2.5K tech center workers waiting for GM flood mop-up

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

About 2,500 General Motors Co. workers and contractors are still not back into buildings at the GM Tech Center in Warren, as GM continues to clean up 19 closed buildings on the campus following Aug. 11 flooding.

UAW local official David Small, who represents 1,750 workers at the Tech Center, pegs the damage and cleanup “in the millions.” The automaker declined to provide an estimate.

On Tuesday, Mark Reuss, GM’s head of global product development, purchasing and supply chain, told reporters that GM does not have a damage and cleanup estimate for the flooding as assessment continues. When asked whether it would set GM back on product introductions, Reuss said: “We don’t know that yet. No, not really.”

Reuss said GM and suppliers were working to reopen buildings. Many employees are working from from other locations.

But not all can. About 200 UAW workers who do design fabrication work on prototype vehicles in the Design Center — and other employees who work in the Research and Development buildings — are on temporary layoff, said Small, acting president of UAW Local 160 in Warren. He hopes those workers are back on the job before Labor Day.

The Design Center and Research and Development buildings, among the oldest on the campus, were among the hardest hit and remain closed, GM said. They had an estimated six to seven feet of water in some basement areas, Small said.

One early estimate said more than 30 million gallons of water — enough to fill 45 Olympic-size swimming pools — had to be pumped out of basements and tunnels at the Tech Center.

Small said water has been removed from basements, but crews are working to recover equipment. “There’s a lot of machinery in the Design basement that’s going to need some major repairs,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Small said some of the equipment is used to power buildings, machinery and cooling systems. GM late Wednesday said power was restored to the R&D building, while the Design building has partial power.

GM’s head of design Ed Welburn has said GM design staff is the busiest it has ever been. GM spokeswoman Katie McBride said global design reviews have been able to continue and GM is not concerned that design won’t be able to stay on track.

McBride, however, said there has been some impact: “You can’t work on clay models if you’re not in the building. Most other work has been able to continue.”

The Design Center employs about 1,400 people, while R&D houses about 300.

As of Wednesday, GM said 16,500 of the 19,000 workers housed at the massive complex were back at work, including thousands of engineers. The automaker is hoping to have all back at work by Friday. Some people who work in basements may have to work from other locations at the Tech Center until cleanup is complete, McBride said.

Small said many buildings are connected by tunnels and that enhanced flooding. He praised efforts to keep employees healthy and safe by keeping them out of damaged buildings. “It’s been an amazing cleanup,” he said.

McBride said experts are conducting safety and air quality tests in each building before allowing workers to return. GM will conduct indoor air quality studies in each building in the coming weeks.

The GM Tech Center closed Aug. 12 and began calling back workers later that day and over the course of last week, first bringing back workers in areas directly affecting customers such as OnStar and call centers.

McBride said carpeting, furniture, computers, servers, video equipment and some vehicles were damaged. Some archival materials such as files and photos also were damaged in the Design Center’s basement, she said.

The Tech Center was designed and built in the early 1950s by famed architect Eero Saarinen.

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts said Wednesday in an interview that Warren estimates residential and business damage from the flood in Warren to total $200 million, up from the city’s $100 million estimate last week. Macomb County on Monday estimated damage at more than $110 million.

“This was clearly the most costly storm in recent history...,” Fouts said. “The cost is going to go be monumental.”