Big Easy companies slowly rebuild after hurricane

"Sheer devastation"
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Picking up the pieces isn't easy for those alarm companies who found themselves in the path of Hurricane Katrina's wrath. The rebuild is a challenge. Phone lines are still out. Many people who lost homes still live in tents or donated trailers. Although little by little people reestablish their lives, industry members interviewed by Security Systems News say day-to-day normalcy still has not returned.
"The ones that are rebuilding now, are the areas that had the least damage," said Spencer Smith of Alarm Protection Services. "Only a small portion has the ability to repair the balance of the city. They may have power, but no one is doing anything. Folks still don't know what is going to happen next."
After a tornado ripped through Metairie, La., Smith's installation and monitoring company lost its building.
Alarm companies dotted throughout the Gulf Coast shared similar experiences during the storm. And from those events, solidarity developed.
"We were kind of like the poster child," Smith said about the help from many alarm companies. With assistance from industry friend Larry Comeaux at Acadiana Security Plus of Lafayette, La. Smith moved equipment and 12 employees, who left their own damaged homes to work at a makeshift office in a conference room at Comeaux's facility.
The temporary move for APS was seamless as the two companies are First Alert dealers and have the same equipment. Acadiana Security Plus also monitored roughly 500 of Smith's high priority accounts, such as banks and hospitals.
Weeks after the storm, Smith began building his headquarters again: "The only thing we kept was the slab and studs of the building." Smith plans to do as much storm preparation as possible when rebuilding. "You can plan for wind, but when it floods it changes everything." Of course, by the "time we finish the building it will be the beginning of hurricane season," he said.
Certified Security Systems, L.L.C., a full-service alarm company with a central station located over the Orleans Parish line, was one of the fortunate companies that did not get flooded. "Even though our central station was up the entire time, communicating with hospitals and police departments, they couldn't dispatch or send anyone out," said owner Hanson Koch.
Hours after the storm abated, Koch began the task of contacting employees. Koch, like other business owners, found it difficult to get employees back into the city because the emergency pass system was not organized and more often than not passes were not issued, he said.
After losing about 25 percent of his employees, Koch turned to industry comrades and asked for help. Although a competitor, APS had some of its technicians work with Koch's customers to meet the pace of the rebuild.
Koch was thankful for the help. "There is no one locally to recruit, unless you find someone green who wants a career," Koch said. "You couldn't find them before the storm, and certainly could not find them after the storm."
Koch said his company would work toward securing better forms of communication during and after a storm. "It seems like most of our communications failed us and everyone else immediately after the storm," he said. "I will be looking for reliable communication partners going forward."
Smith added that despite the increase of work, "everyone is dealing with their own loss. Although we want to continue accumulating RMR, you also have to understand that everyone is rebuilding."