Piece by piece

By Bob Vavra, Editor February 1, 2006

Sidebars: Supplier worked ahead to meet utilities’ needs Suppliers tell their stories of aiding Katrina recovery

HARAHAN, LA — They started to return — one and two and four at a time, finding their ways around and through the roadblocks, both human and natural. They returned from Jackson and Baton Rouge and Houston and wherever the 150 mph winds had blown them on that fateful August night. Many returned not knowing the condition of their residences, and they returned with little more than what they could fit in their cars.

They came to the only home they knew was still standing. They came to stay and work and live and forget the hell around them. In 30 days, they returned their company to full production.

Intralox never left. The people of Intralox came back.

Hurricane Katrina’s fury spared few in the bayous and backwashes and neighborhoods and businesses of metropolitan New Orleans. There are whole communities deserted — not just damaged, but abandoned, with little sign anyone will ever return, even six months after August 29. On that day and night and into the next, a Category 5 hurricane leveled levees and turned the city into a sea of water and mud and despair.

“I lived through Betsy in the 1960s, and through Camille,” said Intralox human resources director Bruce Johnston, a lifetime New Orleans resident. “This was beyond what anyone expected — but it was exactly what everybody feared.”

Less than two miles from the Mississippi River, Intralox’s sprawling campus was equipped to survive the storm. Built on land 12 feet above sea level in Jefferson Parish, (downtown New Orleans, by contrast, is 6 feet below sea level), Intralox was spared the water damage that left much of Orleans Parish almost beyond recovery.

Intralox’s buildings also avoided much of the structural damage that Katrina brought to the region. The infrastructure, however, was gone. No electrical power. No cell phone towers. No easy access to food or supplies. No travel. And with staff that had evacuated to higher ground, there was no easy way to connect with everyone and no easy way to get everyone back. The infrastructure in the cities where people sought refuge was also being overtaxed.

Yet getting everyone back was the first thing that occurred to senior management at Intralox. “There was never a thought that we’d just shut down,” said James Farley, manufacturing manager with Intralox. “Within two days of Katrina, we had people who had wormed their way into Jefferson Parish, past the roadblocks and checkpoints. We had trucks loaded with water and ice. We told them we were bringing in supplies. That was legitimate, but it was also a ruse to check the property.

“We were 98% intact. That was a big, big plus for us,” said Farley. “Then it became a matter of access — inventory, power, operations.”

The management team located out of town found the few land lines that were operational, and others resorted to cell phone text messaging as the best way to exchange information.

The first effort was to find employees, wherever they’d gone, and to let them know there was a place to come home to. “We wanted everyone to know that no one would lose their job, no one would be laid off,” said Farley.

The production at Intralox had stopped, but the business of Intralox continued. Conveyors and belts were still needed throughout the world. Orders already in the pipeline when Katrina hit were still in need of fulfillment. The next great idea from R&D, the next engineering breakthrough could wait. Customers outside the hurricane zone had read and heard about the crisis, and most were sympathetic — but they still needed their product.

The international corporation called on its foreign partners. Offices in Amsterdam and the United Kingdom were called on to shoulder the burden. Others pitched in as needed. The European manufacturing division put orders together for shipment to customers, and with access to their own warehouse, Intralox was able to air-ship materials to Europe to complete orders.

“We got a police escort of 23 vehicles from Houston to Baton Rouge. We had two semi rigs filled with parts,” Farley said.

“Our first priority was to find our people and make sure they were safe,” said customer service manager Debbie Maniglia. “One of the first early things was that there was this huge desire to save this company. I know for me, I’ve got to be able to give back what I’ve gotten from this company. It’s what I saw in every single employee.”

“We had contracted with a Baton Rouge data center, so we knew we could set up operations there. We got connected with an employee through IBM, and we had 12 seats at a disaster recovery center in Charlotte. Our European division started a second shift. We were pretty operational by Wednesday of the next week.”

“We worked closely with the manufacturing effort. We were very engaged with Europe, and were able to get things started,” said Angela Glaser, domestic customer service operations manager.

The effort to get Intralox up and running and functional again, went beyond the work at hand. “If not for the love of this company and my career, I would be gone,” said Glaser. “It’s the most incredible experience I’ve gone through to walk in here on that first Saturday to see people in a total group effort, knowing what they’d gone through.”

“For the customer service group, you know what a wonderful company it is to have 90% of the reps all show up within a day or two to try and get the company back operational,” added Maniglia.

“I was not surprised that people rose to the occasion,” said Intralox general manager Edel Blanks. “This is really a case where without our culture, without our people, we would have struggled.”

Within 12 days of Katrina, the plastics molding division had returned to production. Within 30 days, production was as normal as possible. Intralox was back.

Plastic conveyor belts like the ones invented by James Martial Lapeyre do not assemble themselves. They are small jigsaw puzzles of plastic parts and rods. The Intralox conveyor system, one of 130 patents held by Lapeyre in his life, is a custom-order, direct-to-customer process that allows each belt and system to be created to individual specifications. They must be hand-assembled.

