Three years after Hurricane Katrina, Design Precast helps rebuild the Gulf Coast infrastructure.
Story and Photos by Bob Whitmore
More than three years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the scars still show. One of the most destructive storms to wallop the coast in recorded history, Katrina leveled the homes, restaurants and casinos that string along Highway 90, a beachfront boulevard that meanders along the Gulf from Pascagoula at the southeastern tip of the state through Biloxi, Gulfport, Pass Christian, Waveland and on to New Orleans. Some homes and businesses have been rebuilt, some are under construction and others are simply gone, with only a slab, a set of concrete steps or a few stray bricks dotting an overgrown lot.
Katrina took out infrastructure too. On Aug. 28-29, 2005, the hurricane smashed the bridge over Biloxi Bay that connects the Gulfport/Biloxi region with neighboring Ocean Springs. On Highway 90, large sections of asphalt ripped and shredded under the 17-hour onslaught that produced a 30-foot storm surge and 11 tornadoes in Mississippi alone. Flooding and destruction spread inward. More than 235 people died in the state, and every county was declared a disaster area.
A few days after the hurricane, Pat Fore navigated his way down to Highway 90. Owner of Design Precast Inc. in Gulfport, his plant sits less than 20 miles from the coastal area that took the direct hit from Katrina. He stared at a massive barge that had come ashore and was wedged in behind a row of 30-foot oak trees that line the shore side of Highway 90. He couldn’t figure out how the barge ended up in that spot without taking out the row of trees. “It took me about 10 minutes to get over the shock and realize, hey, that barge floated over the trees and dropped. That’s how high the storm surge was,” said Pat. “It amazed me that a storm could take those steel containers and just twist them and drop them like that.”
It’s taken some time, but the Gulfport/Biloxi region is coming back, and Design Precast is riding a wave of infrastructure rebuilding that stretches 450 miles from the Florida panhandle westward along the Gulf through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The hurricane reconstruction is gradually transforming the region, said Chris Fore, Pat’s son and vice president of operations.
“All the cities along the coast are rebuilding,” Chris said. The once ravaged communities have spent the last three years removing debris, holding public hearings, conducting population studies and cost estimates, and planning and redesigning the stretch of land engulfed by Katrina. “Not only do they want to replace what was destroyed by the storm, but they saw an opportunity to make an infrastructure that could handle many more people,” Chris said. With a booming casino and tourism industry, the region was already growing faster than the infrastructure could handle before Katrina. If there is any good that can come from the destruction, it is the chance for the region to create a modern infrastructure for the decades ahead.
While the casinos started rebuilding immediately, city and county municipalities have been more deliberate. The federal government has allocated slightly more than $600 million to rebuild in the Mississippi region, Chris said, and the majority of those contracts were just coming up for bidding in the fall of 2008. As of late October, there was still $582 million in outstanding contracts, which would be bid between October and March 2009. Design Precast was awarded the precast portion of the first contract – a major widening and rebuilding of Highway 90. “There’s a lot more to come, and we hope we’ll be a big part of it,” Chris said.
Growing from its roots
The time lag between the storm and the actual rebuilding has enabled Design Precast to grow into its role as a locally based precast and pipe company. The Fore family’s roots are in contracting, and Pat Fore, 44, grew up working for his uncle and father in various construction enterprises. He started his own contracting company in 1995, and branched into precast in 2004. The precast operation was just getting off the ground when Katrina hit. Fore Construction, the contracting side of the business, includes about 35 employees, with about 45 additional employees working for Design Precast.
After Katrina, the civil construction side of the company was deeply involved in the cleanup. “We got a subcontract through the Corps of Engineers to move dirt,” Chris said. “We loaded about 2 million cubic yards of dirt onto barges for New Orleans to help repair the levees.” Other cleanup involved the removal of debris strewn about the coastline. “Everything inside the containers ended up onshore – like chicken remains and pork bellies,” Pat said. For its work after the storm the company was named one of 50 “Heroes of the Hurricane” by the city of Gulfport.
With the construction employees locked into a long-term cleanup commitment, the company started to focus more on precast, Chris said. Immediately after the storm, the plant had no power, some of the employees had been uprooted and there were still contracts to be honored.
“Our main objective was to get the plant running,” Pat said. “We had projects in areas that weren’t affected by the Hurricane, and we took all the necessary steps to make sure we met our obligations.” While many other heavy industries suffered massive employee losses after the hurricane, Design Precast was buoyed by its loyal employee base. “We probably lost only one or two employees who ended up leaving Mississippi after the hurricane,” Pat said.
Shortly before the hurricane, Design Precast captured its first major municipal project. The company won two contracts in a five-part sewer rebuilding program for the City of Gulfport. “It was probably 240 or 250 manholes between those two projects, and we only had our manhole forms for about three months,” Chris said. But with no other new construction starting after the hurricane, the small company stayed busy.
“As a third generation contractor, my dad had formed relationships over all those years – we just know everybody on the Coast,” Chris said. Word of mouth among their network of contractors, developers and engineers led to increasing business for a growing line of precast products that includes drainage structures, electrical vaults, manholes, pit walls, grease interceptors, marine products, airport products and custom products like a 1-foot-thick walled electrical manhole for a nearby NASA facility.
“A lot of customers from the precast side kind of promoted us,” Pat said. While Design Precast had quickly established itself as a supplier of precast, the missing component was pipe. After studying the market for more than a year, the company opened a new pipe plant in April 2008, and business immediately spiked again. Design Precast now produces about 700 to 800 linear feet of pipe per day with its two-step automated pipe plant.
“The pipe has really taken off,” Chris said. “Just about every stick of pipe you see out in our yard is sold. It’s all sold and waiting to be shipped.”
