PLANS. ACCIDENTS. ONE PHENOMENON is human nature. The other, albeit arguably, is just plain nature. Their courses crisscross constantly, at random, and we call that life. This past June, Big Builder associate editor Sarah Yaussi and I started talking about a story that would run this month and would focus on hurricanes. Five big ones last year mauled Florida and its neighboring Gulf states, with a tragic toll in lives, homes, dreams, and an estimated $28 billion in material damages. Starting out as stiff breezes off the west coast of Africa, 10 to 12 each year clamor ever more menacingly westward into the Caribbean, then northward toward the Florida Keys.
We thought we'd be enterprising and look ahead at the preparedness of the big builder community in the event of a 2005 barrage akin to last year's. The velocity that characterizes every other part of the production home building industry, we surmised, would probably make for a dramatic business story this year, so back in June we gave it a working title of “Weather or Not.” Sarah set out to report on big builders' learning, the magnitude of the challenge these expected-but-unexpected weather disruptions represent, their plans, operational, technological, strategic, and tactical to deal with them as “whens,” not “ifs.” Sarah's analysis turned up new news in the areas of the early adoption by a number of companies of the best that building science and construction planning currently bring to hurricanes' challenge, the fairly profound implementation of business continuity programs among enterprises headquartered in affected areas but with operations in a wider geographical sphere, the tactical management of post-storm clean-up activity, and the better control of work resumption and deliveries.
On deadline, Sarah filed the story promptly in mid-August, and, if anything, she was nervous that the story lacked a compelling hook of relevance, focused as it was on drama that occurred nearly 12 months earlier, and an aftermath of planning and preparation that only nature would truly test and validate. Then all hell broke loose. Katrina struck, then time went into that slow-motion, seemingly endless sequence of horrifying video clips and sound bites that all too familiarly evoke apocalyptic measures of destructiveness. Nature took its course, and it provides the kind of context none of us would ever have hoped for. On economic, business, and operational levels, experts predict the Katrina effect on big builders to be glancing and inconvenient versus disruptive or structural.
As we go to press, Sarah has largely re-reported her story from start to finish, and we've added several other pieces to attempt to decipher the impact Katrina has had. But, Rita is aiming at Texas and Lake Charles, La., and we're reduced to three hopes.
One is that, in spite of how snarled traffic is on all the highway and byway arteries that lead evacuees to safer parts of Texas and Louisiana on the eve of Rita's ferocious arrival, we hope and pray that lives are spared as this monstrous accident of nature intersects with humans' quite humble plans to cope with a phenomenon like this.
Secondly, we hope that our “What If?” “What Now?” “What Next?” special reporting, starting on page 48, works on a decision-support level that includes, but also transcends, quarterly business objectives. We've gone extra distance to personalize and look closer at what it's going to take to rebuild homes and lives, and we figure that the story can resonate with home builders unlike any other business sector in the nation, even if the area's not in their current business footprint.
Finally, we hope that the trust you have built, and the trust you will need to build strong among your business partners, doesn't become a casualty of these storms. Prices may need to rise as a direct or indirect result of fuel shortages, a run on skilled and unskilled labor, shipping delays, etc. But it's no time for anyone to risk that trust for an unwarranted price increase. These storms may wipe out souvenirs and mementos that people value, but they don't erase memory itself.