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Copper & Brass
Monday | 23 March, 2009 | 8:25 am

Disaster recovery

By Lauren Duensing

March 2009 - Last fall, amid unrelenting news coverage of the rapidly eroding U.S. economy and the upcoming presidential election, 2008’s most costly hurricane hit the Texas and Louisiana coastline. Despite being a large and fierce storm--approximately 425 miles wide, with 110-mile-per-hour winds and 14-foot tides--nationwide coverage of Hurricane Ike was largely limited to a brief spike in gasoline prices.

But those predicted to be in the vicinity of the storm had been watching it for weeks, including residents of Galveston, Texas, who are no strangers to turbulent weather. In 1900, the area was hit by a destructive hurricane, known now to locals as The Great Storm, which killed upward of 6,000 people, and even post-Hurricane Katrina, it holds the title of the deadliest natural disaster to hit the United States.

Located in Galveston, Farmer’s Copper Ltd. was situated right in the hurricane’s path. The company began monitoring a tropical storm coming into the Gulf on Sept. 1. By Sept. 3, the storm was named Ike, and it was predicted to hit south of Galveston, where Farmer’s would have been out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, Ike’s trajectory changed, and the company began putting its emergency plan into place Sept. 10.

"We prepared as we normally do for a hurricane: We fueled up our trucks, moved material off the bottom racks, covered desks and equipment, and set up pumps and generators," says Bob Farmer, co-president. "We’re in a low-lying area, and we’ve had water in the building before." In 1961, Farmer’s Marine Copper Works, the company’s fabrication division, was hit by Hurricane Carla, a Category 5 storm that came into Galveston with 88-mile-per-hour winds. Although Ike was officially classified as a Category 2 hurricane when it hit Galveston, according to The Weather Channel, "The enormous size of Ike’s hurricane winds and its gigantic area of tropical storm winds brought huge waves and very high surges, both more representative of an average Category 4 or 5 hurricane."

"On Sept. 11, we shut down all operations, got the last order out and hoped our 79-year-old building could withstand another storm," Bob Farmer says. Most of the employees evacuated Galveston Island for safer parts of the state. "We traded cell phone numbers with all our employees so, after the storm, we could get back into contact on when to report to work and to check everyone’s safety."

Returning to the city
The following Sunday, Sept. 14, the Farmers planned to return to the city to assess the damage and guard against looters. They packed food, water, AR-15s and pistols and talked their way through three roadblocks before they were given clearance to proceed.

"We drove in on the north outbound lane of the causeway because so much debris had been tossed into the inbound lanes," Bob Farmer says. "Driving down the harbor side to 37th Street, we were in 2 feet of seawater that hadn’t receded. We pulled up to the building and found the front office door broken wide open from the power of the 12.2-foot surge that had hit our area."

At first sight, that amount of water was a shock to the crew. "Water had come in, leaving a thick green mess of mud all over the material, the machinery and the downstairs offices," Bob Farmer says. "We had 8 feet of water in the building." In addition, Farmer’s Marine Copper Works was flooded, and about 100,000-plus square feet of machines and fabricating equipment was lost.

"Imagine your entire inventory submerged in muddy seawater and being faced with the uncertainty of what is left," says Keith Farmer, vice president.

Fifteen roll-up warehouse doors had collapsed or were torn off because of the water pressure. "The first day we got back here, our main mission was just to be able to secure the building," says Gregory Harrington, vice president of operations. "On this building, we had about four or five doors that had to be boarded back up. Our front door was broken. We had to cut plywood and screw the door shut to secure the building. It was the same at the other building. We had to get out sheets of tin and drape it across the garage door areas that were all blown in."

Cleanup begins
After the the building had been secured, the company started moving the debris to assess the extent of the damage. Harrington, notes that the work was reminiscent of a Chevy truck commercial, pulling mud, gunk and equipment out of the building.

The Galveston location is the headquarters of Farmer’s operations, and as a result, the San Antonio branch office was without the home-base computer systems it needed to operate normally. "We had all of our incoming calls forwarded from Galveston to San Antonio and had a big crew of Galveston employees stay in San Antonio for six weeks, fielding sales calls and filling orders," Bob Farmer notes.

"In Galveston, we began the huge task of cleaning up 150,000 square feet in two buildings," he continues. "The storm knocked out 20 pieces of processing machinery and 10 forklifts. We got pumps started on Monday, and we pumped the water out. By Tuesday, we were able to walk around in boots on the warehouse floor."

Each morning at 6:30, the company rounded up available warehouse personnel and headed out to drive 15 miles, which took two hours in traffic, to get to the island. It was a slow process. "We could only work until 4 or 5 [p.m.] because of the curfew the city was under," Bob Farmer says. "Cleanup and restoration went on for weeks. We waited a week before water service was restored and we could wash down the mud that had been left all over the material. Of the 20 machines, about eight survived and were repairable.

"We ordered new machines, rented forklifts and backhoes, and operated as best we could," he says. "Armies of utility trucks restored power, and we were lucky to get partial power back about two weeks after the event."

Three days after the storm, though, the company was moving material and filling orders. "We started pulling orders by hand, slipping and sliding in the mud, to send to San Antonio for customers," Bob Farmer says. During this time, there were 800 orders done the old-fashioned way--by hand--that had to be entered after the computer went live again.

"Loss of inventory was huge, especially sheet, plate and buss bars that sat in boxes for weeks as we worked through inventory, trying to salvage it," Bob Farmer says. "We scrapped tons of metal and reordered with our mills. Inventory levels are now in good shape for our customers’ each and every need."

Dedicated employees
All of Farmer’s employees also had their own problems to worry about. Homes, vehicles and property were all damaged. "Seventy-five percent of the 55,000-plus residents and the 2,500 businesses [in Galveston] were flooded," says Bob Farmer. "Employees lost their homes and cars."

"We have several employees that are in temporary housing," Harrington says. "It’s going to be a long time before a lot of people can return to their real homes."

Despite these troubles, the company’s employees dedicated themselves to the cleanup. "Employees put aside their personal problems of storm-damaged homes to help keep the company running," Bob Farmer says.

Four months isn’t a long time, especially when recovering from a natural disaster. Galveston and its residents still have a massive amount of rebuilding ahead. "The city is in horrible condition," says Harrington. "The storm drains are still clogged, revenue is down, and the city just mandated a 3 percent [pay] cut for all its employees. It’s going to be a long recovery."

But perseverance and dedication have paid off at Farmer’s Copper. Today, of course, the power’s on and the company is moving material. "We’re at 90 percent," Bob Farmer says. "We still have office space that needs to be repaired, and we’re repairing the 20,000 square feet of ruined roof."

"We considered ourselves up and running in about four weeks, and it took another four weeks to feel more normal," Bob Farmer notes. "It was mid-January 2009 before the final piece of plate processing equipment came in, and that made us completely up and running."

A large part of the company’s rebound can be attributed to its industrial background, history and willingness to get the job done. "You can plan a lot of it, but the first thing that happens to your plan when you get hit is you throw it out and start innovating," says Dick Farmer, co-president.

For more than 80 years, tropical storms and hurricanes have been a permanent reminder that Farmer’s was taking a risk being located near the Port of Galveston where it started.

"Our customers were understanding and patient as we struggled those first weeks," Bob Farmer adds. "We want to say thank you to all those suppliers and customers for their support. And special thanks to Great Western Metals, our sister company in Houston, who assisted us with temporary office space and use of their equipment. In addition, the immense effort and dedication of our employees to rebound from this event will never be forgotten." MM

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