In the midst of overwhelming destruction, a United Rentals branch in Louisiana paired with the ERT to find a way forward.
Manager Kevin Olson has been on the front lines of almost 20 hurricanes over his career, but the damage from Hurricane Laura was in a league of its own.
The Category 4 storm made landfall in Louisiana in August 2020 with 150 mph winds, damaging his Lake Charles branch, destroying his house and leaving 11 of his 13 employees homeless. He describes it as one of the worst disaster events he’s ever seen: “With Katrina, there was a lot of destruction, but almost all of it from water. This time, the wind was horrific.”
Olson is a Power & HVAC solutions specialist who serves as an ad hoc member of United Rentals’ Emergency Response Team. His local preparedness for Hurricane Laura started a week in advance of landfall, when his branch mobilized equipment for customers with hurricane contracts. “We were getting equipment out to customers straight for seven days,” he recalls. “We finally stopped the deliveries at 9:00 p.m. that last day. The storm hit at midnight.”
When Olson returned to assess the damage the next morning, he and his employees hooked up generators and started responding to equipment requests as best they could. Behind the scenes, the United Rentals Emergency Response Team already had wheels in motion, with help headed their way.
“The ERT set up in one of our closed-down locations and got generator power distribution going within that first week,” Olson explains. “The camp housed about 30 people. They responded to the equipment requests from our national customers and the utilities and FEMA, and we took care of the local customer base from our location — mostly chemical plants and refineries. There’s no way we could have handled it without the ERT. The whole area was shell-shocked.”
Coordination and communication
With the ERT and the branch both operating, United Rentals effectively had two customer service centers coordinating the response in Lake Charles. “Ideally, you want everybody to be in the same location, but with the magnitude of this disaster, it wasn’t possible,” Olson says. “We handled sales and logistics from our branch. The technicians and support people — the setting up and tearing down, the service calls — all that was managed by the ERT.”
Scheduled phone calls between the two groups continued until mid-November, when the ERT shut down its command center and the branch took over. “The transition was on track to happen sooner, but then here comes Hurricane Delta, and it all ramped back up,” recalls Olson. “And, of course, there was COVID on top of it. It was a tough year for the Gulf, that’s for sure.”
Olson says United Rentals’ ERT structure has major advantages compared with other emergency response efforts he’s seen during 29 years in the industry. “In those other disasters, the responders who showed up were managed from the local branch. The local team would be dealing with the devastation and the lack of communications, and it was hard to manage new people. Hurricane Laura was the first time I saw the ERT in action, how they coordinated their own group and leadership. It took a huge burden off of us.”
Quantity and quality
Coming from an industry background in emergency response, Olson says the scale and speed of the Emergency Operations Center response stands out as unique. “I was impressed by the amount of people they were able to provide, and also the quality of people and the preparedness. I know from past experience that it’s tough to bring in this many responders and have it work. For United Rentals to be able to accomplish this — the sheer size of it — is something special, and their attitude was great.
The company also provided other types of support where needed, including travel trailers, parking spaces and generators for employees whose homes were destroyed by the storm. “Some of our people chose to stay with relatives whose homes weren’t damaged, and others took advantage of the trailers,” says Olson. “It was just a relief to know the help was there and we could focus on our customers.”