Rider on the storm
Late last summer, Americans saw the devastation of Hurricane Katrina as it swept through New Orleans. Far fewer, however, saw the destruction of smaller communities in the Gulf region, such as Gulfport, Miss., where the storm washed away its downtown, destroying 3,000 homes, numerous businesses and infrastructure. Gulfport, which is in Harrison County, recorded more than 100 deaths caused by the hurricane, according to local news reports.
Following weather that wielded more death and destruction than any in American history, Gulfport’s Public Works Director Kris Riemann’s tireless devotion to his hometown was rendered indisputable. Before Riemann was hired as a project engineer for the city in 1997, he was passed over twice for similar positions. “When I applied the third time, I said ‘I don’t know what else I have to do to prove I’m serious about working for the city of Gulfport.’ It was after that they finally hired me.” He was 26.
Today, at 35, he oversees six divisions within the department: traffic control and safety, streets and drainage, water and sewer, equipment maintenance, signs and signals, administration, and beautification. Appointed Public Works Director in 1999 at age 28, Riemann is the youngest of Gulfport’s department directors.
For the four weeks following the hurricane, Riemann spent 17 hours every day restoring city services. The first 12 nights, he slept on a conference table in his department’s offices to remain accessible to employees. He also hired contractors who worked around the clock, often in 100-plus degree heat. Throughout the initial recovery, Riemann was out in the field, helping city workers and laborers, and solving unforeseen problems. “The emergency plan the city of Gulfport developed in 2000 didn’t account for this level of devastation,” says Riemann, who coordinated supply and emergency relief efforts. “We only had enough fuel for backup generators for two days. We needed about seven days worth.”
The same went for emergency food rations. On the third day following the storm, Riemann and other city employees subsisted on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The city has since purchased additional fuel tanks as well as more emergency rations. For his critical role in coordinating the largest disaster recovery effort in the city’s history, Riemann has earned American City and County’s 2006 Public Works Director of the Year award.
A surge worse than Camille
By Saturday, Aug. 27, Katrina’s 175-mile-per-hour winds qualified the storm as a serious threat, and the corresponding 30-foot surge that appeared on the following Monday was higher than anything ever recorded in Gulfport, including the 20-foot surge wrought by the infamous Hurricane Camille in 1969. “This was our tsunami,” says Barbara Nalley, Gulfport city council president and a 40-year resident. “With this storm, there was total devastation in a lot of areas of the city. Nobody could have anticipated this.”
To make matters worse, Gulfport’s population had nearly doubled since 1969, reaching 72,000 in 2005. “This was worse than Hurricane Camille, no doubt,” Riemann says. “The whole coastline was completely chewed up. It’s hard to describe, and you really had to see this to know how bad it was.” Riemann likens the storm to taking all the houses and putting them in a blender. “It was all splinters. Just splinters.”
The destruction was so severe that landmarks in the city’s downtown were completely obliterated, forcing city workers to rely on a global positioning system to replace traffic lights. “Those of us who lived here all our lives didn’t know where we were in certain parts of the city,” says Ron Smith, assistant director of public works. “Everything was gone.”
The Friday before the hurricane struck, the public works department began implementing emergency procedures. Workers secured buildings and public works construction sites, “getting anything put up or tied down that could become a missile,” Riemann says. Electronic records were placed on backup CDs, and eventually computers were shut down. About 20,000 sandbags were distributed to people in low-lying areas. Heavy equipment was distributed evenly throughout the city’s seven wards and near the homes of public works employees.
Those moves were a key part of the strategy, Riemann says. “If you distribute your fleet, disperse it and let people take the vehicles home, they’re not in one area, which lessens the chances of losing your entire fleet.” Only two pieces of equipment were lost to the storm, he says, and that was because they were at a fire station inundated by the surge.
Several areas of the city were under mandatory evacuation notices. Public works employees switched traffic lights on several roads to a flashing yellow signal. On Aug. 28, the storm was upgraded from a Category 2 to a Category 5, causing many residents, including Riemann’s wife and two children, to leave Gulfport and head to safer ground.
The following day, the storm slammed into Gulfport at full force around 8 a.m. Within 30 minutes, the city had no water pressure, says Riemann, who studied the water system using the city’s Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system. SCADA monitors Gulfport’s 28 water wells and 120 lift stations that pump and maintain pressure for its 20-million-gallon capacity system.
