Biloxi — Participants in a roundtable discussion with U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) regional administrator Nuby J. Fowler in early April had advice for small businesses who want to share in government disaster contracting: Be ready far in advance of the storm.
Representatives from small businesses participated in the roundtable discussion with Fowler, SBA Mississippi district director Janita R. Stewart and Bill Felder, district representative for U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.). The purpose of the roundtable was to discuss the post-Katrina business environment as it relates to business competitiveness, development and government contracting for 8(a) certified small businesses. 8(a) is a business development program created to help small, minority-owned businesses access federal contracts.
George Faust with Professional Fire and Safety in Brookhaven received a contract to extinguish a hurricane debris fire near Petal that had been burning for several days. The company also was a subcontractor to Bechtel Corp. to provide electrical and plumbing supplies and services to FEMA trailers in Picayune.
Fault said his advice is to understand how the system works long before the storm.
“Have the paperwork done before the storm,” Faust said. “Understand the rules. You have to be reputable, and you must be ready for what they need from you.”
That sentiment was backed up by Felder. “People kept calling the office who just didn’t have the information they needed to get contracts,” Felder said.
Daphne Davis, who co-owns Ace Construction Company in Biloxi with her husband, Kevin, said they stayed up for two hours each night after the kids went to bed for months filling out all the paperwork for 8(a) certification. Then they had the application reviewed by experts three times before they sent it in for certification.
Like some of the other 8(a) contractors who participated in the forum, Ace Construction had major damages from Hurricane Katrina. But they didn’t let that stop them from accessing disaster recovery contracts.
“Katrina crippled us like anyone else,” said Kevin Davis. “Our machinery was under water. We didn’t know for a while whether our employees were safe. Our family was out of our home because of damages. It was heartbreaking to have $15,000 in damages to equipment that was only covered by an insurance check for $4,000. It hurt us, but we are moving forward trusting in God that it will work out.”
Davis said it is important for small business owners to attend SBA meetings, learn the terminology, develop contacts and have bonding, an accountant and a bank lined up to be ready to move when opportunities arise.
“It’s too late to plan when the storm is approaching,” Davis said.
Darrin Miles, owner of S&M and Associates in Pascagoula, also had damage to his business. He had just bid on a $3-million project in another part of the state that disappeared after Katrina. He changed gears quickly to apply for a contract from the Army Corps of Engineers (CoE) to install blue roofs on hurricane- damaged homes. Miles said it was a good opportunity to expand the business, which saw employment mushroom from 20-30 to 200 after the storm before returning to pre-storm levels.
John Calhoun, Integrated Management Services, Jackson, was impacted by the storm even though there was no damage to the office. The business closed due to power outages. “We paid employees for that time because it was the right thing to do,” he said.
Calhoun said earlier training by the SBA helped his company get exposure to companies across the U.S. that helped them be prepared for Katrina.
Several participants voiced the opinion that more contracts need to go to local firms. Estimates are that less than 5% of the large federal disaster aid contracts went to companies in Mississippi or Louisiana. The contractors also said they didn’t feel it was right that protests by large companies like AshBritt, which is based in Florida, slowed down the process effectively blocking local firms from getting any work.
Early in the year the CoE attempted to rebid AshBritt’s $500-million debris contract to give work to local firms. AshBritt filed a protest that having a geographic restriction on the contract violated the law. During the protest period, AshBritt was allowed to continue the debris removal.
In early April, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) denied the protest, and awarded a $150-million contract for debris removal contract to Necaise Brothers Construction in Gulfport. A few days later, AshBritt filed another protest, and Necaise was blocked from doing the work until the GAO rules, which could take up to 100 days. In the meantime, AshBritt is allowed to continue with the debris removal contract. Work is expected to be complete by the end of May.
U.S Rep. Chip Pickering (R-Miss.) has introduced legislation that would require more disaster recovery work to go to companies in the impacted areas. Pickering has criticized large out-of-state companies for holding contracts he believes should go to Mississippi firms.
Daphne Davis said that a lot of businesses from HUBZones came down and got work in Mississippi — rather than this work going to businesses in the disaster zone. Davis said that wasn’t fair, and that a HUBZone is needed for the Gulf Coast. HUBZones are economically depressed areas that receive preferences for awards of federal contracts to small businesses.
Stewart said small businesses in areas affected from the disaster should get work to rebuild their communities.
“This is an area that SBA is looking at,” Stewart said. “The Stafford Act allows us to look at HUBZone issues.”
Many of the large companies that are “storm chasers” have their own subs come along with them who have a proven track record.
“The federal government likes to deal with companies that have a proven track record,” Fowler said. “But how can you get a track record if you can’t get a contract?”
Fowler said she was very impressed with the work she has seen take place.
“You have done an outstanding job of recovery,” Fowler said. “This is a daunting task, but people here seem to be driven to do the work recovering.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.