SOS: Answering the Call When Disaster Strikes
SOS: Answering the Call When Disaster Strikes
SOS: Answering the Call When Disaster Strikes
4 minute read

In the business of disaster recovery, you have to be prepared for just about anything.

"You never know when the next tornado will hit or plane might crash," says Dave Langford, vice president of the Burns & McDonnell Environmental Group. "But when it happens, and you get that late-night call, you've got to be prepared to hit the ground running."

Langford is one of hundreds of Burns & McDonnell engineers who have led or been part of emergency response teams involved in cleaning up and rebuilding after a wide range of disasters, natural and manmade.

These teams aren't usually the first on the scene. That is the job of the first-responders — police, firefighters, medical personnel and other authorities — who handle evacuations and address the most urgent needs of those affected. "But it doesn't take long before the focus shifts to picking up the pieces," Langford says. "That's when we get the call."

Response Time Matters

Kevin Eisenbeis, director of bridges for Burns & McDonnell, received one such call on the Sunday evening before Memorial Day in 2013. Less than 24 hours earlier, two trains crossing beneath a bridge that carries Route M over train tracks in southeastern Missouri had collided. Derailed train cars knocked out the bridge's support piers, causing two of the bridge's five spans to collapse. No one died in the incident.

"If you have a bridge closure that is planned, you can prepare the public," says Dennis Heckman, state bridge engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT). "When it's unplanned, as in this case, drivers only know that they can't get from one place to another. You just need to get it replaced as soon as you can.

"There are really only about three or four firms with the capacity to pick up a project like this from nowhere and run with it, and Burns & McDonnell is one of them. We did a handshake over the phone, and they started the next day."

The next morning, Burns & McDonnell engineers were en route to the site to assess the damage. "Preliminary plans for a new three-span, prestressed I-girder bridge were ready for MoDOT's review five days later. Final design was completed within three weeks, and the state reviewed it in one day," Eisenbeis says. The new $2.3 million replacement bridge was constructed within three months of the collapse. "It was the kind of job that would normally take a year."

Complicating matters on many emergency projects is the wide range of design disciplines and the sheer number of people who need to be involved in the rebuilding process.

Consider what happened to Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kan., when an EF3 tornado ripped through its campus one Saturday in April 2012. After a week of restoring utilities and other triage efforts, Spirit reopened the campus and called Burns & McDonnell in to assess the remaining damage.

A multidisciplinary team — architects, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, structural engineers, an estimator and a project manager — assembled on site. In less than two months, the team had surveyed and cataloged damage to the campus' nearly 200 buildings, and had prepared 52 report workbooks that included cost estimates for restoring the campus and buildings to pre-tornado condition.

While the assessment was ongoing, another Burns & McDonnell team began design work needed to rebuild the three most damaged buildings on campus. Working 12-hour days and many weekends, the team met aggressive deadlines so construction could be completed in less than a year.

"Spirit wanted one engineering company that could take care of everything," says Ed Pack, senior project manager for the Burns & McDonnell Global Facilities Group in Wichita. "Between our local office in Wichita and our offices in Kansas City, St. Louis, Dallas, Fort Worth, Minneapolis and Phoenix, we had all the resources they needed to do the job."

The Opposite of ‘Business as Usual'

Most work engineers do on a daily basis is well-planned and involves helping clients look far into the future to assess their needs. "Emergency response work is just the opposite," Langford says. "It means concentrating on the here and now."

Time was of the essence, for example, late in the 2013 baseball season when an 11-foot-tall bus attempted to pass beneath a pedestrian bridge leading to the Jackson County Sports Complex, where the Kansas City Royals play. There was just one problem: The bridge had a vertical clearance of just under 10 feet. The impact dislodged the span six inches, significantly damaging the beam.

The Jackson County Sports Authority called on Burns & McDonnell to inspect the bridge, assess damage and prepare designs for its repairs. Weeks later, as the Kansas City Chiefs prepared to open their home season at the complex, the bridge was back in operation.

Doing the Impossible

For many emergency projects like these, rebuilding means working late nights and weekends. For other projects, it means doing what seems downright impossible.

That was the case in 1999, when an explosion destroyed a massive power plant boiler at Kansas City Power & Light's Hawthorn Generating Station. At that time, Burns & McDonnell obtained the permits needed to build a new 500-MW boiler — one large enough to supply power to 100,000 households - in a then-record 72 days.

By working at a breakneck pace and performing multiple efforts in parallel, the new coal-fired plant was online in just two years — half the time it would take under normal circumstances.

Emergency situations often require entering unchartered waters and relying on instincts.

"You're not only expected to respond quickly, but also be flexible enough to adjust your plans as situations develop in the field," says Lawrence Fieber, manager of the industrial services department in the Burns & McDonnell Chicago office.

Competing needs and priorities often must be managed as well. Fieber recalls one case when a gasoline truck flipped over on a ramp in a Chicago suburb, causing a fire that baked and destroyed the pavement.

"The environmental remediation on that accident was relatively simple," Fieber says. "But the road needed to be rebuilt quickly."

So Burns & McDonnell transportation engineers stepped in. Days later, the damaged parts of the ramp were demolished and a new one put in place.

More Than Meets the Eye

The work of on-site teams, however, tells only part of the disaster recovery story. "They're like seeing the body of a duck on the water," Fieber says. "What you don't see is all the paddling going on below."

Behind the scenes, Burns & McDonnell engineers research GIS databases and other sources to learn everything from the disaster site's geology to any sensitive habitats found there. "We want to know upfront what direction the water flows, if there are groundwater resources that need to be protected — everything," Fieber says. "This is data we can push immediately to the field so our emergency response teams are as informed as possible."

On-site teams use such information for more than support of their own cleanup efforts. They also need it for ongoing communication with all those affected by or involved in the recovery.

"In any given meeting, you may have the owner or its representatives, government regulators, local city and county officials, insurance companies, and other interested parties," Fieber says.

"Regulators especially seem happy when they learn that we're there to manage the environmental response," he says. "Stringent environmental requirements govern the cleanup of most of the incidents we're involved with, which can take anywhere from a couple of months to a decade or more to complete. Regulators prefer to work with professionals who do this every day."

That Burns & McDonnell often gets such calls comes as no surprise to Langford. "Emergency work takes a depth of experience and a range of design skills that not every engineering firm can offer," he says.

"The work isn't easy, and the pace would be difficult to sustain over a long period. But there is satisfaction in helping people get back to normal after a crisis."

For more information, contact David Langford, 816-822-3175.

Read More

Editorial: At the Ready >

Voices of Experience >
What makes emergency response work different? What does it take to be successful?

Environmental Cleanup Is Often Job One >
Disaster recovery efforts come in all shapes and sizes. A significant number, however, involve some form of environmental remediation.

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