Those bright orange, yellow and red oil-containment booms you see on the news symbolize the fight against the unfolding environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
TV shots show booms stretched for miles along imperiled coastlines, sometimes wrapped around entire islands. Someday, the booms may be needed here.
The question is: Will there be enough to go around? As reports have painfully documented, nobody prepared for an accident of this magnitude. No one set aside a massive stockpile of booms.
So the spill has become a boon for the oil boom industry.
America Boom and Barrier Corp. in Cape Canaveral is one of the largest manufacturers of booms in the state. Company vice president Nick Naayers said that within the past month, his company has tripled its number of employees, from 10 before the spill to 32 at the beginning of June.
Naayers' production line has gone from a single eight-hour shift five days a week to two 10-hours shifts, day and night, six days a week.
"Once I saw the orders start to come in, within two days, I had a second shift running. Then I continued to purchase everything I could find in raw materials," Naayers said.
Production at his plant has increased from about 1,000 feet of boom churned out each day to nearly a mile.
Dana Makepeace, part of the sales staff at American Boom, said the company had orders lined up to swallow every linear foot produced for the next four months. Naayers added that he plans to continue at breakneck pace for at least three months after the flow of oil is stopped.
Across the industry, such high demand is creating bottlenecks.
Makepeace compared the situation to a country starting a war without any guns or bullets.
"There's shortages on everything right now. Every company in the country," Naayers said. "People are panicking."
Traditional oil-containment booms are simple devices — fabric, flotation, chains, grommets, thimbles.
Because most oil floats, the booms, which have a submerged fabric section, prevent oil from spreading across calm water.
While Naayers' company is mostly selling his product directly to BP and government agencies, traditional middlemen have felt a pinch.
Mark E. Dilley, the director of marketing for Sarasota-based Interstate Products, which sells a variety of oil-remediation supplies, said his boom stock is sold out, and he does not foresee more product coming his way in the near future.
"It's chaos," Dilley said. "Anybody and everybody, they're coming out of the woodwork trying to get their hands on these products. I had a guy in the Keys call looking to surround his island with booms."
Price per foot has also risen about a dollar, from around $7.50 per foot to $8.50, Dilley said. "Prices have gone up because some of the raw materials — they just can't produce enough of it."
Material suppliers in the boom business are working overtime to keep up with demand.
Darius Shirzadi, business development manager for Coolie Specialty Products in Rhode Island, which makes a high-tech fabric used in some top-shelf oil booms (they are not all created equal), said that in the past 45 days Coolie has manufactured about 70,000 yards of material — the same amount the company produced in all of 2009.
"All of a sudden, they're like, we need it in a week," Shirzadi said of his customers.
Shirzadi said customers are also looking for more durable products. That's because the booms, generally used for smaller-scale inland barge leaks and construction, are being deployed in rougher waters, farther out at sea, for longer periods of time.
JoAnne Ferris, a representative for the trade group representing boom-makers and suppliers, says the rush to create new supplies has taken on a Rosie the Riveter ethos.
"It's like a war effort. It's a war against the oil spill. It's great for business, but if you watch some of the videos getting posted, these are America's marshes," Ferris said. "They are trying to rally around and get oil boom material."
Ferris said some awning and fabric signmaking businesses, which have industrial equipment similar to that used to produce booms, are trying to get in on the oil spill action.
While the sudden rush has created some quality concerns with BP and other large buyers, Ferris said it's not stopping many from trying to produce the oil containment devices, which are generally used only once and then disposed of in hazardous materials landfills once they have been contaminated with oil.
One Florida firm, Ball Fabrics in DeLand, which usually produces sports-related safety barriers, considered joining the mad race to produce oil boom. But due to a high initial cost, John Ball, one of the co-owners, said he decided against it.
"Maybe in hindsight, it might have been a bad decision," Ball said.
The demand for oil boom and similar products will dry up eventually, but now it's until that day comes, the demand remains.
Andrew Aho, managing director of the Geosynthetic Materials Association, a trade group that researches issues facing manufacturers like Ball's firm, said to help increase production, the government or BP should assist smaller firms with financing.
"One of the issues that is apparent is the end-product manufacturers, sometimes they're kind of mom-and-pop type shops. Financing becomes an issue. It's really hard for a supplier to extend a large amount of credit to a small shop they haven't yet done business with," Aho said.
Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or [email protected]