“I knew the surge came in destroying homes and fire hydrants, and parts of the water system,” Riemann says. “And, it did this all at the same time.” A fire hydrant can gush 1,000 gallons a minute, but severed pipes to homes and businesses lose significant quantities as well, he says.
A civil engineer with a master’s degree in public health, Riemann understood the urgency of restoring water and sewer services to prevent and eliminate health hazards. While quickly restoring water service was necessary to prevent evacuating the entire city, the first priority was clearing away debris for emergency vehicles. Employees from the public works and engineering departments, contractors and a few residents wielding their own chain saws, worked together to clear the roads. City Engineer Bill Powell eventually took over debris removal, allowing Riemann to concentrate on restoring other city services.
“Kris is a strong organizer who pays close attention to detail,” says Powell, who originally hired Riemann. “He was able to organize a large intricate operation to restore water and sewer services.”
But, the process was arduous and difficult. “The number one problem we had with trying to restore water pressure and supply was heavy equipment hitting fire hydrants while attempting to remove storm debris,” Riemann says.
Supplying fuel to heavy equipment was a major challenge, according to Smith. “We now realize we needed a fuel truck. We had two pickups with 150-gallon tanks hauling fuel.”
Some parts of the water system were shut down indefinitely for major infrastructure repairs that would come much later. Several water lines were patched temporarily. Wells were checked for saltwater seepage, and pumps were restored to working order.
Restoring water pressure to areas north of Interstate 10 took two days, and residents there had to boil water for two weeks, Riemann says. It took five days to restore water in the southern half of the city where the storm first landed, and three weeks to lift the boil-water alert there. Sewer service was restored after four weeks, and infrastructure repair is still under way.
Even so, Gulfport was the first city in the Gulf area to restore city services after the storm, according to city council president Nalley, something she credits, in part, to Riemann’s conscientiousness and ability to work with others. Nalley first encountered Riemann before she ran for public office. Two years ago, she contacted the public works department about a flooding problem created by a developer that had constructed new homes near her residence. “He didn’t send somebody else,” she says. “I was so impressed that he came to my house. After that, I decided to attend my first city council meeting.”
That on-the-scene response from Riemann is typical, according to Nalley and others. “He’s got a lot of compassion,” Smith says. “When somebody has a problem, he’s able to take the time to listen, work out a solution and steer them in the right direction.”
Before the hurricane, Riemann convinced the city to buy a global positioning system to help map its facilities and track crew trucks. Because the technology helped replace stoplights after the storm, the public works department now is using it to map fire hydrants’ locations so workers will know to avoid them when removing debris in the future.
Riemann also worked with other city departments to develop a performance review system in 2003 that sets benchmarks and incentives to improve contract labor performance on maintenance requests fielded by the city’s streets and drainage, and water and sewer divisions. The system evaluates customer satisfaction among residents who report problems, quality of work through random checks and percentage of requests completed. “The performance standards we established really have done a lot to improve quality,” Smith says.
In 2002, Riemann convinced the city to purchase software from Sandy, Utah-based Azteca Systems that helps manage work requests and interfaces with other programs to pinpoint service problems. He also supported the 2003 acquisition of a phone notification system for dispatching boil water alerts and construction closure notices to residents.
Riemann is a Gulfport native, which explains his devotion to the city. While working at a local pharmacy as a teenager delivering prescriptions, he had to memorize the city’s streets. “[That is] something I never realized would come in handy years later,” he says.
Professional experiences elsewhere helped form Riemann’s work ethic. While in college in 1993, he helped maintain the John C. Stennis Space Center in Bay St. Louis, Miss., and the next summer he worked at Walt Disney World scheduling ferries between Disney Resorts to the Magic Kingdom. “Just working at Walt Disney helped me, the way their whole program is built around customer satisfaction, around going the extra step to please someone,” he says.
Riemann also worked for Delphi Packard in Jackson, Miss., which supplied electronic components for Corvettes. At that job, he says, he learned much from General Motor’s corporate culture, which involved evaluating processes and striving for improvement.
“After I graduated from high school, I had the opportunity to work in other areas, in Orlando, and in Jackson, but I always liked coming home,” Riemann says. “It’s where I grew up. I loved this area.” Considering his efforts after Katrina, many Gulfport residents must be glad he does.
Susan DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer.