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FORT BLISS, Texas (February 8, 2011) Matthew Powell, a laborer from Las Cruces, N.M., helps set up a main relief staging area on Fort Bliss' main post, Feb. 8. Photo by David Poe.

FORT BLISS, Texas - Following arctic temperatures that rocked Fort Bliss and the greater El Paso community last week, Balfour Beatty Communities, Bliss' public-private venture housing partner, called upon Belfor Property Restoration to help remedy the approximately 650 homes that suffered water damage across the military community here.

The relief company, which has played vital roles in home relief efforts following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, as well as many other natural disasters around the world, continues to bring in armies of specialists and tractor trailers of supplies to support relief efforts across post.

Homes and other structures in Bliss neighborhoods were far from the only ones that suffered structural damage as previously frozen water pipes thawed throughout the region, revealing breaks in tens of thousands of structures throughout the Sun City. Tony Fowler, project manager for Belfor's effort at Bliss, and 20 other Belfor-affiliated plumbers and labor partners happened to be in El Paso last weekend serving his company's corporate customers when the call from BBC came.

"We surveyed the damage starting at 6 p.m. (Feb. 5)," said Fowler. "We were back on it the following morning and met with the colonel (Col. Joseph Simonelli, Bliss' garrison commander) and Brian Dryer (facility manager for BBC at Bliss) and they gave us their priorities, which were the main post housing, Upper and Lower Beaumont, and Aero Vista neighborhoods."

From a restoration standpoint, Fowler added that with an average of 15 to 20 pipe breaks per home, the main post neighborhoods also have received extra priority because they've received "the most severe damage" of the more than 600 homes that were affected, where for example the Upper and Lower Beaumont homes are only averaging 2 to 5 breaks.

The Belfor team consists not only of experts in plumbing, but also water damage assessments, demolition and other general labor specialties.

With 40 to 50 plumbing and general labor specialists on the ground, as of the morning of Feb. 8, Fowler said Belfor was at approximately 25 percent of what they would become in the coming days in terms of a support force for Bliss families.

"We have more than 120 people working here today (Feb. 8)," he said. "We have 39 different plumbing crews and will expand to 54 crews by tomorrow."

While manpower may be the cornerstone of their work at Bliss, it's not the only hurdle to overcome when it comes to a smooth-running project.

"[Belfor] spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a month on supplies at Lowe's and Home Depot," said Fowler, "so we were able to contact the regional manager we deal with out of Arizona and tell him while we know El Paso doesn't have anything, we need to truck stuff in from Albuquerque, Tucson, and California for anything from building supplies, all the way down to toilet paper for whoever needs it. We work on a lot larger scale than just El Paso [referencing its current lack of supply availabilities]."

Belfor has turned a vacant double lot in Bliss' North and South Main Post neighborhoods into an operations center fitting for the scope of the relief effort currently underway throughout the El Paso military community.

Separated into two parts, one will serve the production phase and will be a staging area for construction-type items such as drying and dehumidification equipment, as well as a mobile command center that will be a collection point for home repair data to make operations continue to run efficiently.

The second area of the lot will act as a resident-response unit. With a set of 1,600-foot heated tents, replacement personal supplies will be on hand, as well as an information station for residents to ensure they are on necessary lists for repairs.

"A liaison will be there to serve the community in whatever way he can," said Fowler, who's worked for Belfor for more than six years. "If a resident says he doesn't have any toilet paper, or maybe he needs a bucket for water in which to fill his toilet tank, those are the type of things he'll be there for."

Fowler said the only Belfor projects he's worked on that have had larger responses were Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike.

"During Katrina we served customers from Florida to Orange, Texas," he said. "Every single town was affected and they didn't have anything."

Though the number of homes damaged at Bliss is a fraction of those natural disasters, Belfor is taking the same initiatives that worked during the relief response and applying them here. As an example of mainstreamed work flows, many Army families affected in a home/structure sense by last week's weather now have found coded placards on the front of their homes with four possible codes to allow damage assessors and repairers quick access to the scenarios that are affecting each individual home without imposing greatly on the people who may be inside.

The codes are "WO" for "water on," "DO" for "dried out," "IH" for "industrial hygienist" and "DW" for "drywall."

The "industrial hygienist" indication means before any reconstruction is done on the home or facility, special steps will be taken to protect its residents from the dangers water damage can leave behind long after the space has been drained.

"After we tear everything damaged out, and before we put anything back, an industrial hygienist will test for mold in the home," said Fowler. "We've contracted a third-party called Dominion Environmental who will have microscopes onsite to analyze air tests and tape samples for possible contaminants."

The "drywall" coding means all drywall or plaster has been repaired.

Fowler said that if a house is deemed habitable in terms of mold concerns, while all repairs will be completed, Belfor's first concern will be that "WO" code, meaning families have running water coming into their homes.

"My personal goal is to have everyone's water on within the next nine days," said Fowler. "My crews are currently averaging 40 homes every 24 hours on 12-hour shifts. The first few production days were pretty rough as we didn't have as many plumbers and we're bringing in supplies from sometimes three states away. Now that people are items are showing up, we should be able to increase those production rates."

He added that while home restoration is Belfor's main expertise and their goals at Bliss will be measured in "homes restored" statistics, they're more motivated by helping people.

"One of the reasons my family is understanding about me being away from home is because they know we are helping people, just like everyone on this base is [through military service]," said Fowler. "We have a company motto, which is 'do the right thing, even when nobody is looking.' I think a client like BBC believes the same thing and they know they can count on us to help when things happen.

"The things we do in a water loss are very scientific, but if we take only that approach we lose the personal aspect of it. Someone walked up to us at 9 p.m. last night and asked, 'I'm eight months pregnant and have six children, can someone please turn my water on'' we sent a crew after hours simply because we have a heart and we all have families too."

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16