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Restoration expert

Clear up is still under way in New Orleans following Hurricaine Katrina. John McKenna talks to MWH's Bruce Howard.

Bruce Howard spent 26 years in the US Army Corps of Engineers, specialising in emergency and disaster work in areas like Bosnia and Bangladesh.

When he left the Corps and joined consultancy firm MWH in 2002, he could have been forgiven for thinking his days of disaster management were behind him - especially as he left his native US for the far less disaster prone region of Warrington in Cheshire, as the firm's managing director for programme management in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India.

Then in September Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and Howard's phone rang. 'The CEO asked me if I would get out there to oversee the emergency work we were doing, and oversee transition of the projects to US managers, ' says Howard.

He was asked by MHW president and chief executive officer Robert Uhler to visit New Orleans for an initial two week period to carry out a quick evaluation, followed by a longer three month term, which he left to begin last week.

Before the hurricane MWH had been contracted by the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans to evaluate the city's waste water system. The £370M contract involved identifying which sections of the city's sewer lines needed to be upgraded as well as evaluating the condition of the city's 43 pumping stations.

This work was far from complete when Katrina hit, and will of course be affected by the tropical storm, although Howard predicts that there will only be slight modifications to the original contact.

But for now all efforts are focused on restoration and repair. Once the hurricane and ensuing floodwaters had reduced the Big Easy to Atlantis, the city water board and Federal Emergency Management Agency called on MWH to manage debris clearance, clear storm drains and repair ruptured sewage pipes.

'It reminded me of what I saw in Bangladesh, ' says Howard, referring to the 1991 cyclone which killed 138,000 people in the Chittagong area. He worked in the region during his time in the Corps and later used this experience to lead a team in the clear up of Bosnia following its bloody civil war.

Howard has learnt that every disaster is different and in New Orleans, MWH had the mixed blessing of being a local firm.

So while staff had crucial local knowledge, both New Orleans offices were inoperable. One, near the notorious Superdome in the city centre, had all its windows blown out by Katrina and was flooded, while the other further out in the suburb of Metairie had no electricity.

Fortunately, the firm had a third office in the neighbouring city of Baton Rouge. It was here that Howard based himself on his first trip, staying at a colleague's house and often driving for two hours and through several military checkpoints to get into New Orleans to assess the damage.

Like all those involved in the New Orleans clean up, MWH staff have been working long hours in sweltering conditions, seven days a week. They directed the clear-up trucks and managed a data system to monitor what debris had been collected and where it was going. But US federal law means that they will have to perform the debris removal task twice.

'Push crews and haul crews for debris moved into the affected areas when nobody was in their homes, ' says Howard.

'But there was obviously all the all the stuff in the houses we couldn't get to because of the right of entry law. So we have cleaned the sites but when people get back, all of their ruined household goods will be put out on the streets and we will have to go back, ' he says.

Howard's team also faced the unenviable task of repairing the sewer system, where debris from the floodwaters had flowed through drains into the system, blocking it in some parts and ripping it apart in others.

Alongside this the city's sewage and water board asked MWH to carry out a block by block review of the drinking water system and clear storm drains in the city's relatively unharmed French Quarter, ahead of tropical storm Rita which threatened a few days later.

'The water system was still running at full capacity but there were no users. Many of the water lines were broken due to hurricane damage, and there were many leaks, ' says Howard.

The water treatment plants were unharmed, he adds.

With a strong presence in the area, Howard hopes that MWH will win the long-term contracts for the emergency work it has been doing so far. 'We are one of the top water consultants in the US so I believe we will get our fair share of the work. We have a lot of experience and a lot of people already in New Orleans, with others able to come from around the country, ' he says.

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