BEYOND THE STORM — Keeping people working: Business weathers hardship; makes successful return

Published 6:02 pm Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Tropical Storm Harvey affected multiple businesses in Southeast Texas — big and small, new and old — and affected them in ways ranging from minor to severe.

One Port Arthur business suffered major setbacks but also made great strides toward reestablishing itself as a fully operational enterprise again.

Bruno Fernandez is the president of Orbital Plus, a contractor business.

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“We do insulation, scaffolding and paint,” Fernandez said. “We’re all industrial, all business. We are strong on the industrial side.”

Fernandez’s business is located on the 3100 block of Gulfway Drive, one of the many sections of Port Arthur hardest hit by Harvey floodwaters.

Inside the company’s office building the water height reached about 18 inches. Fernandez had plenty of pictures of the stripped out walls and removed sheetrock after the flood.

Orbital Plus had just relocated to its Gulfway location a month before Harvey struck.

“We tried to get some sandbags to prevent the (water) from getting in, but the water was already close to the door…” Fernandez said. “Nobody had sandbags because they had sold out by 10 or 11 at night … and three or four sandbags wouldn’t have done anything.”

Fernandez remarked that neither he nor anyone else at his company was prepared for the amount of rainwater Harvey would bring.

“It’s one thing when you know they’re coming — the hurricanes, the wind — but when the water is here, when it’s just the rain, there’s nothing you can do…” he said.

“Every hour, you’re getting another quarter-inch of rain. Water is silent; there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Nevertheless, Fernandez had sent some of his employees beforehand to get fuel for their equipment.

“If you have equipment but no gas or diesel, how are you going to move that equipment?” Fernandez asked. “Before any storm comes, I will give a call to all my employees and make sure we have enough gas and diesel to run any piece of equipment.”

Fernandez said his workers saved about 1,000 gallons of fuel before the floodwaters became too high. Still, there was much that could not be saved.

“We lost everything and we had no insurance on the building,” Fernandez said. “They don’t require flood insurance in this area.”

Fernandez estimated the company had lost about 90 percent of its equipment on the ground, including anything that was in storage. The scaffolding equipment they had inside the refineries, however, was thankfully fine and in working condition.

Fernandez said the refineries they worked with kept going and were largely untouched during the storm.

Orbital Plus started renting equipment from companies in Houston and Louisiana to meet the demand for their services.

“We have really good customers. After a week, customers started to call,” he said.

Like many residents, several Orbital employees found themselves with washed-out homes.

“Ninety percent of our employees are from Port Arthur,” Fernandez said. “Eighty percent lost everything.”

Orbital Plus has 60 to 65 employees, with an estimated 80 to 90 percent who lost everything.

“We kept people working,” Fernandez said. “We didn’t lay off or fire because people had to ask for time to repair their houses and at the same time had to keep working to support their families.”

Fernandez said 100 percent of employees are back to work, but that maybe 50 percent haven’t finished their houses yet. Most of them did not have insurance.

Fernandez said it took three months for him and his workers to return to their office.

“We were using the other building to operate out of,” Fernandez said. “We used mobile home trailers, too.”

Fernandez said the office employees had to stay out of the area due to poor conditions like mold.

Fernandez and fellow employees were busy working on repairs and restoration before the company returned to its completed office last month.

“We did the repairs ourselves,” he said. “Because insurance didn’t cover it.”

However, Orbital Plus now has flood insurance

“You need to cover your stuff. But after that, you can (only) be so prepared,” Fernandez said. “I can’t live with my lifejacket on. Life continues.”

This story appeared in Volume 3 of The Port Arthur News Profile, April 22, 2018