Hearings - Testimony
 
Full Committee Hearing
Hurricane Katrina Response
Wednesday, November 2, 2005
 
Hon. David L. Winstead
Commissioner, Public Buildings Service, General Service Administration

Good morning, Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee. My name is David L. Winstead and I am the Commissioner of the Public Buildings Service (PBS), U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). Thank you for inviting me here today to discuss our response to Hurricane Katrina and the on-going recovery.

 

GSA manages a diverse portfolio of real estate for the Federal government – over 340 million square feet of space in office buildings, courthouses, border stations, warehouses, etc. We serve nearly 60 agencies (over 400 bureaus), the U.S. Courts, and Congress. We house over one million Federal employees. We see ourselves as mission enablers, providing the functional space needed by Federal agencies to accomplish their missions.

This year, six hurricanes have struck the United States; the most significant being Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. While all three impacted our customers and our real property assets in the Gulf Coast region, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters the United States has ever experienced. The impact zone spanned two GSA regions: 200 miles wide, as far west as Louisiana, as far east as Florida, and as far north as Kentucky.

In the face of the unprecedented demand created by Hurricane Katrina and then Hurricanes Rita and Wilma that followed, GSA’s first priority has been to support the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Our role is defined in the National Emergency Response Plan: specifically, Emergency Support Functions #2 (Communications) and #7 (Resource Support). We have provided and continue to provide as needed: communications support, emergency relief supplies, facility space, office equipment, and contracting services. The level of support required of GSA has been greater than ever before experienced.

Hurricanes pose two additional challenges to GSA: 1) to provide space and services to our customers; and 2) to safeguard our real property assets both through preventive measures and repair. To meet these two challenges GSA draws from the extensive experience of its professionals in property management, leasing, and the architectural/engineering disciplines.

GSA’s hurricane response strategy is generally comprised of the following: 1) Advance preparation; 2) customer communications/hotlines; 3) damage assessment; 4) returning customers to operational status; and 5) returning owned and leased space to operational status. This last step may be as simple as waiting for area-wide power to be restored or as complex as repairing or completely replacing facilities. GSA’s strategy was developed from the lessons learned by our regional associates who are well-practiced in hurricane response.

Generally, advance preparations begin once the National Weather Service projects a hurricane with the potential for landfall. Buildings located within the hurricane’s forecast path are identified, reviewed, preventive action is taken, and daily conference calls on readiness between service center directors in those areas and regional staff associates begin. Regional personnel follow the direction of local officials regarding evacuations.

When weather predictions indicated that Hurricane Katrina would make landfall, regional associates began tracking the projected path and alerted field personnel. Information was also conveyed between our Southeast Sunbelt and Greater Southwest regional associates. Advanced preparations at facilities in the hurricane’s forecast path began. Such preparations included testing and fueling generators, inspecting and securing building components, shutting down building systems where possible, placing sand bags where appropriate and boarding up the lower levels of multi-story buildings. Prior to Hurricane Katrina's landfall in the Gulf Coast, a major storm surge was predicted in Gulfport, MS. As a preventative countermeasure, the first three floors of the Dan M. Russell Federal Building and Courthouse in Gulfport, MS were boarded-up at an estimated expense of $ 20,000. This investment saved taxpayers an estimated $1 million dollars in damage to windows from heavy rain, high wind, storm surge flooding, and floating and wind-borne debris.

Concurrent with building preparations, PBS established information hotlines and websites to communicate with customers. As information on the Hurricane and the status of facilities became available, the hotlines and websites were updated. Customers could call the Hotline number and/or access the website to get information about their building.

Simultaneously, the GSA National Office established a rapid response team to (1) accumulate and coordinate the deployment of resources such as equipment and people from our other regional offices, (2) establish and distribute budgetary and procurement policy, (3) accumulate and distribute situational intelligence, and (4) establish and maintain senior level communications with FEMA and the affected agencies. The command structure and communication between National Office, Regional Offices, Service Center Directors, and Command posts has become a newly established piece of GSA hurricane response strategy.

GSA’s Federal Telecommunications Service and Federal Supply Service also responded at an unprecedented level. Direct support provided to FEMA operations included temporary lodging through purchase agreements, personal property management, shipping services, fleet vehicles, telecommunications services, furnishings and supplies. GSA also assisted local governments in re-establishing communications and procuring vital supplies and services for the recovery effort.

