By DEBBIE BURT MYERS
The president of W. G. Yates and Sons Construction Co., discussed the impact of Hurricane Katrina and the company's ongoing role in the Mississippi Gulf Coast recovery effort Monday at the Philadelphia Rotary Club.
Philadelphia native William Gully Yates 3rd, now of Biloxi, predicted that the rebuilding effort would take another eight to 10 years and said the true test would be how the region handles such things as workforce development and housing.
While many of the casinos have reopened, he said, many of the restaurants and retail and mid-level establishments were still struggling.
Many of the concerns center around the fact that insurance rates in some cases have skyrocketed 400 percent, he said.
"How we handle workforce development, how we provide housing when those jobs get back will be the true test of how successful we are as a resort community," he said.
He praised the Philadelphia headquarters for enormous logistical support immediately after the storm that enabled Yates Construction to be a huge force in the initial rescue and recovery.
Yates used a PowerPoint presentation to illustrate the wrath of the hurricane which totally destroyed the homes and possessions of 60 Yates employees.
One employee died in the August 2005 storm.
The first floor of the Yates office, just more than a mile west of the Biloxi lighthouse on U.S. 90 and within site the water, was destroyed, but it was one of the first to reopen.
Yates' Biloxi employees, which now total 1,200, along with others from Philadelphia and other southeastern offices pulled together to help get the city of Biloxi back up and running in the days after the hurricane, Yates said.
"So many people came back to work not knowing what they were going to do with their own lives as they didn't have homes," Yates said. "They came back and said: 'What's the plan, what are we going to do.'"
Much of the credit, Yates said, went to the support from the company's Philadelphia operations which provided logistics under the direction of his father, W. G. "Bill" Yates, chairman of Yates Construction and president of the parent company, The Yates Companies Inc.
Yates Construction is one of the largest contractors in the United States and the third largest in Florida. It's rated by Engineering News-Record as number 25 in the nation, and has between 8,000 and 9,000 employees.
The company had between 25 and 35 ongoing major projects that were shut down prior to Hurricane Katrina making landfall, Yates said.
After riding out the storm in Philadelphia with his wife, the former Tara Duett of Philadelphia, and children, Abby and Gully, Yates said his company was like most others, left without a means of communication in the wake of the storm.
With no cellular service, Yates said he learned from an employee over a cellular telephone walkie-talkie that the first floor of the Biloxi office had been destroyed.
He and his father soon obtained special permission from the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency to actually fly back to the coast.
"We were the only two fixed wing planes on the Gulf Coast that day," Yates said. "There were helicopters everywhere, but no other jets, no other planes. We could barely get in because of all the debris."
Company officials first did a damage assessment, leaning heavily on its Philadelphia operations.
"We brought down constructional engineers and made a place where it was safe to bring people back in and start back to work," he said.
Yates officials first discussed relocating its Biloxi office off the water.
"We came to the conclusion for more reasons than just Yates Construction that we needed to be back on Main Street with our flag up and our sign out and say: 'Hey, we are open for business and we are going to build our community back.'"
The office was back in full operation in less than three months.
Yates pointed out the numerous infrastructure problems encountered, noting that the Ocean Springs-Biloxi bridge was destroyed. Special permits had to be obtained before accessing Highway 90 for months after the storm.
While Yates was working alongside employees on the ground, his father ran logistics out of the Philadelphia operation.
"He was running trucks constantly with fuel, ice, water and food. They were basically a logistical support center for the Biloxi office," Yates said.
One of the company's first charges, Yates said, was to try to get the city of Biloxi back in operation.
"The city is a Biloxi is a client of ours. We did construction management work for them before the storm, helping them build roads and infrastructure," he said.
Yates assisted the mayor's office by providing cellular phones and setting up generators.
Yates Construction was immediately engaged to help clear roads, a project that continued for the first 70 hours.
"Our guys were right there with the search and rescue teams going through and trying to find bodies as we cleared the roads," Yates said.
Later, the company concentrated on taking care of its existing clients, helping rebuild casinos and hotels including the Beau Rivage which opened one year to the day of Katrina's landfall. The company had constructed the original casino as well.
"This project, from a cost per month basis, was the largest project we've ever done, over $300 million of work in 10 months," Yates said.
When the Beau Rivage reopened in August, its chief executive officer pointed out that Yates construction had 450 people on the job within three days where most places in the community didn't have anybody for months.
"The way we did that was in large extent because of the support of the Philadelphia office and the support we had here. We shut down some operations in other offices like Dallas, Memphis and Jackson and we sent a lot of people down to the coast from other locations in the southeast but it was really spearheaded from the Philadelphia office," he said.
Two Yates' projects under way prior to the hurricane were also affected indirectly by the hurricane.
The Grand Casino floated across Highway 90 to the west landing on the construction site of the new Ohr-O'Keefe Museum.
"That's a very, very prestigious project for us and the community, and this barge actually came and sat down on our project," Yates said.
The President's Casino floated one half mile and landed on a condo project under construction by Yates.
In all, Yates said more than 70,000 homes were lost on the Gulf Coast in a market that produced about 1,500 to 2,000 a year.
"So at that pace, it's going to take 35 years to get back to where we were before," he said.
About 35,000 people remain in FEMA trailers on the Gulf Coast.
"It's those people that we really need to worry about. They still need a lot of help," he said.
Yates is a graduate of Philadelphia High School and the University of Mississippi. He received a CPA in 1995 and went on to earn a master's degree in construction management at Arizona State University.
He was the guest of his mother, Nancy, and was introduced by his father.