CASE STUDY: Flooding and Receeding Waters

Having spent 18 months in New Orleans and the surrounding areas providing complete technical recovery services for equipment and electronics we know first-hand the effects of hurricanes and the extensive flooding involved. Every vital service, utility, government and private business was affected. Before engaging in a purely business related matter, I want to take a moment to address the fact that I personally was emotionally moved and left affected by the flooding and devastation that sucker punched New Orleans. It was sad to see the devastation to property and even sadder to see the plight of the human condition this disaster caused. It uprooted families, caused civil unrest, numerous fatalities and criminal activity increased overnight. All that said, many local people and outsiders who helped were heroes. Locals showed both strength and courage by rebuilding their homes and businesses in an effort to bring families and patrons back to this great city in the south.

 After the storm surge, rain and high winds the levees were breached inundating the city with flood water and remaining in low lying areas for months while descending more rapidly from other higher elevation areas. The water created access issues and barriers which made for hazardous conditions; some becoming natural habitats for mice, rats, spider’s snakes and alligators. By the time the water drained, debris laden with silt remained leaving residual environmental waste, mold and numerous biological inhibitors.  Massive power outages and power restoration efforts were hampered due to extreme electrical power gear damage. Certain areas were so extensively damaged and remained under water so long that no recovery could occur- the end result was massive wholesale demolition of these areas. The well-publicized 9th Ward was such a place. The extensive conditions along with lack of community and utility services made the drying of homes and businesses impossible. The time line for restoration passed, however the remediation focus was on the businesses that could be physically accessed and those that had insurance coverage.

After the hurricane and the subsequent flooding in the city of New Orleans all utility and contractor resources were scarce and very hard to find. If during that time you were able to access your facility in spite of the flooding, have electrical power restored and then obtain the services of a vetted restoration contractor to help your recovery efforts you were in much better shape than most. Next in the process was gaining insurance consensus on the scope of work and final approvals necessary to proceeding with the work. All of these were hurdles to the recovery process. Those businesses that had pre-arranged disaster response services by agreements and had responsive insurance carriers experienced a much shorter recovery path than those having coverage questions, not able to find a contractor or gain access due to standing water. The “brick and mortar” structures affected by standing flood waters which were finally remediated required wholesale removal of all construction materials such as plaster, drywall, paneling and insulation down to the studs and raw structural members. Once these finishes, which are really skins or coverings, were finally removed then the dry out and decontamination processes could begin on the remaining structural members.

We were often called upon to travel by boat or helicopter to view various high priority businesses and governmental buildings but viewed these opportunities as a waste of time due to the standing water which would not allow for any mitigation or drying efforts to take place. The use of early inspection of these strategic locations was for survey purposes only and quite exasperating. Until the water actually receded homes and businesses that were inaccessible became hostage to the flood waters.

Other areas of the downtown portion of the city were immediately accessible. Quick access was available to the popular Garden District where they experienced periphery flooding and the more world renowned French Quarter were not directly affected with any water intrusion. The main dilemma for these areas that received little or no flooding was the loss of electrical power. The secondary damages affecting such areas were not in any way as devastating as the flooded areas but none the less created real human problem and business interruption issues for the area business owners.

One big concern adding to the already unhealthy infestation problem was food spoilage due to the lack of electrical power which resulted in entire freezer and refrigerator contents to rapidly decompose. The overpowering smell could be detected on the street and throughout adjoining structures.  Opening the buildings revealed the overwhelming smell of decomposing proteins and maggots which were everywhere. Kitchen equipment and food processing areas were covered with all types of pests including flies, ants, roaches and the evidence of mouse and rat feces was seen everywhere in restaurants. This problem affected nursing home facilities, schools, churches, hotels, hospitals, stores and all food related businesses. Even hotel mini bars, ice machines and electronics had similar issues to be resolved. The hotel and hospitality sector businesses were important to the tourist trade of New Orleans but for the short term they were a vital asset for government officials and private sector recovery workers to stay in while being a part of the recovery and the eventual return of the tourism business took the lead.  Officials realized that hotels needed to be remediated promptly; once owners and managers realized the secondary problems existed; they remediated them and promptly began the restoration of these affected facilities.

Because the utilities were interrupted for very long periods of time, again due to the massive destruction to the power grid and distribution systems, it took massive effort and time to restore. Power remained off for weeks or months even in areas that were not flooded.  Less offensive than rotten food problems and even more costly to restore were many secondary damages which continued to be exposed during our inspections.

Building owners and managers found that once power was restored a whole series of problems became evident. When equipment was energized such problems surfaced as motor failure and circuit breakers tripping. Much needed HVAC equipment, exhaust systems and refrigeration equipment would not readily work. These buildings had not been flooded or even had water through a missing roof. These problems were a result of inactivity and lack of climatic controls. Similar to what the medical world calls “atrophy” in the engineering world is referred to as mechanical degradation leading to eventual breakdown. Whether it is elegant degradation or graceful degradation both eventually lead to failure and eventual repair or replacement of electronics and equipment. Characteristic to machinery is the normal “wear & tear” issues, however periods of inactivity create additional maintenance issues. This is certainly true to this case in New Orleans and the Gulf region.  Extensive heat and humidity as well as various environmental inhibitors especially high moisture did its damage. Most industrial plants know this theory and when removing equipment from service to “mothball it” or take preservation measures to ensure equipment doesn’t suffer additional when taking it off line. When power is shut off without notice due to power interruption, or machinery is just shut off, the problems increase because no preventative measures were performed. It was just shut down and stopped.

