Friday, January 26, 2007

Nineteenth Century Recovery

I wonder why all of the programs aimed at helping New Orleans recover in the twenty first century are so nineteenth century.

I first started thinking about this during the early days when I was flying in to work and the plane was filled mostly with FEMA contractors. They were debris removal contractors, FEMA trailer installers and people like that.

One fellow I was seated next to particularly interested me. He described how FEMA's Primary Contractors were dispatching trucks for debris removal in the early days of the clean-up. There was a meeting where a "grid" or "sector" would be identified for debris removal. Since this was, by that time, mostly the pick-up of debris from individual cleanup operations. I could not see why there was any need to dispatch pickup to a specific area. Why not let the pick-up contractors roam the city and pick-up whatever they found? Certainly an advisory as to where pick-up was needed might be in order to allow the contractors to find the material.

Later I began wondering about why they needed a meeting at all. Wouldn't an email or text message advisory be quicker and cheaper? Why not pay the haulers based on the material delivered? If a truck hauled 25 yards of debris, give the guy a chit for payment for 25 yards. Why not have a bar code on the truck and a hand held terminal for a FEMA clerk to verify delivery like a car rental return? The whole process seemed inefficient and designed to support a top heavy bureaucracy.

As I thought further, why not a eBay for Recovery? Why not let individual debris removal contractors bid on the cost of removal? Why not let FEMA establish on a regular basis the amount of debris needing to be removed and then allow a sort of "best price" auction?

The guy I spoke to on the airplane was an entrepreneur. He was willing to risk his money to purchase or lease equipment and come here to make money helping us clean up. The system seemed optimized to reduce his compensation and maintain compensation for the bureaucracy and it's adjuncts. It seems organized to frustrate the small entrepreneur.

The various planning Urban Design exercises have also been relatively uninspiring technically. Outreach and dissemination of information has been highly channelized through traditional processes. Real citizen involvement has been extremely limited as the opportunities for input have been. Why wasn't there a major effort to drive this process through Internet collaboration? Face to face meetings are necessary so is out reach to everyone everywhere.

I also wonder why the Road Home is so people intensive. Why do supplicants need to brave a gauntlet of security to submit to an interrogation and an inspection of the premises? The whole process seem excessively intrusive, unfriendly, opaque and intimidating.

It seems most of the information needed to verify the loss should be readily available on line especially if the insurance and mortgage companies opened their records. Most people have been here and done that.

Why is it my Credit Union can, over the phone, tell me the approximate value of my home and approve a loan without an interrogation? Most people in most places can refinance a home in a week. Why does the Road Home take so long?

Why hasn't some entrepreneur created an online market in reconstruction? KatrinaBay. There are several billion insurance/loan/grant dollars up for grabs. No one seems to be mobilizing to grab them. I have a over well into six figures ready to spend and have no way to find reliable ways to spend them.

It seems we are doing things the old fashioned way.

In the construction industry there is a company called F. W. Dodge, a division of McGraw Hill which distributes Dodge Reports. They are brief descriptions of a project out for bid, including approximate size and a list of the building components included along with contract information. Dodge collects the plans for the projects from Architects and Engineers and makes those plans available so subcontractors and suppliers can quote on the things they provide. They collect bid results and publish them. There used to be similar local organizations including the Commerce Business Daily. The Construction Industry Association helped disseminate similar information. to the construction industry.

Why can't there be something like that for Home Owners reconstructing their houses? It would be hampered by a number of issues unique to this situation but it should be possible. A reverse eBay might be a good model. Compiling accurate information on the project could be a problem. Individual Owners would be hampered by a lack of familiarity with construction methods and terminology.

Somehow project quantities would need to be captured, and project specifications defined. The quantities would require some sort of front end, a lot like the software insurance adjusters use. There would need to be a specification template where people could define the kinds of materials they would like to have. Much of the work would be fairly simple, gypsum board is gypsum board, although finish selection would be difficult, since there can be so much variation.

Why is nobody trying? Why is there so little information available to the public?


Tim said...

Right on! Every time I see one of those Capital One commercials with the barbarians complaining about how they miss the good ole days, I think about The Road Home. Surely these guys would be happy working for The Road Home.

And how many people have inspected my flood-ravaged house? Let's see, someone from my insurance company came to assess flood damage, a different person came to assess structural damage, a third to see about the contents, but later another person sent by my insurance came to verify the structural integrity of the house, so that's four right there. Then FEMA sent someone and so did SBA. And of course the house is now demolished so all that's left to see is the vacant land. Which The Road Home wants to come see. It's enough to drive me blogggy!



Anonymous said...

Hey Rob i agree with you. Where is our entrepenurial spirit. Quelched by the system.

LisaPal said...

Great post, and great questions posed. It's frustrating to see a zillion more logical and efficient ways to approach a situation but be powerless to change it. Or are we?

With all the money and egos involved, you may find deaf ears on those in the position to make decisions and employ common solutions. But what a difference it would make if they listened.

Sophmom said...

"The system seemed optimized to reduce his compensation and maintain compensation for the bureaucracy and it's adjuncts." The system is structured to do exactly that.

Great post.