The pieces themselves are identical. The people who began assembling those pieces in the days after Katrina were from every part of the organization, all brought together to fill the orders and build the belts.

“It was interesting, hectic and a bit exciting,” said Farley. “I saw people do some extraordinary things, step out of their ordinary roles.”

The largest part of that extraordinary effort is built into the culture at Intralox. “We pride ourselves on self-management,” said plant manager Paul Horton, who heads up the plastic injection molding division that makes the conveyor belt pieces. “I’ve heard that concept, but I’ve never seen it as effective as it was those first 8 to 10 days. It was a fascinating thing to watch that actually happen.

“A lot of people didn’t have houses. There were 20 or 30 people sleeping on the floor on air mattresses. Others who did have homes would round up their coworkers and bring them home. There were very few decisions made by managers.”

“We had people building belts from all different departments. We had people from human resources building belts,” Johnston added. “It was a great opportunity for folks to learn just what other people do. It was a great demonstration of that culture we feel so strongly about.”

As production began to return to something resembling normal, there were certain unique problems. “The night shift was 13 hours because they had to avoid the curfew,” Horton said.

“This place was something of a refuge. Some people went through a terrible experience. This was the only piece of their life that was close to normal. They saw some bad things they didn’t want to think about. The resiliency of some people is amazing.”

But not everyone came back, and not everyone is coming back. “We’re shorthanded. We’ve increased pay and recruited in ways we hadn’t before,” said Horton, who estimates he was at about 50% of full staffing immediately after Katrina, and it took a few months to get back to full staffing.

His is not a unique problem. There is a labor shortage in the New Orleans area, as displaced residents have started over in Houston or Baton Rouge or anywhere their homes won’t be wiped out by a wall of water from a breeched levee. The people who have stayed have overwhelmed the housing left in Jefferson Parish. Nothing new is being built — not until the thousands of roofs and walls and windows from Katrina are repaired by the too few workers around to repair them.

“The essence of our challenge is that the labor pool is much, much, much, much smaller. You can’t use the word ‘much’ enough,” said Johnston. “It’s going to take some months to see how it’s going to look. Of all the incredible problems we have, housing is the major one. When you see the scope, the number of homes devastated, it’s monumental. Some of the neighboring communities, such as Jefferson Parish or the towns north of Lake Pontchartrain, can only absorb so much.

“A lot of people we lost, a significant number of them wanted to come back,” added Johnston, “but they had no place to live.”

“Until inexpensive housing becomes available, we’re all fighting over a much smaller work force,” said Horton. “We see those long unemployment lines elsewhere, and down here, right next to the sign that says, ‘Now Open’ is a sign that says, ‘Now Hiring.’ Everybody is looking for people.”

The company continues to grow. “Once we got past the ‘getting back to business’ phase and then we got back to normal operations, we could work on our commercial priorities again,” said Blanks. “We were in the middle of a $20 million capital improvement project, and we had to get started on that again, and our business responded well. We achieved a record fourth quarter.”

Beyond the commitment of his employees, Blanks is quick to credit the patience and persistence of customers for the turnaround. They were patient in waiting for Katrina’s impact to dissipate, and persistent in continuing to use the products even as the process geared back up to normal.

Private investment will fuel a rebuilt housing stock and will bring manufacturing growth to the region – but only with assurances that the primary issue of flood protection is fixed. For now, the breeched levees that protect New Orleans remain broken. Frustrated residents throughout the Gulf are looking warily for help from the local, state and federal governments, which most blame for the extended misery in the region. So far, there is no firm solution. Even the security of a job cannot overcome the insecurity when people look into the Gulf.

“There are people who have lived here all of their lives who have said to me, ‘My family and I just can’t face it.’ They can’t face the challenge of rebuilding, and they can’t face the fear,” Johnston said. “The probability is that we won’t get hit again, but it’s still a possibility.”

The lessons from Katrina for other manufacturers are to plan ahead for the worst, and then to expect it to be worse than that. “I think it’s in making sure about your recovery plans, running through them carefully, double-checking to make sure they’re viable,” said Blanks. “We had a plan, but perhaps not as comprehensive as maybe it could have been.”

What pulled Intralox through in the end was something else manufacturers hope for and even champion – the quality of the people in your workforce. “At times of crisis, you discover how strong your culture is,” Blanks said. “Without people rising to the occasion, you may not make it. I saw people operate under stressful conditions, with enormous personal distractions. What they did was just incredible.”

Supplier worked ahead to meet utilities’ needs

When disaster strikes, it’s good to have a helping hand ready to assist. Emergency aid workers provided that assistance to the hundreds of thousands displaced and dismayed by Hurricane Katrina. For utilities working feverishly to put the region’s electrical system back on line, a helping hand was waiting, too.

