Md. firm lends a hand in hurricane county

Polk County in central Florida has hired General Physics Corp. of Elkridge for about $2.5 million to manage the cleanup of the mess left by two hurricanes in three weeks.

September 10, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

A Maryland company that helps local governments prepare for terrorism is currently consumed with a much different problem: How to get rid of 25,000 truckloads of debris.

General Physics Corp. of Elkridge was hired by Polk County in central Florida to manage the logistics for cleaning up the aftermath of two hurricanes in three weeks. The county, which expects to pay between $2 million and $3 million for the company's services, last saw a major hurricane in 1960.

General Physics has 135 people in Florida - almost all of them temporary, local hires who were out of work from their regular jobs because of the storms.

The company is monitoring the trash removal, keeping track of everything the county needs to prove it qualifies for federal money, and managing a Web site to inform residents how the cleanup is going.

Most of its work is monitoring the cleanup. The federal government requires counties to check every load on every dump truck to ensure that contractors aren't cutting corners.

It's a break from the usual for General Physics, a large provider of training, engineering and technical services that has been busy making inroads in the homeland security market since Sept. 11, 2001.

This is the company's first hurricane job.

But a catastrophe is a catastrophe, as emergency management officials are fond of saying. The company found that software designed for post-terrorism hospital bed counts works just as well for tracking post-hurricane trash removal.

"This disaster relief effort was just a natural extension," said Craig Seger, General Physics' vice president of homeland security, environmental and technical services.

Officials at the company's Tampa office have hurricane-work experience from time spent in Florida, and some headed to Polk to volunteer as Charley bore down last month.

"When the emergency was over, they wouldn't let us leave," said Adam Montella, director of emergency management and homeland security for General Physics' southeast region, who lives just outside the county.

General Physics didn't have to bid on the work because it had pre-bid its prices for various services through a statewide contract purchasing system.

Emergency management firms typically work in preparation for a possible problem, but it's not unheard of for them to help after a crisis, said Steven C. Davis, principal of All Hands Consulting in Columbia, a consortium of more than 350 consultants. Davis rode out Hurricane Frances last weekend in Miami's emergency operations center, helping officials put into action the comprehensive plan he helped prepare for them last year in the event of a disaster.

Disaster areas have always drawn first responders and utility workers from a wide radius to pitch in.

But all the helpers are exhausted when a state gets walloped twice in quick succession - not to mention the possibility of three times.

Hurricane Ivan might arrive next week.

Polk had a large job on its hands just from Hurricane Charley. The mid-August storm and its tornado spawn cut a path of destruction that left pieces of trees, roofs and signs strewed across central Florida, including Polk, a county nearly twice the size of Rhode Island. The whipping winds ripped out trees and electrical lines.

More than 100,000 homes were powerless at one point.

Then Frances hit.

"That poor community had an X drawn on it," General Physics' Montella said.

Though Charley did more damage in Polk, the second storm's slow trip through the county flooded roads and homes, submerged fire hydrants and turned yards into lakes. The cleanup came to a screeching halt even as the cleaning-to-do list lengthened.

Polk wasn't the only Florida county struck twice, but most of the state avoided a direct hit by at least one of the two hurricanes.

Jim Freeman, Polk's deputy county manager, estimates that the two storms produced 1.1 million cubic yards of debris. It will take weeks to finish cleaning, and that's assuming Ivan - which yesterday evening was southeast of Jamaica with 150 mph winds - doesn't find Polk. Models of the storm have predicted it will.

Freeman said the overall restoration cost to the county government is about $32 million, without another hurricane. About two-thirds of that is for trash removal. Because the federal government reimburses a large part of that expense, the debris work must be monitored to guarantee that it's done properly.

"We're going to do this as quickly and as safely and as efficiently as possible so the community can get back on its feet and begin rebuilding," said Montella, a former disaster director for the American Red Cross in Florida.

Polk had never before been hit by two hurricanes in one year, Freeman said. If Ivan makes it three, he said, he knows who will handle the logistics.

"They're doing a pretty good job for us," he said of General Physics, "so I'm sure we'll engage them to continue if the unthinkable happens."

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