Former FEMA executives create Washington firm to respond to nature’s disasters

After 35 years of surveying the aftermath of floods, hurricanes and tornadoes, FEMA executive-turned-disaster-response consultant Ken Burris has learned a thing or two.

One of them is not to store expensive items at flood level.

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“Hospitals tend to put their most expensive equipment, imaging equipment, in the basement,” said Burris, whose D.C.-based consultancy has represented dozens of hospitals struggling to recover from the likes of Hurricane Katrina and Sandy. “Those sub-basement floors flood quickly. The largest loss in the hospital industry happens to be that type of equipment. It gets into hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Burris teamed with former Federal Emergency Management Agency director James Lee Witt to create a private crisis management and disaster-response firm that helps communities and companies recover from nature’s hazards. In December, Witt Associates merged with O’Brien’s Response Management, a Louisiana-based crisis and emergency management firm that was a unit of Seacor Holdings, to form Witt O’Brien’s.

The merger brought together two $30 million-a-year companies that played in the same arena but for different teams: Witt had 110 employees and a niche representing state and local governments in disaster-response and recovery services, while O’Brien’s 130-employee operation represented companies in the oil and gas industries in cleanup and other response efforts, including BP after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The combined corporation is headquartered in the District, but its largest office is in Houston.

It also has offices in New Jersey, Washington state, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Florida, Brazil and the United Kingdom — chosen specifically because they’re either prone to typhoons, hurricanes and earthquakes, or for their proximity to the oil and gas industries.

Witt O’Brien’s has a 12-month contract with New Jersey in Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts, and is working with Joplin, Mo., to rebuild after the 2011 tornado. The company’s services include advising school systems on the rules for seeking federal money to reconstruct buildings, which can be a complicated process, Burris said.

Although natural disasters devastate neighborhoods and businesses caught off-guard by a major storm or flood, the business of responding to them can be surprisingly predictable.

“I believe crises have a life cycle that is only influenced by the magnitude and duration of the event,” Burris said. “There’s a response phase, protecting life and property. Then a recovery phase where you deal with impacted populace and provide them with housing and stipends because they’re displaced. Then an economic redevelopment phase. It’s all influenced by magnitude and duration, but it’s very predictable.”

The job of a private consultant, he said, is to help clients — governments and businesses — to understand and prepare for those stages.

“You’re focused on this particular response activity today, but three weeks from now, two months from now, you’re going to have these problems,” he said. “We help them focus further down the crisis time continuum, so they’re not being caught by surprise by these things.”

 
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