As line workers from around the country came to the Gulf Coast to restore a devastated system, suppliers lined up to provide expedited products to the utilities. Companies such as Chicago-based S&C Electric Co., the 2004 PLANT ENGINEERING TOP PLANT winner, were called on to get equipment and parts in place.

Utilities are always ready for disaster. There are protocols and plans for what to do in case of fire, flood, tornadoes or earthquakes, and workers are practiced and prepared for such disasters.

“We do have a plan in place that anticipates where we think the need will be. We stage materials, and we have conversations with key suppliers. S&C was one of the people we contacted early on,” said Steve Williams, procurement manager for Mississippi Power. “We anticipated something was going to happen. Mississippi Power ramps up its inventory before a storm. We had 10 trailers of materials ready to roll under a typical Category 2 or 3 hurricane.”

The utilities brought in equipment and people from everywhere. Mississippi Power had more than 11,000 outside electrical workers on site from throughout the country. Entergy, the primary energy provider for New Orleans and Louisiana, had another 12,000 line workers trying to put the system back on line.

Suppliers stepped up quickly. Ordinary protocols went out the window. “The number one goal is to get these guys what they need when they need it,” said Albert Tucker of Curtis H. Stout, Sales Representative for S&C Electric Co. “We know what they’ve ordered in the past, and we can figure out what they’re going to need. We can start building even without a purchase order.”

“We were prepared in a number of ways,” said Mark Stavnes, director of the Fuse Products Division, S&C Electric Co. “We had $1 million in materials ready to ship, 80,000 fuse links ready to ship. We do a ramp-up of manufacturing in advance of the hurricane season. We know what’s likely to be used.

“This year, we were actually in a better position to respond,” Stavnes added. “The 2004 hurricane season was a bad one as well. There wasn’t enough cable anywhere. This time, we did a much better job of having enough cable on hand to meet the needs of our customers through the hurricanes.”

All this was taking place even as S&C needed to fill its orders for every other region in the country not affected by a hurricane that week. “We do our normal workflow on one shift,” Stavnes said. “We moved it to two shifts, and doubled our capacity per week to meet the needs created by the hurricane.”

“You can’t possibly pre-buy enough material,” said Mike Smith, procurement manager for Entergy. “The question is, can your manufacturer give you an extremely short lead time?”

Another factor is making sure products are available in the right place at the right time. Product sent toward a storm’s expected target may wind up hundreds of miles away if a storm’s path shifts. “For most electrical equipment manufacturers, when a storm gets into the Gulf, we know it’s going to hit someplace. You start getting edgy 4 or 5 days in advance,” said Jim Bishop of Curtis H. Stout. “What we see is that manufacturers do not want to pre-ship, because they don’t want to get product out of position. But by Saturday, we knew we were going to get hit.”

The impact is still being felt. It is what Williams called the “new normal.” Orleans Parish, devastated in the storm and with virtually no residents in what was once an area of almost 250,000 residents, has 30% of its electrical load capacity back to serve an area of empty homes, empty streets and empty businesses.

Mississippi Power still has borrowed workers from Georgia Power trying to get the system back up and running. The regional utility companies face more than $1.2 billion in infrastructure restoration costs on systems that cannot generate revenue when they are not operational. “It represents a significant amount of dollars in lost revenue,” said Williams. “The big thing we’re all doing now is getting the major systems back up and running. Then we’ll worry about the economics. But you can see what this has done to all of our economic bases.”

Suppliers tell their stories of aiding Katrina recovery

Suppliers around America helped get manufacturing back on line quickly in the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. In exclusive interviews with PLANT ENGINEERING , they talk about some of the things they faced in mounting a recovery effort. The full text of the interviews can be found at

Peter Jofriet , Honeywell’s Vertical Marketing Director, Refining

“One of the things Honeywell was working on with ConocoPhillips was a modernization plan for the New Orleans refinery. The second phase of the two-phase project was to begin in two years. The hurricane accelerated that process. Katrina pushed Phase 2 closer to Phase 1. Obviously, water and electricity don’t mix. Water is a unique problem.”

Randy Lowry , Hurricane Recovery Program Manager Rockwell Automation

“In many cases, Rockwell Automation was building replacement equipment for our customers before the control room was even out of the water. We were able to do this because we had the engineering data on the equipment that had been provided, and could begin building the replacement equipment to the same specifications without having to even see it.”

Craig Jennings , Capital Valve & Fitting Co., a Swagelok authorized distributor:

“One customer asked that we have a consignment inventory set up on their site with one day’s notice. A container was located for them in Picayune, MS. We had it delivered and the consignment was in place in less than 24 hours.”

Karl Newquist , Hurricane Recovery Project Leader, Schneider Electric

“Many of our operations personnel in other parts of the country were asked to work overtime and odd hours so products could be manufactured and shipped at whatever time and in whatever method was required to meet the needs. We didn’t have to require our people to do this. The mention of hurricane relief was the only motivation necessary for these people to do what needed to be done.”