When it's not designing bridges and subdivisions, Dewberry LLC, a Fairfax engineering firm, is likely to be working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Two days before Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Dewberry and its partner, URS Corp. of San Francisco, placed 600 home inspectors, most of them contract employees, in Houston and Mobile, Ala. Since then, Dewberry has sent engineers to Louisiana, where FEMA will help fund a rebuilding of the public infrastructure, including buildings. Today, the firm plans to send engineers to the Gulf Coast to look at the extent of wind damage caused by the storm.
"They are starting to do inspections, [but] the situation on the ground is very difficult," Larry Olinger, Dewberry's executive vice president, said of a majority of the workers currently in the Gulf Coast. The company has also been tasked with helping evacuees apply for FEMA aid in rebuilding their homes or finding temporary housing. "Because the victims are spread out, our folks are going to different shelters, in different states, trying to locate victims," he said.
Dewberry is a mid-tier player in the $1 trillion-a-year engineering industry, where it often faces industry giants such as Fluor Corp. of California and CH2M Hill Companies of Colorado.
The company counts FEMA among its largest customers, but executives question federal procurement database figures that show it as FEMA's largest contractor in fiscal 2004. It says a majority of its work is with municipalities. Though the company has struggled to find enough qualified engineers, it has managed to grow about 10 percent a year with the help of acquisitions, Olinger said.
Chairman Sidney O. Dewberry, a civil engineer from George Washington University, established the firm with James D. Nealon in the late 1950s. It started as a six-person design and surveying business. In the 1970s, Dewberry began to diversify and won a FEMA contract to provide technical assistance for a National Flood Insurance project.
The family-owned company, which has about 1,600 employees nationally and 800 in the Washington area, reported about $220 million in revenue last year. Besides FEMA, the company works for other federal agencies including the Army Corps of Engineers, according to a company statement. But a majority of its work comes from designing highways, subdivisions, and golf courses.
Among them are several in the area: the Dominion Valley Country Club in Northern Virginia, Dulles Toll Road, Ashburn Farms in Virginia, Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Prince William County and Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md.
Dewberry is attempting to expand its work in homeland security and emergency management, said Olinger, including helping local governments establish and test disaster plans. As part of that plan, Dewberry has hired about 30 people with experience in the field during the past two years, including two significant hires from FEMA.
In May 2004, William G. Massey, the former hurricane program manager at the agency, joined Dewberry to serve as director of hurricane and emergency management programs. In August of that year, Laurence W. Zensinger, a former homeland security/emergency management senior executive for FEMA, joined the firm to serve as vice president and director of homeland security.
Just how much impact Katrina will have on the firm is still unclear. The size of the contracts with Dewberry and four other firms that FEMA announced last Thursday are still being negotiated, said agency spokesman James McIntyre. It is not unusual for the firm to be dispatched to a disaster zone and then negotiate the price of the contract later, Olinger said.
"Most of these [engineering and construction] companies are still in the assessment mode, trying to determine how much damage has occurred," said Alex Rygiel, an engineering and construction analyst with Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group Inc. "To attempt to quantify the revenue impact on the engineering construction sector is a little bit difficult" now.