Unbeknownst to building owners, professional business people and business operators the electrical and mechanical building systems had developed corrosion on motors, coils, contactors and electrical control devices from this atrophy condition of heat, humidity and inactivity. The buildings were not even wet yet. Domestic water pumps, fire pumps and chiller motor bearings seized due to rust and equipment failure. Operating parts and even the work surfaces of tool benches, work tables and machine covers rusted from high levels of moisture and lack of climate control. Elevators developed surface rust on the passenger cars and entry doors. Stainless steel which is normally resistant to most rust developed some surface oxidation requiring reversal or replacement. Equipment and machinery metal substrates tarnished, rusted and eventually pitted.       

Also affected was the healthcare sector including dentists, hospitals and clinics. Specialty medical and dental equipment was affected and had similar issues of inactivity, power failure, power surge and lack of climatic controls.  This resulted in surface corrosion, operation/control issues as well as re-certification and calibration prior to re-use. These devices cannot be reenergized and put in use. A complete regimen of calibration and testing is required. Because biomedical equipment is patient interactive, any malfunctions can have serious life, health and safety ramifications if not properly restored and tested to a very specific set of industry standards.

Another common problem discovered after the power was turned on was computers would not work. Electronics related equipment; IT systems and business machines had errors, glitches and were not working properly. They were affected by different variables such as not being shut down properly prior to a power loss, or being turned on when power is restored with a higher than normal inrush of power damages the devices besides the ultra-high moisture conditions. Forced shut downs of any equipment type especially devices with micro-chips or hard drives can result in locked up hard drives, crashes and possible data loss.

Computer numeric controlled equipment, servers and work stations as well as program logic controlled machines should be properly shut off to ensure against program and data loss. Turning off power to all devices before power is restored is a great way to increase sensitive electronics survival rates. The big hidden problem is high moisture- electronics OEM’s refer to this as being outside of normal operating parameters. In their owners manuals and the technical bulletins it is referred to as “condensing levels of moisture” as a problem that will negatively affect sensitive electronics. This means that electronics were not made to operate outside of certain temperature and humidity ranges- though the OEM will void warranties and/or condemn devices that have had sweating or dew point moisture levels. Still the other risk is ambient moisture remaining in electronics that is not treated and the power is restored resulting in potential future overheating and failure. Or even more immediate risks of fire and even electrocution. The private sector experienced equipment and machinery interruption from machine shops to law offices. 

Often ignored until mold was discovered were the overlooked volumes of books, magnetic media (data storage) and business papers affected by high moisture and lack of building controls. Truckloads of books and documents were processed from wet areas but also from places that lost power and HVAC controls. These buildings often smelled like old basements or musty crawl spaces- the documents and books in warm buildings being made of paper are so cellulosic in nature heat they provided great food sources and breeding grounds for mold. Often these musty and moldy contents posed a nuisance threat of future airborne hazards to schools and business offices and had to be treated. 

Still other areas that were ignored usually until it was too late such as wall hangings and other works of art were destroyed. Various type canvas oil paintings, drawings, sketches and other works on paper such as photos and prints were sagging, moldy, cockling and water spotted. Some were salvageable and most damaged beyond repair.  Some art was later discovered to be a source for mold and ongoing odor issues. 

Last but certainly not least affected were the building owners and business organizations that did not turn off the power and received surge damage when the power company resumed service. When power was turned back on it typically had a high inrush of current that is over voltage and amperage. Power surge is an enemy of motors as well as low voltage equipment such as TV’s and computers and can create extensive, immediate and fatal damage to electronics and equipment. Some power resumption resulted in transformer and distribution shorting ad even fires.

Experienced restoration contractors can survey potential hot spots, risks and identify potential problem areas. This can save money and time that the untrained and inexperienced contractor will ignore. Leaving areas untreated or ignoring the problems will only result in damages that will be discovered later on. All of these situations mentioned may be addressed by insurance coverage and are real recovery issues. They are important items to investigate and will potentially be part of the insurance claim. Overlooking them will only create a potential hazard down the road for a business owner. New Orleans experienced damage to what FEMA refers to as the 18 critical sectors- not one sector escaped damage or loss of some degree.

The recent floods along the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys will have similar issues in the coming weeks and months as the final water recedes and mitigation is under way. Let’s learn from the success of what to keep doing and do it. We performed work in the southern U.S. after Katrina exceeding $20 million helping our client’s recovery of valuable business assets. Unfortunately we wrote reports and viewed another $50 million plus of damage that could not be fixed due to lack of self-funding, non-insurance, coverage issues or just the plain lack of mitigation rendering the equipment un-restorable. Fast action to mitigate, control climatic conditions to de-water equipment and provide corrosion control inhibitors is key to salvaging high value equipment, machinery and electronics.

Another lesson learned is that a disaster may happen anywhere and at any time without much notice to prepare. Experiencing these other disasters gives us a baseline for being prepared in advance. This preparation is key to a successful recovery. Having a recovery team as your strategic partner is important to the shortest path and most cost effective approach to recovery. This allows for minimal business interruption and salvaging of customer good will. 

As premier technical recovery experts restoring electronics, equipment and machinery, ER LLC., Electro-Mechanical Recertifiers, LLC. stands ready to help. We are a specialty technical and engineering based firm involved in testing and validation, written work protocols, Megger testing services of electrical system wiring, control panel rebuilding and programming to network support. As power surge and condition reports, equipment consultants and equipment and machinery recovery experts we can help with your high value content assets. Call 877-378-4183 for immediate technical consultation or electronics restoration services, call us we can help. You may reach us at info@er-emergency.com anytime day or night.