When Hurricane Sandy ripped across the Eastern Seaboard last October, it left a trail of destruction that residents are still struggling to clean up. Flooding and high winds resulted in several dozen deaths, as well as power outages for millions of customers, and severe damage to thousands of homes and businesses in and surrounding New Jersey and New York.

Recovery efforts began shortly after the storm hit and will continue for possibly years to come. Many businesses in the area were severely damaged, but that didn’t stop contractors from immediately heading back out into the field to help customers in need.

The Eye of the Storm

Long Island, N.Y., was hit particularly hard by Sandy, with several thousand homes lost and tens of thousands more structures sustaining wind and water damage. The surge that struck Long Island brought high tides stretching 9-10 feet above normal levels, while 90-mph winds decimated trees and power lines, causing most in the area to lose electricity.

John Ottaviano, president, Air Ideal Inc., Mineola, (Long Island) N.Y., was in the middle of it all, and his business sustained extensive damage.

“We had half our roof ripped up from winds, lost one of our trucks to flooding, lost power for a week, and were without phones for two weeks,” he said. “My partner, Tony Cutaia, had to drive 200 miles north to Springfield, Mass., to find generators in order to get our office operating temporarily. We lost a lot of business, but we are much better off than many. One of our employees lost everything, including his home, vehicle, tools, and all personal belongings.”

Ottaviano and his crew got back to work as soon as they could and are still busy replacing the many HVAC systems that were flooded and destroyed during the storm.

Repair is usually out of the question after flooding, he noted, as corrosion and short circuiting are a real concern. In addition, floodwaters are often contaminated with chemicals, oils, gas, and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

“Replacing ductwork that has been in contact with floodwater is the best course of action, because airflow can spread mold spores, chemicals, and VOCs throughout the home, especially if the insulation has been soaked,” said Ottaviano. “Any duct-work or equipment that has been contaminated with floodwater is also subject to future corrosion, and most manufacturers will no longer cover the warranty on equipment that has been in contact with floodwater.”

Providing service to homes affected by the storm can be a challenge, noted Ottaviano, as once water is pumped out of a basement, it is difficult to determine just how much of the equipment was emerged under water. “We have to examine control boxes, compressors, drain pans, etc., for evidence of saltwater intrusion. Basically, any electrical item that got wet is history, even if it’s operable, because of the potential for short circuiting and fire hazard. All steel and iron alloys are subject to future corrosion from salt and chemicals as well, so we have replaced condensing units, air handlers, furnaces, boilers, humidifiers, and dehumidifiers. On at least two projects, we’ve replaced equipment that was just completed last year.”

The Jersey Shore

Hurricane Sandy also hit New Jersey hard, with high winds and flooding causing power outages and massive damage to homes and businesses, particularly along the coast. The eye of the hurricane passed directly over Bob McAllister, vice president, McAllister: The Service Co., Somers Point, N.J., but miraculously, his business came through the storm unscathed.

“While probably 60 percent of the homes along the barrier islands were impacted, we were positioned a little higher, so we had no flooding issues. Although it came within half a mile of our office,” said McAllister. “Some of our employees were impacted, but we evacuated their trucks before the storm hit. We had literally no impact to our business, except for the fact that after the storm, I spent 60
consecutive days in the office. We have a fairly large customer base, and we just could not take care of all of them, so we brought in four contractors to help us out.”

Many of McAllister’s customers are located on the islands’ shoreline, and access to that area was limited after the storm due to the large amount of sand that washed into the streets. Some streets were filled with more than 2 feet of sand, and, until that could be removed, there was no way to get to customers’ homes or businesses. Once McAllister could reach the area, he found that it was often difficult to access some homeowners’ HVAC equipment, because many crawl spaces were filled with sand.

The water had receded by the time McAllister reached his customers, but most of the area was flooded with saltwater, which is corrosive and has a long-term negative impact on virtually everything that it touches. “That’s why replacement is usually the wisest decision. In a lot of homes, we’ve had to rip out HVAC equipment, as well as ductwork (flex and metal), water heaters, plumbing, electrical, and sheetrock. In flooded homes with boilers, we’ve had to tear out copper-finned baseboards, because otherwise, they’d rot over time.”

McAllister noted that many homes remain without heat, and other customers are replacing equipment in waves. The first wave consisted of those who could afford to get the work done right away, while the second wave involved customers who were finally able to replace their equipment as the insurance money trickled in. The third wave is anticipated to begin this spring, when those who own vacation homes in the area finally come back to survey the damage. “There are a lot of secondary homes in our area, and months later, people haven’t even been in them yet.”

Rubino Service Co., Voorhees, N.J., which is located about 60 miles inland, also ducked the storm, sustaining minimal damage from the hurricane. As a result, the company was able to quickly start helping coastal residents who experienced significant flooding. “In that area, a lot of homes have ductwork and HVAC systems in the crawl space or on the first floor,” said company president, Angela Rubino
Hines. “Many of these flooded homes lost personal possessions as well as their HVAC systems. Once saltwater gets into the system, the system needs to be replaced. In addition, some of the water was mixed with sewage, so for health and safety concerns, the ductwork and HVAC system will need to be replaced.”

