SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. - In July 1993 one of the worst floods of this century swept through the Midwest taking everything in its path including businesses. One of those lost to the Missouri River was Kitterman Plastics in Kansas City, Mo., the second-largest business in the area, which suffered a $3 million uninsured loss. The event gave it a painful lesson in disaster preparedness, which Bradley K. Robertson, Kitterman's vice president, shared with attendees at the Association of Rotational Molders spring meeting in Scottsdale.
Why no flood insurance with a plant located near a river?
``We're not dumb people,'' Robertson said. ``The Army Corps of Engineers had assured all of us in that area that the dikes were built up to the 500-year flood plain and would hold.''
All but seven of the companies in the area dropped their flood insurance based on recommendations by the Army Corps of Engineers, he said.
When the flood waters began to rise, Kitterman brought in 15 tractor-trailer trucks and loaded them with all the high-priced items from the plant.
A week later, when the water began receding, Robertson thought the firm had dodged the bullet. Kitterman brought the trucks back and unloaded.
The very next day water began rising again, only this time the National Guard closed off the roads and refused to let the company bring back the trucks. Workers hurriedly took forklifts and moved everything onto the top storage racks of the warehouse, thinking things would be safe there.
They were wrong. By the time the water crested at 12 feet 8 inches above flood stage, it was obvious the company had lost everything. As Robertson and his father surveyed the damage 13 days later, they debated whether it was worth salvaging.
Everything in the 90,000-square-foot facility was coated with raw sewage, river sludge and oils from the machinery. Hundreds of motors that had been removed from equipment and stored on high racks were ruined.
Nothing escaped the moisture, and the stench is something Robertson said he can smell to this day when he looks at pictures of the damage.
``We finally decided that now we'd been stripped naked, we'd rebuild, but not just to put the plant back like it had been,'' he said. ``We decided that we'd make it better.''
He said Kitterman lost between 50,000 and 60,000 documents stored on computers - representing a loss of $15,000-$20,000 in hardware. The company retrived about half of that information from the minds of its management and engineers.
``It's the intangible dollars that are the most difficult to recoup,'' Robertson said. ``Having an engineer redo all the work that is in his head is time-consuming and costly.''
Work began by gutting the front office, putting in power generators and stringing up temporary lights so workers could rebuild - until the Occupational Safety and Health Administration heard about it, and promptly fined the company $9,600. The lights were a safety hazard, according to OSHA.
``We didn't even fight it,'' he said. ``We didn't have the time. We paid it and went on with the rebuilding.''
Some equipment was rebuilt with the help of fellow rotomolder Ken Wessler of Diamond Plastics Inc. in Dunkirk, Ohio. Other equipment was cannibalized or trashed.
The new Kitterman Plastics now has three injection molding presses doing the work that eight used to do for the old Kitterman. The company rebuilt one HPM and bought two new presses, a Toshiba and a Newbury. Clamping forces range from 50-450 tons.
Kitterman also operates five rotomolding machines, the same as before the flood. Of five vacuum formers, the firm rebuilt two and purchased one new former.
The first rotational molding machine went into operation six weeks after cleanup began, but it was a year before the firm became fully operational. The Small Business Administration helped it get restarted.
Robertson said the company does some things differently today, including having flood insurance and storing backup documents in a local bank vault.
``We rebuilt as a new company,'' he said. ``Today, we're a different company - a much better company than we were.''