The Coast Guard order came by cell phone -- no bids, no contract, no discussion of price, paperwork to follow. There was a single focus: Get fuel tanks and generators to New Orleans.
That call alone could mean perhaps a million dollars in business for Herndon-based Core Engineered Solutions Inc., a substantial amount for a 15-person firm that was expecting less than $10 million in revenue for the year.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, tens of billions of dollars will flow from the federal government to rebuild New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast. And while much will be spent in that region, focused on bread-and-butter services like general contracting and construction, Washington area firms with expertise in management, planning and computer networking are likely to find themselves deeply involved in the effort.
McLean-based BearingPoint Inc. has created an eight-person unit and 40-person task force to coordinate its efforts to win Katrina-related contracts. The consulting firm in the past has done work supervising networking and engineering projects for the Homeland Security Department, which oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, so it's familiar with the agency's personnel and processes.
Companies like Hydrogeologic Inc. of Herndon and Chantilly-based GTSI Corp., meanwhile, expect they will be in high demand for specialized projects such as toxic waste cleanup and rebuilding computer networks.
Washington's strong economic growth in recent years has been linked to federal contracting, particularly the homeland security and defense spending that was touched off by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and drew directly on the region's expertise in information technology.
Hurricane reconstruction, however, is not likely to have the same impact on this region. The larger construction and engineering firms that often work with FEMA are scattered around the country, and officials from those firms say the bulk of their reconstruction workforce is likely to come from the Gulf area itself.
Fluor Corp. of Southern California, for example, is planning to launch a training program in the affected area to give prospective employees construction skills, chief executive Alan L. Boeckmann said.
"We see it as a clear responsibility to help people get back on their feet," Boeckmann added.
Still, the massive scale and urgency of the project is going to be broadly felt as agencies and their main contractors hunt for supplies, equipment, talent -- and ideas. No one knows yet how much it will cost to put the region back together, but most agree that the $62.3 billion allotted by the federal government so far is just a down payment.
"What FEMA is going to be faced with is an enormous amount of small, medium and large projects to tackle different issues related to the relief," said Darryl B. Moody, BearingPoint's senior vice president of homeland security and intelligence. "FEMA is going to be contracting with companies like ours and others for that support."
The firm has solicited ideas from employees about ways the company might participate in the reconstruction.
"Where we have ideas that have merit, and should be raised [with the government], we will do that," Moody added.
Proximity to federal officials -- and past relationships -- may help.
Agencies are being flooded with calls from entrepreneurs offering "cure-all" technologies and services. By Wednesday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had received calls from 6,300 contractors offering help, said John S. Rickey, an agency spokesman. Companies have been calling in with proposals to provide additional pumps and steel, or to help with roofing and debris removal, he said.
The firms "range from large international companies to Joe Smith businessman with a bulldozer," Rickey said.
But it isn't easy to crack the federal contracting system cold. In the days after an emergency like this occurs, the government begins dealing with private companies in a number of ways, including brokering verbal deals with vendors it already knows, and calling on firms that have open-ended contracts already in place.
Like Core Engineered Solutions, GTSI received a call from federal officials asking for help after the storm's devastation became evident. The Chantilly company is a technology reseller with deep relationships with the government. FEMA contracting officers asked the company to quickly develop a list of offerings that might be useful in the recovery and restoration efforts, such as installing wireless networks and providing customized laptops.
"In a crisis situation, the customers call a trusted partner. They say, 'Hey, guys, we need help, tell us what you can provide,' " said GTSI chief executive M. Dendy Young. Much of the work will be done by construction and engineering firms, Young says, but he also thinks there will be a great demand for technology services.
"The thing we can do is anything related to information technology infrastructure -- and we'll see a lot of need for replacement networks," Young said.
Hydrogeologic already does 80 percent of its business with federal agencies like the Defense Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. Given the company's expertise in toxic waste cleanup, executives of the 250-person firm expect to be deeply involved in work along the Gulf Coast.
"We've been growing at 20 percent a year, but I think this event is going to accelerate our growth," chief executive Peter S. Huyakorn said.
FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers are first tapping companies with which they have longstanding relationships.
Fairfax-based Dewberry LLC, which FEMA listed as its largest contractor last year, has already begun sending dozens of people to the Gulf Coast to assess damage for the agency and will likely do a great deal of the engineering and construction work that will follow. The engineering and architecture firm generated $84.1 million in revenue from FEMA last year.
Fluor and CH2M Hill Companies of Colorado, both of which had existing contracts with FEMA, have been put in charge of contracts to find and manage temporary housing for homeless evacuees. Of the $51.8 billion in relief funds approved by Congress last week, $23.2 billion will go for housing projects -- making CH2M Hill and Fluor targets for sales pitches from other firms.
"We're inundated with subcontractors. We're getting more than 100 calls per day," said John Corsi, a spokesman for CH2M Hill.
But like their government customers, larger contractors are turning to their existing subcontractors, before turning to new ones -- and that can sometimes circle back to Washington.
Last week CH2M Hill, for instance, called Core in Herndon. Like the Coast Guard, CH2M was looking for fuel tanks or generators available for quick deployment to the South.
"My company isn't going to do a hundred million dollars of this or that," said Frank B. Evans Jr., Core's president. "But we're finding our little niche."
Peter Friedman of FEMA packs handheld radios in Shreveport, La. Federal agencies are turning to familiar contractors to help in storm cleanup.
Herndon-based Core Engineered Solutions shipped fuel storage tanks last week to New Orleans in response to a phone call from the Coast Guard.