December 12, 2017
Since the AggMan of the Year award was launched in 1999, we have always recognized a single individual for his or her industry leadership each year. When Hurricane Harvey struck the Houston area in late August, however, numerous aggregates professionals stepped forward to help their community — and rightly so; many hands were needed. Rather than recognize just one person, we’ve opted to recognize a handful of those who volunteered with rescue and recovery efforts. This year’s recipients include Josh Leftwich, regional environmental and business development manager, Knife River Corp.; Darryn Lindsey, area operations manager, Hanson Aggregates; James Tre’ Oquin, central Texas market manager, Alamo Cement; and Rob Van Til, managing partner, River Aggregates, LLC. These gentlemen, and others who came to the aid of their communities during the trio of fall hurricanes, truly represent the industry at its best.
According to The Weather Channel, more than 60 inches of total rainfall was recorded as the result of Hurricane Harvey. In fact, it set a record for the continental United States.
As flooding began, Oquin talked with his wife and employer about traveling from his San Antonio home into Houston to help with rescue efforts. He towed his airboat to the city outskirts and slept in his truck as his wife contacted local rescue efforts to offer his assistance. The first day, he worked with the Fulshear Police Department evacuating people from the city of Weston Lake. The next day, he met with state troopers and traveled to the Sugarland area where more than a dozen people were ferried from their homes. On the final two days of his volunteer stint, he spent time in the communities along the Colorado River, which had crested at around 59 feet. Over the course of four days, he transported about 60 people, including a family of seven and a very pregnant woman and her husband.
Leftwich teamed up with his brother-in-law and some friends to help with rescue efforts. As duck hunters and fishermen, the six men had three fishing boats. They relied on social media reports, including Facebook posts, to see where help was needed. Cajun Navy, a Louisiana grassroots group formed by private citizens during Hurricane Katrina, also provided guidance. “The Cajun Navy dispatcher organized rescue workers,” Leftwich says. “They were very well organized and would announce areas where people needed to be evacuated.
“The neat part about it was citizens just came together without anyone telling us what to do,” he adds. “Everybody worked together to get it done.”
At Hanson Aggregates, Lindsey had gone to the company’s Brazos plant to pick up the boat the operation uses to shuttle back and forth to its dredge so he would be able to get back into the plant and assess damage after the hurricane passed. As the storm worsened, he realized there was a more immediate need. “We knew the neighborhoods in the surrounding area were going to get flooded, just based off the weather forecasts,” he says. “We thought there might be an opportunity to help. The need was so great that there just weren’t enough emergency responders to evacuate everybody that needed to be evacuated.”
Working with the site’s outgoing plant manager, Sean Steagall, and incoming plant manager, Jake McCurry, the Hanson contingent took the boat into the Weston Lakes area, a neighborhood cut off by water. Lindsey stayed on the shore to allow more passengers to be evacuated. Steagall and McCurry evacuated about 25 people over the course of the day.
“I was surprised at how calm everyone was — even those who had lost more or less everything,” Lindsey says, “maybe it was because they were still trying to soak in what had just happened.”
Oquin spotted Lindsey’s bright personal protective gear that day. “He noticed my rain jacket said Hanson Aggregates,” Lindsey recalls. “We got to talking and knew a lot of the same people.”
“He road with me for a couple hours and asked if I had a place to stay,” Oquin says. When Oquin mentioned sleeping in his truck, Lindsey and his wife had him spend the night at their home and fed him. “He called me every day to see if I needed help or a place to stay,” he adds.
Another construction materials company, Sprint Services (owner of Sprint Sand & Clay, LLC) also provided housing for Oquin and some state troopers for the remainder of his stay in the Houston area. “Sprint went above and beyond what they needed to do,” he says. “They had shower facilities there. Every day, I would get back and they would fill my truck with diesel. They would feed us at night and again in the morning. They were great to work with.”
When flooding began in his neighborhood, Van Til was at home with his family. “We were sitting in our house, and the water was moving up about one inch every 10 minutes,” he says. “It never got to our house. We were very lucky.”
In the following days, Van Til volunteered with clean-up efforts. Area churches, relief organizations, and the city itself sponsored volunteer efforts to clean up the thousands and thousands of homes damaged by water. One home belonged to a young family who quickly understood that everything, including the furniture, had to go. That project was a pretty straightforward job of tearing the house down to the studs. The second home proved to be a more difficult project. “There was still 6 inches of water in the house,” Van Til says. “It was a retired couple, and they still had the power on. They didn’t know where to begin, and this was four days later.”
Helping others return to everyday life was the focus of Van Til’s family, which pitched in to help by transporting those who needed it, making meals for others, and working with the demolition crews. The biggest challenge, he says, was dealing with the “intricacies of life.” For example, dozens of local high schools were damaged as well. For these schools, simple matters such as locating jerseys for the football team became another hurdle in a return to normalcy.
Getting back to business
With $150 billion to $180 billion in damage estimated by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, Hurricane Harvey didn’t just impact the city of Houston. It also affected many aggregates operations and, more importantly, their employees. “Our Beaumont operation was hit pretty hard,” Leftwich says. “We had roughly 15 of our employees’ homes ruined.” Van Til adds that a number of River Aggregates employees’ homes had water damage, but only one was displaced from his home.
While many of the operations themselves were flooded, planning efforts minimized damage as much as possible. “We’re pretty good at anticipating floods,” Lindsey says. “We’ve learned a lot of lessons over the years, mining along these rivers.” Three of Hanson’s Houston operations are dredging sites. They prepare for high water by ensuring that there is plenty of slack in the swing lines and spuds don’t have a pin at the top to allow the dredge to float higher, if necessary. “It’s better to lose a spud than an entire dredge,” Lindsey explains. The plants are built to ensure their boosters are either on high ground and well out of the flood plain or on pontoons so they can float if the river swells. “We did have some components that got a little water in them, but we should be okay,” he adds, noting that electricians assessed the plant after they could regain access.
“Most of our sites are used to water getting high,” Leftwich says. “We got all of our equipment to high ground, but one of our sites does sit on a bayou, so it had some damage to pumps and motors.”
River Aggregates had a similar scenario. Mobile equipment was moved to high ground, Van Til says, but his control rooms were under water, creating a number of electrical projects with issues such as load cells on the scale, motors on conveyor belts, and cards for classifying tanks.
Beyond equipment recovery, labor is another challenge facing many operators. “One of the big problems now is that all the work we had is delayed because contractors are delayed and a lot of subcontractors have left and are not coming back,” Leftwich explains. A portion of the subcontractor labor force was comprised of migrant workers who either relocated or found that they can earn more money with cleanup efforts than construction projects.
While recovery — both personally and professionally — is a slow process, the people of Houston are working together to make it happen. “What I’m most proud of is the community’s response. It’s not about cars or buildings or equipment. It’s about people,” Van Til says. “Houston is nothing if not resilient.”