After the Storm: A Public Purchasing Perspective
In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, procurement personnel of the Fort Worth (TX) Purchasing Division share their experiences about the massive relief effort
By Robert Combs, CPPB
When the winds and water of Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast of the United States on August 29, 2005, the impact was immediate and severe. Homes and lives were shattered, and the largest Diaspora of this century began.
Refugees were displaced to all states in the nation. The states contiguous to Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Florida received thousands of people forced to flee their homes. Many states provided emergency shelter and services for evacuees, most of whom had escaped with only the clothes they were wearing and minimal possessions in hand.
As busloads of evacuees headed to states located to the north, west, and east of the ravaged areas, mayors and governors hurriedly placed innumerable phone calls, making arrangements to accommodate those displaced.
The first evacuees arrived in Fort Worth, TX, on August 30, 2005, and the first busloads arrived on September 2. Because officials had received advance notice that busloads of evacuees were expected, the city’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC) was opened immediately.
Fortunately, Fort Worth was able to accommodate large numbers of evacuees by having space available in the Will Rogers Memorial Center and an aircraft hangar at Meacham Airport, as well as a few smaller areas in community centers.
Bedding Becomes Top Priority
As the arrival of evacuees was pending, the EOC began calling the city’s Purchasing Division for needed items, such as cots and bedding of all sorts. Almost immediately, routine purchasing came to a halt, as every staff member in the Purchasing Division was put the task of acquiring bedding. Other nearby cities, primarily Arlington and Dallas, were conducting the same search.
Cots and blankets instantly became the most requested commodity in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Every Wal-Mart, sporting goods store, church, and other charitable organization in the area was called upon for sales, loans, or donations to acquire necessary bedding. In addition, buyers began tracking down bedding suppliers, who were located at sites near and far.
In welcoming evacuees, Fort Worth demonstrated that it is one of the most caring and accommodating cities in the world. As the number of evacuees grew, bedding supplies became extremely scarce. Donations of every kind poured in from residents, but were simply not enough.
Camillia Ryan, Purchasing Division Senior Buyer, struck a gold mine by contracting with a mattress manufacturing firm near Dallas. The manufacturer agreed to quickly make hundreds of foam beds covered with mattress cloth. These foam mattresses were suitable for sleeping on cots or on shelter floors.
City Parks Department trucks began making regular trips, returning with much needed bedding for the swelling numbers of guests. Blankets and pillows were purchased from every available source, and donations continued.
Bedding was merely the tip of the iceberg for requested supplies. As refugees poured into Fort Worth shelters, the need for widely diverse commodities became emergencies. Very quickly, the demands for catered food, potable water, portable toilets, personal hygiene needs, sanitary supplies, and other items escalated.
As these needs were being met mostly through the use of purchasing cards (P-cards), nearly all city purchasers quickly reached the maximum dollar amount allowed for card usage, giving rise to the need for emergency contracts. A few select buyers had their P-card limits raised from $5,000 to $250,000.
Call for Additional Necessities
As the displaced hurricane refugees were settling into Fort Worth shelters, unusual requirements developed that had not been initially considered. Examples include:
Prescription medications. Since many evacuees lost needed medicine or left the devastated areas without health-care supplies, prescription drugs were an immediate concern. A contract was quickly arranged with Walgreen’s pharmacies, located in proximity to the shelters. A voucher system developed by the Purchasing Division, Walgreen’s, and shelter managers was used to acquire needed medications and supplies.
Transportation. Initially, Fort Worth relied on its Parks Department employees and City vehicles to transport evacuees, now called guests, to and from pharmacies and medical facilities. The requirements rapidly outstripped the City’s capabilities. Therefore, a small fleet of 15-passenger vans was rented from an existing contract.
Additionally, a contract and voucher system was arranged with a local taxicab company to provide individual transportation for medical appointments. Senior Buyers, Don McKinnon and Kevin Karle, worked closely with the City Parks Department in coordinating vans, hiring drivers, and developing regular transportation schedules.
