safety training certified by OSHA, which Louisell said is not true of all concrete cutters.

"Every operator we have has a 10-hour OSHA card," said Louisell.

The reconstruction of U.S. 90 is being funded by the federal government, which means OSHA safety standards will be rigorously enforced.

Concrete cutting can be extremely dangerous. An operator cutting through a concrete floor or pavement with the diamond-tipped saws might accidentally hit unknown gas lines or electric cables under the concrete, resulting in injury or death by electrocution, or from a gas explosion or fire. There is also the danger of falling debris when cutting concrete.

Diamond has some of the most sophisticated concrete cutting equipment available, which enables it to cut through concrete or brick walls and thick concrete slabs. The workers can bore out cores up to 54 inches in diameter through solid concrete up to 66 feet deep. They actually have done the equivalent, cutting down through limestone in a Grand Rapids gypsum mine.

If a landscaping company has a large boulder it wants cut in half — no problem. Diamond often cuts off flush with the floor the huge blocks of concrete that heavy factory presses are mounted on, after the presses have been removed.

Louisell said Diamond is known in the industry because of some of its sophisticated equipment, such as wire saws, a Brokk robot and ground-penetrating radar. Concrete-cutting wire saws, which use wire 11 millimeters thick, can literally cut a large building in half. Diamond used one of its wire saws a few years ago to cut up the concrete reactor dome at the decommissioned Big Rock nuclear power plant in Charlevoix. More recently, the company was hired by Duke Energy Carolinas to cut huge rectangular holes in 9-foot-thick concrete at the McGuire Nuclear Station. First the workers bored holes and then threaded the wire saw through them. Then they sliced through the solid concrete in between with the wire saws, "like a cheese saw," said Louisell.

The Brokk robot, made in Sweden, can be operated by remote control so that the operator remains safely outside of an unstable, confined or otherwise hazardous environment. The Brokk is small enough to pass through interior doors and navigate stairs. Its claw can be fitted with a crusher with 36 tons of pressure or with a breaker tool. Recently it was used to demolish five floors of concrete balconies on a BorgessHospital building in Kalamazoo. The trick was getting at the balconies, which were inside a fully enclosed courtyard. The Brokk was able to get inside the building at the entrance and travel through it to the other side, where it tore down the balconies from inside the building.

Diamond also has ground-penetrating radar, "which separates us from the majority of concrete cutters around the nation," Louisell said.

One of Diamond's employees hit an unmapped gas line while cutting concrete in 2002 and was seriously burned (now fully recovered). The radar can help prevent that from happening again, because it can "see" through concrete 18 inches thick or dirt up to 12 feet deep. It can also map what it sees below the surface in a 3-D image, said Louisell.

Diamond Concrete Sawing is a family-owned business started in Grand Rapids in 1974 by Ron Van Zee, who now works as vice president of business development and co-leads the company with Louisell, who is related by marriage.

Van Zee used to work for a concrete-cutting company based in Denver, which eventually sold its West Michigan business to him. Diamond typically subcontracts with construction firms and has worked with many of the largest ones in West Michigan, on projects ranging from water treatment plants to the fish ladder on the Grand River

Diamond also has a satellite office in Kalamazoo

The reconstruction of U.S. 90 in Mississippi is getting a great deal of attention. The overall cost of rebuilding 26 miles of it on the GulfCoast will be approximately $92.5 million. The area was known for its floating casinos, which were destroyed by Katrina. Now many casinos have been rebuilt or are in progress of being rebuilt — but this time on land, only yards away from U.S. 90, in many cases. Casino companies have reportedly spent $1.7 billion rebuilding, and the casinos currently employ 17,000 people.    

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