Dale Lehman had been glued to the television days before cameras captured the first scenes of New Orleans residents wading through waist-high sludge, and the wreckage left behind by Hurricane Katrina's 130-mph winds.
As URS Corp.'s national coordinator for disaster contracts with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Lehman began monitoring the storm when it was still brewing in the Atlantic, and knew that as its intensity ticked up from Category 1 to 3 to 4 to 5, his company's response was likely to become more intense, too.
By Wednesday, Lehman, who works out of URS's office in Gaithersburg, had assembled about 900 engineers and home inspectors who will converge on a region devastated by Katrina and the flooding that followed. By Friday, most were in Houston and Mobile, Ala., waiting for conditions to improve.
San Francisco-based URS is managing the effort with Dewberry LLC, a planning and engineering firm based in Fairfax County. The companies will blanket New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region with technicians to help FEMA take stock of what is broken, and plan how to fix it.
"It is very difficult to get to the damaged houses," said Larry Olinger, a Dewberry executive vice president. "We will provide as many inspectors as FEMA needs."
Washington area companies have been involved in various parts of the response to Hurricane Katrina so far and are likely to have larger roles in recovery and reconstruction efforts in the months and years ahead.
First-responder federal agencies including FEMA and the Environmental Protection Agency have contracted with the private sector for a variety of disaster-related services. Local engineering firms have teams of engineers and home inspectors ready to deploy for assessment and evaluation, consulting firms have developed software systems to better coordinate response efforts and subcontractors have been called up to supply manpower for the recovery and rebuilding effort.
While the immediate focus in the Gulf Coast states is on rescue and restoration of public safety, companies here have been mobilizing workers for the daunting work ahead. Considering the destruction of infrastructure in such a wide area, just getting disaster workers to the affected areas is a challenge.
Colin Vissering, a vice president with Greenbelt engineering firm Greenhorne & O'Mara Inc., which is working with a team from URS and Dewberry to find temporary housing sites for people displaced by the storm, said they have been considering using recreational vehicles to give engineers the ability to reach the devastated locations, and a place to sleep when they get there.
Local companies with disaster-response contracts mostly are waiting for instructions from federal agencies, although some have deployed workers already. URS and Dewberry had to wait until an emergency was declared and FEMA gave the green light to begin assembling personnel. By the middle of last week, the team was set and an operations center in Winchester was preparing laptop computers and other equipment to send into the field.
URS and Dewberry have two major tasks to complete: assessing damage to public infrastructure, and inspecting private homes and buildings. Some URS and Dewberry engineers will travel with FEMA employees to inspect public facilities such as highways, schools, and hospitals. The team will also be responsible for drafting repair plans and estimating their cost.
Another crew will be dispersed throughout the Gulf Coast region to visit individual homes to assess which might be eligible for federal assistance. The work is likely to take years. Some of URS's 25,000 employees are still working on assessments of homes in Florida damaged last year by Hurricane Ivan.
Despite the challenges, local companies said employees and contractors have been eager to get to work.
"I probably have 20 people at some level ready to go," Vissering said. Greenhorne & O'Mara employees will also be trying to determine why some buildings survived the hurricane and why others didn't and what can be learned from that, he said.
"People are dropping what they have on their plate to become available for this," Vissering said.
Other companies have been assigned to work on environmental cleanup, a tall order given the mixture of water, oil, sewage, and other hazardous materials floating around the region.
Tetra Tech Inc., a Pasadena, Calif., company with 800 employees in the Washington region, has contracts to work with the EPA. The company has worked with the federal government in response to the anthrax crisis, the space shuttle Columbia disaster, and the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon
Mark Johnson, a senior vice president, said Tetra Tech was put on notice by the EPA last week and has started getting workers ready to make the trip to the Gulf Coast.
Hieu Vu, a national director for Tetra Tech, said the company had 300 people ready to go to the Gulf Coast, including employees from the Washington area. Once the cleanup phase begins, Tetra Tech will assist the EPA with locating hazardous materials, such as orphaned oil tanks, and assisting with their removal.
Tetra Tech now has 10 employees in the Gulf Coast region.
Vu acknowledged that the disaster response has been extremely difficult.
"Our communications is mostly limited to satellite phone," said Vu. "We have recently established Internet connections."
Washington area consulting firms have also been involved. Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. developed a Web-enabled command and control system, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has used to coordinate emergency response in disasters such as Katrina.
Other local companies see opportunity in the relief effort. William A. Begal, who owns a fire and water restoration company in Rockville, headed to New Orleans Wednesday night.
Last year, Begal led a team of 60 people who boarded up buildings and salvaged furniture along the Florida coast after Hurricane Ivan. He said that he has 50 people on standby to work on Gulf Coast, but said he'll need at least a hundred more.
"It's not glamorous. You're basically in wet, stinky hotel rooms . . . trying to salvage whatever you can," Begal said.
At an operations center in Winchester, contractors assemble teams to work on hurricane relief.