At the same time, building damage assessment teams were mobilized in cities outside the projected path of the storm to assist the local service center teams with damage assessment. Once personnel were permitted back into the impacted areas, GSA began the process of damage assessment and bringing buildings back on-line. Initial response was hampered by the wide geographic area affected by Hurricane Katrina, the extensive damage and prolonged flood waters.

Within the first few days following Hurricane Katrina, preliminary damage assessments of buildings were completed. Generally, the extent of the damage was not as severe as expected. Buildings in New Orleans were not accessible for evaluation until nearly a week after the hurricane hit. Not until flooding receded were GSA officials, escorted by Federal Protective Service Officers, able to begin damage assessments.

In terms of the impact to our real property assets, GSA did not suffer any catastrophic losses. Damages sustained included: power outages, water intrusion, power distribution equipment damage, limited structural damage, mold build-up, broken windows, and major roof damage and leaks. Of the 42 government-owned locations, the most substantial damage occurred in New Orleans where buildings withstood the onslaught of wind and flood waters. Most notably, the roof of the historic New Orleans Custom House failed, although structurally, the remainder of the building is sound. It is a testament to the design and construction of our buildings that in the hurricane-stricken area, both our oldest and most historic building, the New Orleans Custom House and our newest federal building, the Dan M. Russell Federal Building and Courthouse in Gulfport, MS, sustained limited damage.

In contrast, the leased inventory fared less well, with damages ranging from total loss to minor repairs. GSA worked closely with our lessors to ascertain damages. Where buildings were closed, rent payments were suspended. Fortunately, leases in the impacted area tended to house customers with smaller space requirements, making alternative worksites easier to find.

Immediately following the hurricane, GSA began working with customer agencies to provide them with functional space and enable them to accomplish their missions. This included finding replacement space, procuring trailers; and transporting vital records. Alternative space options ranged from: underutilized properties in GSA’s or other Federal agencies’ inventory, hotel-ing, co-locating, working at home, and re-locating to other parts of the country.

Within GSA-provided space there were approximately 2600 federal employees in 28 Federal Agencies whose operations were significantly impacted by Hurricane Katrina. To date, all customer agencies in Regions 4 and 7 are operational. As of October 27, three government-owned and 33 leased locations, a total of 36, remain closed as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

Hurricane Rita, a Category 3 storm, hit Texas almost immediately after Hurricane Katrina. With personnel already deployed and with more time to plan, GSA’s response to Hurricane Rita was efficient and effective. As of October 27, 2005 all federal buildings in the areas hit by Hurricane Rita are open, with the exception of the Jack Brooks Federal Building in Beaumont, TX, which is only partially open. Four leased locations in the area remain closed.

The eighth storm to hit Florida in two years, Hurricane Wilma hit on Monday, October 24, 2005. Thirteen buildings are closed as of October 27, 2005. Damage assessments for GSA’s 213 owned and leased facilities in the wake of Hurricane Wilma are still pending. Reported damage is consistent with heavy rainfall and strong winds including water intrusion, roof damage and building components. Once power is restored, comprehensive damage assessments will be conducted to determine the full extent of the damage.

In the days that followed Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, GSA was asked to estimate the damages to our government-owned buildings. At that time, we estimated total capital repair and replacement costs of $60 million and additional operating costs of $15 million. These initial estimates are proving to be substantially correct, as access to more buildings is gained and more comprehensive estimates are received. We are working with our authorizing and appropriating committees to receive approval to exceed prospectus funding limitations for emergency repair work on the affected buildings. We are currently estimating capital and operating costs for Hurricane Wilma. We believe these costs will be relatively low.

In answer to Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Rita and now Hurricane Wilma, GSA rapidly deployed teams of experienced federal property managers, leasing specialists, contracting officers, attorneys, engineers, and environmental, telecommunication, and supply specialists. The effectiveness of GSA’s response is primarily due to the expertise and professionalism of these associates. The consequence of this commitment creates a real challenge for GSA, as the increased workload created by these hurricanes does not diminish the normal day-to-day workload nationwide. The scope and numbers of employees GSA has deployed, nationwide, to help with the response effort for FEMA and GSA operations is unprecedented.

Mr. Chairman, GSA has successfully responded to the unprecedented 2005 Atlantic hurricane season and the closely spaced series of hurricanes occurring within two months. Our success can be attributed to: (1) organizing the preparation and rapid deployment of resources to stricken areas; (2) the availability of experienced professionals; and (3) organizing effective and continuous communication with customers and the internal response team structure. In addition, superior design and sound construction of our public buildings resulted in their ability to withstand these storms without extreme damage.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to testify before your Committee. I will be happy to answer any questions you or Members of the Committee may have.

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