Houston has a problem!” Jessica Burden, general manager of Milton Frank Plumbing & Cooling, Spring, Texas, used that twist of a famous phrase in an email campaign she’s personally undertaken to help rebuild Houston following Hurricane Harvey.
“We finally feel like things are starting to happen down here, recovery is on the horizon,” she wrote in the September email sent out to her company’s vendor contacts.
Harvey submerged Houston, dumping more than 4 feet of rain on the city. At least 46 people were killed in the city, around 30,000-40,000 homes destroyed and 35,000 people relocated to emergency shelters in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane. Estimates for the cost of Harvey’s damage top out as high as $190 billion.
“The houses are just bones — sticks and concrete,” Burden told us at the PHCC CONNECT 2017 last month in Milwaukee.
Damaged homes, some eight streets in a row near the company’s offices, are gutted inside the first floor. Many homeowners don’t have flood insurance, and those who do are still stuck in limbo between a first insurance check to pay for immediate needs like shelter and food, all the while waiting, probably months, before adjusters figure out the final payout.
And this, some six weeks after the remnants of Harvey finally dissipated over Ohio.
“We have been very busy replacing HVAC units outside and water heaters in first floor and garage applications that were flooded, but only for those fortunate enough to be able to stay in their homes,” she wrote in her email. “It’s the 100s of quotes to those people who have yet to turn their electricity back on that has us all a little shaky!”
Burden’s email goes on to tell that her company is quoting to replace toilets, tubs, appliances, water heaters, outdoor AC units, garbage disposals, sinks, faucets … the list goes on.
As her email plainly put it: “These folks have lost EVERYTHING!”
When we caught up with Burden during lunch at the Quality Service Contractors meeting, she told us the idea for her email campaign came about after Carrier contacted her company.
“They walked in about two weeks after Harvey with a plan to help our homeowner customers,” Burden said. “They had definitely thought about this beforehand and came in telling us about rebate plans for homeowners, and discounted pricing for units and replacement parts for us.”
In the meantime, Carrier has beefed up its local inventory to be ready to help in the aftermath of Harvey. And in some cases, the company has gone so far as to offer free units to the special cases that Burden’s company knows really need the extra help.
After the meeting, Burden figured this would be a great opportunity for other industry partners to step in and let her company be a focal point between homeowners in need and trustworthy, professional installers who can do the work.
“Our company will help to be your point of contact, your eyes on the issues, your pulse on the problem, your boots on the ground,” she explained in her email. “We have LISTS of people who could use a hand-up right now, but we can’t do it all alone. And this is not just us, this is every PHC contractor in Houston facing these problems together.”
Since she sent her email to her vendors, she says that Trane has come onboard, and that she was meeting with Kohler shortly after PHCC CONNECT.
Details still need to be finalized, but it’s certainly an admirable start.
“It will be a unique situation for each person that comes to us looking for help,” she told us. “It could mean a manufacturer sending us a flat of toilets or donating faucets. We’re not at that point yet, but we’re sure it will end up being a number of different scenarios for everyone who needs work done to rebuild.”
More than just Harvey
Of course, Burden’s immediate concern is for Houston. But the country is also struggling with the destruction wrought by two other devastating hurricanes, Irma and Maria.
Irma dumped 16 inches of rain on Florida, wrecked the Keys and killed 80 people (with another eight fatalities in Georgia and South Carolina). The price tag for its destruction is pegged at $100 billion.
A week later, Maria decimated Puerto Rico, demolishing its already weak power, communications and transportation infrastructure at an estimated cost of $95 billion. The government has officially put the death toll at 36, but that’s expected to rise. At press time, more than half of the residents of the U.S. territory were without municipal drinking water, and many struggle with access to food, fuel and medical care.
Meanwhile, as hurricanes rage, our nation’s infrastructure only shows its age. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma struck paralyzing, costly blows to two of America’s fastest-growing states.
Take a look, in particular, at the devastation in Florida. The problem wasn’t just flooding or hurricane damage, it was also untreated sewage mixing with floodwater, seeping out of manholes and overwhelming an aging system of pipes and pumps.
Florida relies on a system of wastewater lift stations with electronic pumps that move sewage through the state. But when Irma knocked out the electricity in many areas, some of the sewage pumps were also cut off, leading to the overflows and spills.
According to 113 pollution reports submitted to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection in the aftermath of Irma, more than 28 million gallons of treated and untreated sewage were released in 22 counties.
Such overflows, which can spread disease-causing pathogens, are happening more often, as population shifts and increasingly strong storms strain the capacity of plants and decades-old infrastructure.
To be sure, no sewer system can ever be built that’s completely leak-proof. Plants are generally designed to handle twice their normal capacity. Any system engineered to withstand water overflows from a hurricane would cost dearly with the expensive hurricane-strength capacity sitting unused 99 percent of the time.
However, the nation’s sewage infrastructure, as typified by Florida, is in worse shape than it should be, making it more susceptible to accidents and overflows.
Last year, the EPA said $17 billion would be needed over the next two decades just to maintain Florida’s existing systems. And that’s nothing compared to the $271 billion the EPA says is needed to maintain and improve the aging, crumbling wastewater infrastructure across the country.
Anyone with a copy of the latest infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers knows the country’s underpinnings are coming undone. The ASCE estimates a $5.2 trillion infrastructure funding gap between now and 2040.
Trump and infrastructure
The Trump administration has partly acknowledged this problem by proposing to increase funding by half of one percent for the EPA’s State Revolving Funds, which provide loans for construction and improvement of wastewater facilities. President Trump has also already signed a bill that increases funding to the EPA’s Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act by the same one half of one percent. WIFIA money goes mainly toward drinking water projects.
But most advocates for water infrastructure improvement say such increases are a pittance. When adjusted for inflation, federal funding for water infrastructure has fallen 74 percent since 1977.
In addition, President Donald Trump’s infrastructure agenda, unveiled on Aug. 15, couldn’t have come at a worse time. His initial actions centered on rescinding Obama-era plans that require consideration of flood risk and climate change in any federal spending for infrastructure or housing and the like.
The argument was built around limiting red tape. But then Harvey flooded Houston two weeks later. The Trump administration quickly scrambled to ensure that federal money would not increase flood risks.
Since then, Trump has even backed off on one of his presidential campaign’s hallmark vows that the private sector should help pay for infrastructure improvements.
Trump campaigned on a pledge to lead a massive $1 trillion rebuilding effort financed, in large part, through private-sector funding.
“Working with states, local governments and private industry, we will ensure that these new federal funds are matched by significant additional dollars for maximum efficiency and accountability,” he said in a June speech on infrastructure.
However, in a September report published in The Wall Street Journal, Trump told a meeting of lawmakers from the House Ways and Means Committee that he was abandoning the notion of private financing.
During the meeting, Trump “emphatically rejected what everybody assumed was his position relative to financing infrastructure,” said Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), who attended and asked Trump about the proposal. “He dismissed it categorically and said it doesn’t work.”
Instead, the administration wants to have states and localities foot most of the bill, which is exactly how, after decades of neglect and miserly appropriations, we got here in the first place.
According to the newspaper’s report, a White House official said there were “legitimate questions” about so-called public-private partnerships to revamping the nation’s infrastructure. The official said that although the administration has researched such approaches, “they are certainly not the silver bullet for all of our nation’s infrastructure problems, and we will continue to consider all viable options.”