Disaster Cleanup Company Explains Iowa Flood Work

Dennis McKinley is the professional to call when the floodwaters recede. With more than 20 years in the industry, he serves as a project manager for BMS Catastrophe, a privately held company with 731 employees in Fort Worth, Texas, that specializes in cleaning up after fires, floods and other disasters.

Not surprisingly, the Midwest flooding has drawn BMS to the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where 20 campus buildings and numerous athletic fields and facilities remain closed. McKinley's responsibility is to "un-muck" the swamped campus by removing sitting water, airing out drenched walls and removing other remnants, such as sewage and dirt. For McKinley and his crew, time is critical. The ability to salvage part of a building largely depends on how quickly the insides are treated. NEWSWEEK's Susan Elgin talked with McKinley about his messy job. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How does the flooding in Iowa compare with the other disasters you've cleaned up?
Dennis McKinley:
I would rank it right up there with the worst that I've ever seen. The floods have displaced a lot of folks and the extent of the damage is extensive.

Some have drawn comparisons between this flood and Hurricane Katrina. Do you think that's valid?
It doesn't matter if even one home is flooded: If it's your home, it is your Katrina. I sympathize with these folks. From my observations of the areas that were hit down here, they were hit equally bad. The biggest difference is that you have services right outside of the affected areas. I can go into a hotel and have a hot shower and a meal at night. During Katrina, I couldn't. We lived in tents and hoped for a shower every few days. That event was so widespread. Certainly, this is bad, but at least there are hotels and family and friends nearby that were not affected that can help. I've been in this business for 20 years, and I hope I'll never see anything like Katrina again in my lifetime.

When did you arrive in Iowa?
I came on June 12. The water had not crested in Iowa City and was still rising in the Cedar Rapids area.

Do you always arrive before the disaster hits?
Not always, but we'll go into a hurricane area before it hits, or in this case, before the river crests. If we know disaster is imminent, we will start staging equipment that we will need so we can start to work as soon as it is over. It's difficult because we never know exactly where the storm is going to be and we're always concerned about the safety of our people. In the case of Katrina, we were close when the hurricane hit, but certainly not downtown. It can be nerve-racking at times; floods are a lot easier to predict.

What is your normal day like?
I don't really have a normal day. Before I came here, I was home for a little over a month, which was very unusual for me. When I get a call to go on a job, I'm up at 5 in the morning. I start the first meeting at 6:30 to make sure crews are lined up for the day. During the day I'm checking on crews and making sure all of the logistics are in place. I spend the later part of the day and evenings at meetings with University of Iowa officials to make sure everyone knows what our status is. I spend until about 10:30 p.m. on documentation and then wake up the next morning and repeat the cycle. That will go on for two to four weeks until a project smoothes out or is completed.

How long are you on the road, in a given year?
I'm gone 300 days a year, give or take. As far as number of actual jobs, that depends on the year and size of the project. The University of Iowa is a large project, so I will be here for quite some time. This year, before Iowa, I ran eight projects in various sizes, such as buildings affected by a fire or flood, and I'd be done in a week or two.

You live in Texas. Do you ever watch the news and see a story about heavy rain in the Midwest and think, "I wonder if I'll be there soon?"
Every day. Even if I go out for lunch or play golf with my son, my wife is watching the news. If she sees something, I'll get a text message, saying, "There's flooding in the Midwest—do you think you'll have to go?" It's always on our minds.

How do you prepare?
I have three bags that are packed and in my vehicle at all times. The minute I get home, I do my laundry and repack. The minute I get a phone call, I get on the next available flight. Doesn't matter, day or night, I get on that next flight.

How do you mentally prepare yourself for this?
It's very difficult. We find that, with a lot of our personnel, once they come out and do the work for the first time, they're either with us for a long time or they leave quickly.

How do you explain what you do to people?
I tell them I am in the cleaning business, the emergency cleaning business. If no one has ever experienced a flood or fire, they have no concept of what's involved. When flood enters your home, everything is affected. Things you wouldn't even think about are affected and it's hard to explain what we really, truly go through.

What is the most rewarding part of the job?
That's an easy question: helping people. When you first walk into a disaster area and see that building, it's dark, smells and is nasty, and the people you're with are very upset. But you look at that person and you know that you can make them happy in a week or two, and that you can put their life on the way to recovery. I make a lot of friends on the road because we work closely with them to help them through the disaster, and that's very rewarding.

And the most challenging?
Making sure all of the different constituencies are happy on a daily basis. It can be such a diverse group. Everyone has his or her individual concerns. I make sure that every one of these groups communicates with me what is important to them and then I get that taken care of in the right priority order.

Who is working on the flood recovery now?
We have people that we pull in from all over the country and we fly them in on an as-needed basis, and then we hire local labor. At the University of Iowa, we have a large number of students that signed up to come work. There are other individuals displaced from jobs that signed up to work.

When will you be done with the cleanup at the University of Iowa?
Hopefully we will be done with our part of the cleanup in three weeks without any unforeseen circumstances. Things change every day; it's a fluid situation. That's a bad pun, isn't it?