Clothing and Laundry. Because most evacuees left home with only one or two changes of clothing, this apparel could not sustain them over an extended period. Many charitable organizations and the public donated clothing for men, women, and children. As the season changed and became colder, a voucher system was developed with Burlington Coat Factory to provide warm jackets.
Although necessary clothing was obtained, the need to launder clothing on an ongoing basis, for thousands of guests in public shelters, posed additional challenges. Fort Worth purchasers were given the task of acquiring laundry bags for everyone in the shelters, followed by a laundry contract for pickup and delivery services.
Commercial-size carts then became a hot commodity for sorting and transporting laundry. Senior Buyer, Virgie Wade, took on the monumental task of coordinating laundry service with various suppliers and shelter managers.
Sanitation. Because evacuees were forced to leave home with their lives in danger, arming themselves with daily living essentials such as soap, toothpaste, towels, washcloths, diapers, and deodorant was not a top priority.With the cooperation of a Fort Worth Wal-Mart, personal hygiene kits were quickly developed, supplied to shelters, and distributed by shelter managers to the grateful guests.
Meals. When I was in the United States Army, I always marveled at the capability to provide excellent food for thousands of soldiers in the field or on base. However, the Army has a couple hundred years of experience in feeding thousands of individuals at a single setting.
Fort Worth did not have this culinary experience upon which to depend. Local catering companies were mobilized for massive deliveries three times daily to the now numerous shelters. Vouchers for fast food were developed, and donations of non-perishable food from citizens flowed in steadily.
The abundance of meals provided and disposal of trash called for additional dumpsters at the shelters. Waste Management was called upon, and the company responded rapidly with trash containers and new pickup schedules.
Back at Forth Worth’s City Hall, the aroma of warm pizza was frequently enjoyed, as deliveries were made to the Emergency Operations Center that was now running ’round the clock in shifts.
Communications. A main contributor to a successful operation was the ability to communicate between departments, the EOC, shelters, drivers, and suppliers—literally hundreds of key players involved in the relief effort.
The City’s Information Technology department arranged dozens of new telephone installations, and a mobile radio network was expanded. In addition, the City’s provider of cellular phone service, Hawk PCI, donated hundreds of loaned cell phones at no cost. Melissa Basham, the Hawk PCI government accounts representative, traveled all over the city, delivering newly activated phones, day and night.
Leading the Relief Efforts
A key element to Fort Worth’s success in trying times was leadership. Mayor Mike Moncrief frequently visited the EOC and the emergency shelters, rallying city staff and guests.
City Manager Charles Boswell and Assistant City Manager Libby Watson were personally involved in directing all facets of the support operations, as were key department directors, who lived on fast food, caffeine, and little sleep for weeks, during the non-stop operation of the EOC. Juan Ortiz, EOC manager, was literally everywhere on the scene and involved in all activities of the relief effort.
When activities for the first eight to ten weeks after the storms began to shift from a frenzy to a more manageable, high-intensity pace, city officials worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to plan the recovery of sheltered guests back into the mainstream of life.
As the immediate dangers along the Gulf Coast were mitigated, many people opted to return to their homes or what was left to salvage, thus reducing the shelter population. During this reduction, shelters began to close, and guests were consolidated into city facilities capable of housing people more comfortably and efficiently.
The City’s Environmental Management Department, led by Director Brian Boerner and his assistant, Michael Gagne, paved the way for apartment dwelling arrangements for hundreds of guests and their families. Any apartment vacancies in Fort Worth were quickly allocated to evacuees, and transportation was provided for families to move out of shelters and into family dwellings.
However, the shift to apartments resulted in yet another unforeseen need—furniture. Furnishings of beds, dressers, chairs, tables, lamps, kitchenware, and linens were arranged from all available sources. Planned furnishings in pre-configured sets were based on the number of rooms to be occupied and the number of family members. These moves further decreased the numbers of guests sheltered in temporary facilities and reduced the requirements for laundry, meals, and transportation.
