'You will be overwhelmed'

July 11, 2000
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Dave McFarlane can sympathize with those dealing with the aftermath caused by Hurricane Floyd. The president and owner of McFarlane Sheet Metal in Grand Forks, N.D., has been there and done that.

McFarlane vividly remembers dealing with the aftermath of flooding the Midwest suffered in April of 1997. For those lucky enough to have never experienced a natural disaster in their lifetime, McFarlane will be the first to tell you that the chaos created by such an event is virtually impossible to imagine, let alone fully comprehend.

His best advice for contractors who are trying to help those in the wake of Floyd’s wrath is simple — and a warning.

“Don’t underestimate the amount of work you will be asked to do,” he said. “You will be overwhelmed.”

No easy answers

Because a person who has experienced a similar event is one of the best sources of advice, The News contacted some of the Grand Forks, N.D., contractors who dealt with the Midwest flooding two years ago. In Grand Forks, 75% of homes (8,600 dwellings) and in nearby East Grand Forks, Minn., 99% of homes (3,501 dwellings) were effected — all but 27 homes had been inundated by floodwaters.

Based on discussions with contractors in these hard-hit areas, there appears to be no best plan of action or easy answer to the problems that large-scale disasters bring to the communities they touch.

McFarlane suggested that before servicing any equipment that has been damaged by flooding, talk with code officials to see what replacement requirements are in the area. This precaution can protect you from possible future liabilities.

In Grand Forks, the code was unclear as to whether the furnaces needed to be replaced if the gas valve and control components had been submerged in water, or could simply be hosed down.

At the time of the flooding, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) laws stated not to replace submerged furnaces in Grand Forks, but to hose them off, said McFarlane.

Hosing off the furnaces and not replacing them would have been hazardous in the opinions of area contractors, who feared that fires could be sparked the first time the furnaces fired up in the winter months. They didn’t want to risk house fires and the liability that would fall on their shoulders.

FEMA eventually was convinced that replacement was the best solution and reimbursed homeowners for replacement costs up to a certain amount.

Round up the troops

Taking care of your employees needs to be a high priority, said Al Maloney of Midwest Refrigeration in Grand Forks, N.D.

The company made sure its employees and their families were safe. Employees received time off to pump out their own homes — and were provided with a pump.

“Get your employees, company, and vendors organized in such a manner that you can deal with the public professionally,” said Terry Grundysen, president of Midwest Refrigeration.

He added that there will likely be a lull in the action following a storm while damage is being assessed and people are getting back into their homes. This is the time to regroup and prepare for the demands of the coming weeks.

“To have a serviceman go out and do service, you have to give them their confidence back,” said Grundysen. “You want their minds to be on the work they are doing, not their own problems.”

McFarlane also stressed the importance of caring for your employees. His company gave all employees new furnaces and all materials at cost, as well as time off if they needed it. Most of his employees put their homes on hold to service others, working on their own homes after working 10- to 16-hr days for the company.

To aid with the recovery phase, McFarlane Sheet Metal teamed up with nearby Vilandre Heating & A/C to replace damaged furnaces and ductwork in homes throughout the area. McFarlane also brought in 70 Canadian sheet metal workers and several local college students to help out.

When the calls start flooding in ...

After residents get back into their homes and the power is back on, the calls begin. However, before a contractor is able to provide service, the homeowner has to pump any remaining water out of the house and/or clean up the area around the equipment.

“We started taking names and prioritized by city areas as they opened up,” offered McFarlane.

His crews handled the calls by area as the water receded, not by order of request for service. It was handled this way to increase the overall efficiency of servicing customers.

“We didn’t make everybody happy, but we did the best we could,” he said.

Maloney said Midwest Refrigeration, a commercial refrigeration contractor, handled the calls differently. Once the employees were assembled and located, they started servicing customers that weren’t affected by the flooding — dispatching employees based upon where they were temporarily located around the cities.

Whoever called first was at the top of the service list, with hospitals, clinics, and other more critical customers moving above the others. The company also looked at where they could get people up and running the quickest when determining who would be serviced next.

Businesses were secondary to home recovery and lots of businesses didn’t come back to the area, said Grundysen.

“The hvac residential contractors were the guys who really bore the brunt of the recovery work,” he said.

Work with what you have

For McFarlane and for many residents, it took nearly a month for the reality of the devastation — and the overwhelming amount of recovery work needed — to sink in.

“Be patient — especially to customers,” said McFarlane. “The market will respond. People will come from all over to help.”

It may not happen fast enough for some people, but it will happen and patience pays off in the long run, he said.

Looking back, McFarlane said that having a pre-determined plan would not have changed what his company did. “Working under the gun, you knew what you had to do and found the way to get it done.”

All you can really do in an emergency situation such as this one is hope you have all of your ducks in a row, said Grundysen.

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