The Lifting Eye
As a contractor for nearly 30 years, Pat Fore has done his time in the ditch installing pipe – both precast and plastic. He has nothing good to say about plastic. “No matter what you do, you cannot lay it without deflection,” he said. “You can’t even start compaction. Really you need 2 feet of fill above plastic pipe before you can start compaction because of the deflection of the pipe. It never stays in a straight line.
“At one time here in Harrison County, the supervisors used to buy probably 80 percent plastic pipe and 20 percent concrete,” Pat said. “But they’ve had a few incidents where, for example, homeowners would be raking leaves into a ditch and then burning the leaves. In one case, it caught that plastic pipe on fire. It burned a 400-foot run of pipe, and the road caved in.”
The supervisors have since started ordering more precast pipe and the mix is about 50-50, he added. As a contractor, though, there’s no question that reinforced concrete pipe is the best overall solution. Though the product may cost a bit more, it saves money on labor because precast installs faster and more reliably. And, with a lifting device developed by Pat Fore, installers can work even faster.
Pat had the lifting device concept in mind before he ever started the pipe plant. As a contractor, he knew that the sheer weight makes it difficult to maneuver the pipe into position. So he experimented with casting a lifting device into the pipe that would eliminate the need to use a strapping system or a cable and lifting bar system to place the pipe. He developed a device he calls the Lifting Eye that enables the crane operator to hook the pipe and swing it into place, with the installers guiding it into position while the pipe is still on the crane. “You can eliminate one or two installers on the job with the Lifting Eye, because the crane operator can hook his own pipe,” Pat said. “You don’t need a bank man to strap it or use a cable or bar. And you don’t have to plug a hole.”
While he was developing the Lifting Eye, Pat hired Thompson Engineering from Mobile, Ala., to test the device. “We’ve got a safety factor of 300 percent,” he said. The device has been accepted by the Mississippi DOT and the Louisiana DOTD. The Alabama DOT is considering it. He has applied for a patent on the device. “We just get a lot of good reports about it,” Pat said. “We’ve had contractors tell us they can lay either 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 using our pipe. We’ve had customers who will call and tell us, ‘Man, we don’t ever want to lay pipe again without the Lifting Eye.’”
Once Design Precast grew into an established company, it joined the National Precast Concrete Association and soon applied for the NPCA Plant Certification Program.
“We wanted to be a better company. We wanted a better product. We wanted to go to whatever measures that we needed to manufacture the best product possible,” Pat said. “And we felt that certification would take us there. We knew that it was going to be tough to get certified, but we knew that it was going to put us on the right track.”
“It’s definitely made us a better company,” Chris added. “It’s made all our people better, not only at the top, but all the way through the plant – even down to maintenance. It’s crucial in keeping a safe plant, too – it’s the whole deal.”
When Pat and Chris looked at the plant certification criteria, they realized it was a program with high standards. “Chris and I sat here, and we talked about it, and one might be scared off from doing it, but we made our commitment and figured, hey, if we can get through NPCA’s criteria it’s going to make us a better precaster,” Pat said. “We were already doing most things right, so it wasn’t as bad as it might be for someone who was not doing all the proper procedures.”
In addition to having most of the appropriate manufacturing and documentation processes in place, Design Precast also had two important criteria covered for certification. The company holds weekly safety training and safety consultation provided by a local safety specialist. And Design Precast has a culture of cleanliness throughout both the precast and pipe plants. At the end of every production cycle, both plants are cleaned up, so each new cycle starts with a clean floor and all tools and equipment in the appropriate place.
“No doubt we had to tweak some things, but we run quality control from the beginning all the way to when the product is placed on that truck to be shipped out. We follow it all the way through. That assures us that when our product reaches your job that it is built per the shop drawings, and that’s our goal: to make certain that when it reaches you, it’s exactly what you’re paying for,” Pat said.
A ‘cosmetics’ company
“One would think that with a sewer manhole or a drainage structure or pipe that it’s just a piece of concrete. It’s going to be placed in the ground. Nobody sees it,” Pat said. “But to us it’s a lot more. Cosmetics mean a lot to us – not only that the product is doing its job, but cosmetically, that product has to sit on the ground with your name on it before it goes into the ground. And let me tell you, you would not believe the feedback.”
While precast pipe doesn’t have to look pretty to do its job, it can mean the difference between winning and losing a big customer – like the U.S. government. Keesler Air Force Base sits on a peninsula that juts into the Gulf of Mexico adjacent to Biloxi. The hurricane destroyed all of its housing. During the rebuilding, Keesler’s construction team has been known to reject a high percentage of product.
“Mainly it was the cosmetics of what they were seeing,” Pat said. “They had turned down load after load of pipe before we came in. Each joint gets inspected, and it’s a pretty strict inspection. We haven’t had one pipe sent back, and they’ve made the comment that it’s some of the best pipe they’ve seen.”
Many of Design Precast’s manholes and other underground structures have a distinctive look from a corrosion inhibiting admixture the company uses that gives the products a terra cotta tint. Those terra cotta manholes enable engineers to know immediately that the product is corrosion resistant. They also have become part of Design Precast’s brand for local contractors and area residents who drive down the road and connect the products with Design Precast, Pat said. “They are our best advertisement with all the reconstruction after Katrina and all the manholes that we did – you would not believe how many people have told us, ‘Hey, we’ve seen your manholes sitting out on the side of the highway.’”
In fact, several months after the hurricane, there was a visual reminder of the commitment of Design Precast to the Gulf Coast and the role it would play in the rebuilding. In Pass Christian, one of the hardest hit areas, passers-by could not fail to notice the Design Precast manhole risers sitting along the side of the highway with an American flag waving proudly from its center.