The Quick Response to Hurricane Katrina
Jane Conkin is the owner of Quick Buildings, LLC in Mobile, Alabama. Quick Buildings specializes in custom modular buildings: banks, commercial offices, industrial buildings, scale houses, medical buildings, day cares, schools, retail, and many more. In this article, Jane details her company's efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Quick Buildings Modular is based in Mobile, Alabama, and its owner, Jane Conkin, is familiar with the havoc hurricanes can wreak. “When there’s a disaster, people often need to rent a temporary building,” Conkin says. The company now sells only custom modular buildings, such as classrooms, medical clinics, even a museum — but at the time Hurricane Katrina hit in the summer of 2005, the company had a rental fleet of modular buildings.
With top wind speeds greater than 170 miles (275 kilometers) per hour, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath caused more than 1,800 deaths. It was also the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, causing nearly $106 billion of damage. The hurricane knocked out the power at Conkin’s home and business for two or three weeks. It was hot, but there was no air conditioning. At home, she had a temporary generator that at least kept the refrigerator running.
This office building was leased to Quick Buildings by Vanguard Modular after Katrina. It was a temporary building used by the Housing Board in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Working From Home
“So I grabbed all the phones from all the buildings we had available, the MBI directory, and books of inventory that companies had sent me and took them all home,” Conkin recalls. “When people called me looking for a building, I was able to either supply one myself or call other dealers and ask them if they could ship a building to them.”
Her first call was from Blossman Gas in North Carolina — via a Nextel radio. “They’d lost their building and they needed to get tanks of fuel from their facility in Waveland, Mississippi out to people who needed them for cooking.” So Conkin made arrangements for a replacement building to be delivered and installed in Waveland so the company could begin operating again. Because the highways were so badly damaged from the storm, “it took my husband and brother nine hours to drive from Mobile, Alabama to Waveland, Mississippi with one of our buildings. It usually takes an hour and a half.”
Because so many roads were very badly damaged, before each building was transported, Conkin says, “I had to call state troopers to make sure it was even possible to drive a particular route.”
The entire Mississippi Coast had flooded after Katrina and the dentists were in desperate need to lease a temporary clinic. This building was manufactured by AAA, leased to Quick Buildings by Roger Suggs, who was with Building Systems Services at the time.
The Katrina Aftermath
Conkin says that the six months after Hurricane Katrina were very busy. “I talked with many modular companies all over the country to get buildings shipped down to the Gulf Coast so businesses could get their people back to work.”
In addition, she also leased buildings to FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency]. In an emergency situation, some of the rules may be temporarily waived, which makes it easier to supply buildings. Conkin explains: “Ordinarily, when a modular building is built in the factory, there’s a label put on it that says it meets the building codes in that state. So, if a building is built in Alabama and it’s going to be located in Alabama, then all it needs is an Alabama label. But if it’s going to be rented in Louisiana, for example, it’ll need a Louisiana label. When the President declares a federal disaster, we can take a building with a North Carolina label on it and bring it to Alabama. That made things a lot easier than they otherwise would have been. Afterwards, the building has to go back to North Carolina.”
Conkin says the biggest challenge during the Katrina disaster was finding enough people at short notice who could install the buildings. “Even though it’s a rush to get a building up in a disaster, you’ve got to install them properly, otherwise you’re taking a terrible risk,” Conkin says.
“We have some equipment that’s ready to be used as clinics or other light medical facilities. In other cases, it just takes a minor retrofit to provide the solution,” Haynes says.
Black Diamond has contractual relationships with general contractors who service the US Veterans’ Integrated Services Networks. When the older hospitals or palliative care facilities in their networks are being refurbished, Black Diamond provides the organization with temporary facilities they can operate from until the work is completed. “Because of that, we have medical assets in our system relocatable all over the United States. So, when a tornado destroyed a medical facility in Mississippi in 2014, we were able to redeploy one of those buildings to temporarily replace that facility.”
Bank Buildings: Responding to Disasters of All Kinds
Even though the company owns about 14,000 buildings, they generally don’t keep any of them in reserve in anticipation of disasters that may or may not ever happen. In the long term, an average of between 75% and 85% of that total are deployed at a given time, with the remainder being stored in the company’s yards. “But, because we have a number of branches and holding yards in our system, and because of the way our business operates, we tend to have assets available nearby when an event occurs. That’s one of the benefits of being a larger company.” The speed of their response to emergencies relies on good inventory tracking and knowing where every asset is so it can be mobilized at a moment’s notice. It does not rely on keeping buildings in reserve.
There is one exception, though. There’s a specific type of building that Black Diamond does keep in reserve, through their MPA Systems subsidiary: bank buildings. These modules meet very strict and specific requirements for the banking industry, including being impervious to break-ins, bulletproof glass, cash safes, and so on. And it’s not uncommon for these bank buildings to be deployed.
“Banks in the United States are legally required to be up and running within 72 hours after a disaster,” Haynes explains. “So we have contracts with our banking customers to provide them with special modular bank buildings so they can be operational within that 72-hour window.” In addition to the customers that have contracts with Black Diamond, other banks also approach them in the aftermath of a disaster, urgently looking for a temporary replacement bank building.
“Recently, we deployed bank buildings in the New Orleans area due to Hurricane Ida. In addition to hurricanes, we’ve also responded to tornadoes, floods, and fires,” Haynes says. Sometimes a disaster is widespread and sometimes it’s an isolated event that affects only one branch. But an isolated event is nevertheless a disaster for that bank that now can’t operate from that branch. “While their permanent building is being repaired, we can set up a temporary bank in their parking lot, and quickly have them operating again.”
Tapping into a Network for Disaster Response
Conkin says that it was crucial to her disaster response that she had a network of relationships with other modular building companies. She was able to tap into that network in order to get buildings shipped from all over the United States to the Gulf Coast where they were needed. “It was the network of relationships I had that enabled me to help out in the way that I did after Katrina.”
She says that, these days, such a response would be more difficult. “Modular companies have been consolidating, so there are fewer companies than there used to be. And because the companies are so big, it’s hard to have the relationships with people that I used to have.”
In the absence of these relationships, Conkin suggests a different way the industry could be better prepared to respond to a disaster in the future. “It would be great if MBI could maintain a directory of available inventory. So if there’s a disaster anywhere in the country — it could be a tornado in Kansas or a fire in California or a hurricane in Florida — we could know where there are available units that could be delivered. And it would be great if there was a network of people who could work on getting those buildings delivered when a disaster strikes.”
These days, Conkin herself is better prepared if disaster strikes again. “Because of hurricanes, I now have a whole house generator.”