NC snowstorm puts stranglehold on contractors

May 1, 2000
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RALEIGH, NC — It’s been called the worst snowstorm in North Carolina history. Coming on the heels of a devastating summer flood, this new setback sent North Carolina residents — as well as hvac businesses — reeling again.

“Things were terrible,” said Ricky Brantley of Service Experts of Raleigh. “It’s not every day that we can’t get into our office. Customers were frustrated and a lot of people were stressed out. We couldn’t take care of business like we wanted to.”

“I’m 30 years old and I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Mike Reardon, of Statewide Heating and Air Conditioning, Inc./ GroupMAC in Raleigh. “There is no emergency plan that can prepare you for two feet of snow.”

Although main streets and freeways were plowed within a reasonable time, the side streets were left under a pile of snow and several inches of hard-packed ice, making it virtually impossible for contractors to send out service trucks.

“It’s not safe to send out trucks because there is a large layer of ice under the snow,” said Dave Dombrowski of Metro Services/ ARS-ServiceMaster, Raleigh. Dombrowski had been monitoring emergency calls for a few days from his home — and not by choice.

“There was 18 inches of snow in front of my house, I couldn’t get out,” he said. “We don’t have plows like other cities. The city [Raleigh] used road graders to clear the main roads, but they aren’t going to plow the residential streets.”

Emergency calls

Contractors limited their service stops to emergency no-heat calls — and that was if they had people who could maneuver around in the snow.

“We had three guys with four-wheel drive vehicles making emergency calls,” said Dombrowski. “Some of our people who lived close to the shop were able to walk to work.

“We have a formal emergency snow plan. We were taking calls through our emergency answering service.”

All contractors contacted by The News tried to prioritize their emergency calls. They made every effort to identify and solve some of the problems while talking to customers on the phone.

“The only calls we were running at first were people with no heat,” said Brantley. “We were trying to get to them as soon as possible, but some of them wound up staying with family or friends who had heat. We were trying to help people to fix their problems over the phone, too.”

“There were a lot of heat pump units that were going out and we encouraged owners to switch over to emergency heat,” added Dombrowski. “Unfortunately, a lot of the outdoor units were buried under ice.”

One company chose to service customers who had maintenance agreements and those in emergency situations.

“We always take care of our maintenance contract people and all no-heat calls first,” said Reardon. “We were fortunate that most businesses were shut down by the snow and didn’t need any service calls.”

Four-wheel drives to the rescue

Joan Kelly of Allen Kelly & Co., Inc., Raleigh, said employees helped each other out and helped the company get to as many service calls as possible.

“One of our drivers has a four-wheel-drive truck and he used it to pull one of our service trucks out of the snow,” she said. “Some of our installation crews with experience in service have been helping out on service calls. It could be 10 days before our installation crews start their [installation] work again.”

Although the storm had been frustrating, there was a sense of cooperation among stranded homeowners. “People with four-wheel drives were making food runs for the neighborhood,” said Dombrowski.

Food supplies were running low because stores were running out of essential supplies and new shipments were delayed by the impassable road conditions.

“Stores were only allowing people to purchase one gallon of milk and one loaf of bread at a time,” said Brantley. “If you wanted more you had to go out and come back in.”

The Raleigh-area contractors braced for another anticipated storm the following week. Any new snow would only add to their woes.

“We normally get about one inch of snow per year,” said Reardon. “Right now our jobsites are a mess. It may take a while for our commercial business to get up and running again.”

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