The hectic times of providing immediate shelter and basic necessities transitioned to the equally hectic activity of providing more livable accommodations with the comforts of furnishings.
Activity was still 24-7 for many city employees on the scene. However, thanks to refined plans, procedures, supplies, and transportation, requirements began to fall into routines that were more manageable than in the early weeks, when the tide of guests flowed into Texas. With far fewer guests arriving, city officials could turn their focus to restoring normalcy for guests as much as possible.
In the Purchasing Division, activity began to shift from acquiring goods and services to paying bills. In the flurry of initial activity, invoices and P-card receipts stacked up to mountains of paperwork.
Since nearly all expenditures for the relief effort would eventually be reimbursed by FEMA, detailed accounting records had to be made for all purchases. Thus began the time-consuming task of matching requests to purchases, receipts, and invoices, followed by issuing purchase orders where required. Accounting was calculated to the penny, despite the many hundreds of documents.
In addition, council agendas were being prepared to ratify emergency purchases that exceeded the bid threshold of $25,000. All the while, the routine needs of city operations needed to be addressed and accommodated. The Purchasing Division was a beehive of activity.
As the shelters became more consolidated, new acquisitions slowed. Some high-activity processes remained, such as transportation, prescription drug provisions, and meals. However, the emphasis slowly began shifting toward disposal of materials that exceeded the needs of sheltered guests.
As guests transitioned from shelters to apartments and then out of the city, an abundance of bedding, furniture, kitchenware, and miscellaneous items accumulated. Kevin Karle, the Purchasing Division auction guru, then teamed up with Lone Star Auctioneers, the city’s long-time strategic partner for disposal services involving surplus equipment.
Through the coordinated effort, which included a recently implemented online auction capability, large lots of furniture and used household provisions were offered for sale. Surprisingly, surplus furniture was in high demand, and the electronic auction was a 100 percent success.
Fort Worth shelters finally closed on October 15, 2005, and the EOC returned to standby status on the same day. Guests were now mainstreamed into local society, had managed to return to the Gulf Coast, or settled elsewhere. To again demonstrate the generosity of residents in the area, many local employers arranged jobs for guests, and school classrooms were expanded to accept the influx of students in all grades.
In all, the City of Forth Worth welcomed and provided basic necessities for 3,050 guests.
A variety of factors contributed to a successful relief operation in Fort Worth. In offering advice to other public officials who may be called on to provide disaster assistance, insights include the following:
1. When planning Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs), include purchasers on the team. An entity’s purchasing department is a critical part of the logistics function.
2. When activating an EOC, ensure that purchasing representatives are onboard at the outset of an emergency and are equipped with necessary tools such as PCs and cell phones.
3. Organize acquisition groups into commodity-functional teams, such as those which will focus on transportation, shelter, furniture, and other key areas.
4. Keep records of every expenditure. When the dust has settled, detailed accounting records will be requested by FEMA or other government agencies.
5. Maintain an activity log to ensure that efforts are not duplicated when shifts change.
6. Acquire and maintain phone numbers where vendors may be reached after business hours.
As demonstrated in Fort Worth, city employees provided disaster relief through a coordinated effort that included teamwork, organizational skills, and compassion for those displaced by the devastating hurricanes.
About the Author
Robert Combs, CPPB, has been a public purchasing manager for more than 16 years, and he is currently the Purchasing Manger for the City of Chandler, AZ. Combs has experience in planning, emergencies, and post-emergency disaster recovery following hurricanes in Corpus Christi, the tornado that struck downtown Fort Worth in 2001, and recovery efforts following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. He is a member of the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing, as well as the International Association of Emergency Managers. Combs is also a retired Master Aviator, a position he held in the U.S. Army.