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Spirit back online after EF-3 tornado in 2012

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, April 12, 2013, at 3:03 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, April 13, 2013, at 7:17 a.m.

It’s been one year since Spirit AeroSystems took a direct hit from a mile-wide EF-3 tornado that tore off roofs, damaged buildings and infrastructure and left debris strewn about the site.

Forty of Spirit’s major buildings were damaged and many supporting facilities also received damage on its south Wichita campus.

Employees got to safety, and no one was killed or injured.

Insurance claims from that night — April 14 — totaled more than $235 million.

Customers, suppliers and others remain in awe of the recovery effort.

“You’ve seen other locations around the country go through things like this and recoveries tend to be extremely long,” David Coleal, Spirit AeroSystems senior vice president and general manager of its fuselage segment, said . “They were impressed with how quickly we were able to come back online.”

The company received support from employees, contractors, suppliers, government officials and others.

“The outpouring of support we got was fantastic,” Coleal said.

Crews worked around the clock to assess the damage, build and work on recovery plans, clear debris and restore basic service.

The end of the Industrial Plant Building 2 on south Oliver collapsed.

The site was without power and natural gas service.

Workers worked on roofs, checked equipment and put up temporary walls so employees could return to work.

Some operations were moved to other areas.

Through it all, Spirit didn’t miss a customer delivery.

Boeing, Spirit’s largest customer, praised the company for its efforts.

“We still have a lot of customers amazed at what we did,” Coleal said.

Temporary fixes have had to be replaced by permanent ones.

That work continues.

The IPB2 building has been rebuilt.

A warehouse severely damaged by the twister has been leveled.

It’s being rebuilt with more efficiency and productivity in mind, Coleal said.

“There’s a lot of lean thinking about logistics, transportation routes, entry ways, so when we come back, we’re more efficient with our current footprint than we were previously,” he said.

The new warehouse will be operational this year.

An experimental flight test building, once used in the 1940s to test the B-29, had to be leveled.

It will be rebuilt as parking and green space. That will be completed in 2014.

“We’re still running a little bit of a disaggregated organization,” Coleal said.

That will be consolidated once the new warehouse is in operation.

Best laid plans

When the tornado hit, Spirit already had a disaster recovery plan in place in how to orchestrate recovery in the event disaster would occur.

The company was able to follow the plan.

One lesson learned, however, involved information technology.

“We thought we had certain things that were protected, like our IT center,” Coleal said.

The site had data centers at each end of the facility — about a mile apart.

“The tornado was a mile wide and hit both of them,” Coleal said.

The data was knocked offline but not destroyed.

It took two or three days to bring the data back online.

Spirit now has data centers in multiple locations.

A key to the company’s return was the support and rally of the employees. Employees were off work for a week while operations were restored. Spirit paid employees for the time they were off.

“I think that really showed our commitment to our employees,” Coleal said.

Employees responded in return.

Teams worked six straight weekends to make up for lost production days.

“We didn’t have roofs on; the place was still in tatters,” Coleal said.

The company set lofty goals.

Everyone rallied to get the company mobilized.

“The problem was so big that everybody was really focused on, ‘Hey this is our livelihood … It’s up to us,’ ” Coleal said. “I think everybody took it to heart.”

Through the disaster, “we learned what is possible,” said Spirit spokesman Jarrod Bartlett. “You set a goal that you think is not achievable, but we were able to achieve it.”

While the tornado was damaging, Coleal said the company was fortunate there wasn’t greater damage.

“It didn’t get into the bowels of the plant and rip out airplane parts,” Coleal said. “It didn’t rip out big pieces of equipment. It was the shells of the building.”

The company was also lucky that the tornado didn’t destroy a building that had one of its key processes inside, he said.

Still, damage from the EF-3 tornado was severe and disruptive.

A year later, a new tornado season is underway.

Coleal said he hopes not to have to experience another one.

“One’s enough in a lifetime,” he said.

Contact Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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