Hines noted that they have not yet been able to replace many of these systems, as the insurance money is just now starting to arrive. Until homeowners are compensated, many are left without heat, living inside severely damaged homes.

“Some homeowners have been able to pay to have the work done, while others just can’t afford to do so,” said Hines. “When you go to the shore towns, you see many homes and businesses still boarded up and possessions sitting on the curb, waiting to be hauled away. It is a very surreal situation and will take a great deal of time to get back to normal.”

Generating Demand

While there was minimal damage to the area immediately surrounding Meyer & Depew Co. Inc., Kenilworth, N.J., many homes and businesses within its service area were devastated, noted Bobby Ring, president/CEO. “We saw everything from 4-5 feet of water in homes, to homes washed off their foundations, to homes literally wiped off the map — I mean the house and foundation were gone.”

Meyer & Depew was without power for four days but was able to get by, thanks to a natural gas generator. In fact, Ring noted that while the company has been busy replacing HVAC systems, customers have pursued natural gas fueled automatic stand-by generators as must-have commodities. “Hurricane Sandy was on the heels of Hurricane Irene last year, as well as an October snowstorm. Hurricane Sandy marked the third time in about 15 months that homeowners in our service area were without power for 10 days or more.”

That being said, installing new mechanical systems will keep contractors in the area extraordinarily busy for quite some time, considering that FEMA estimates that as many as 25,000 homes in New Jersey are in need of new HVAC systems and ductwork. According to Ring, recovery work has started on less than 10 percent of the affected homes, as some communities have not yet repopulated, and most were without natural gas until late December.

Access to affected areas is one of the main reasons for the slow recovery, noted Ring, as many communities have been in lockdown, with only residents and authorized officials allowed easy access. “Most of the time we need to either work with the homeowner to arrange access or else apply for special passes in each of the affected municipalities to get to the job sites.”

Another hindrance involves permitting. While permit fees have been waived in many communities, FEMA requirements have actually made the process a bit more difficult.

“To provide guidance to those rebuilding their homes, FEMA issued Advisory Base Flood Elevations in December, which describe what will likely be the new Base Flood Elevations that will be issued later this year,” said Ring.

As he explained, if a home sustained damage that is equal to or exceeds 50 percent of its value, then homeowners will be required to meet all new codes — including the new Advisory Base Flood Elevations. In most cases along the Jersey Shore, that means homeowners will be required to either lift their homes onto pilings, to raise the first floor to the new Base Flood Elevation, or completely rebuild based on the new requirements. Even homes that did not receive as much damage will be impacted, as the cost of flood insurance is expected to rise substantially.

Joseph H. Roberts III, general manager, J.H. Roberts Inc. Heating and Air Conditioning, Forked River, N.J., agrees that the new flood elevations are causing big problems right now, as some homeowners are not sure they can afford to modify their homes to meet the new requirements. “There are a lot of questions homeowners need to have answered before they spend any money, and unfortunately, the answers are just not available yet. Some people have decided to walk away from their homes, because of the fear of costly taxes and flood insurance.”

The company’s office building is located about three miles inland and survived the storm with no damage, except for two trucks that were lost when employees took them home before the storm. While they did lose power, back-up generators helped the company get back up and running within three days. Unfortunately, it was another two weeks before they could reach Long Beach Island, N.J., which is where most of their customers reside.

“When we were able to assess the damage, we found air conditioning condensers and furnaces blocks away from their original locations,” said Roberts. “The rebuilding process has been difficult to say the least, as 90 percent of homes we see need all new ductwork, while probably 70 percent need ductwork as well as equipment.”

Another challenge that J.H. Roberts faced was the fact that some of the natural gas mains to Long Beach Island were damaged, resulting in gas being shut off to the entire island. “After gas was restored, we had to test the natural gas lines in each home to make sure they were not compromised, and only then could gas be restored to the home. We were on the go seven days a week, with days that never seemed to end.”

Currently, the biggest issue is uncertainty, as most of the company’s customers have yet to receive any money to make repairs. While FEMA issued checks for relocation, no money has been paid out for rebuilding purposes. “Most people are still in the process of putting all of their claims together and having adjusters evaluate their properties. A sluggish economy is forcing people to wait to see if they will receive enough money to actually afford to move back into their homes.”

Most believe that it will be years before the area fully recovers from Hurricane Sandy. As Ring noted, “Nothing this widespread and this devastating has happened in New Jersey in most people’s lifetimes. Our guards were down, because the last storm that caused similar damage was in March 1962. Along the Jersey Shore, it will be three to five years before things return to normal — and not necessarily the way they used to be. Nothing will ever be the same.”

Publication date: 3/4/2013