Recovery. Reclamation. Recuperation.
There are any number of steps to be taken after the devastation of hurricanes, tropical storms, wildfires, or any other natural disasters that can strike at a moment’s notice. Homes can be heavily damaged or completely destroyed, roads remain covered in debris, and power takes time to be restored. These events are also, unfortunately, more common than one may think.
For HVAC contractors, the work becomes hectic and sometimes overwhelming as they try to help the rehabilitation process for their local communities, even as they themselves attempt to get their businesses back on track. With major hurricanes, such as Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Harvey striking in 2017, and wildfires raging throughout much of California toward the end of the year, these efforts are still ongoing.
“The recovery process for Hurricane Irma was much better than when Hurricane Charley (a Category 4 Hurricane that touched down in 2004) hit,” said Bill Blaze, owner, Advanced Air and Refrigeration Inc., Fort Myers, Florida. “The area had been through the drill before, and we all knew what to do and how long it would last. We made sure all vehicles were fueled before the hurricane and provisions were stocked. Almost everyone had access to a generator and stocked enough fuel for two days. The trick was getting fuel on that third day. However, there was fuel, you just had to find the station with it and wait in line. Cleaning up debris and trees was a long and laborious task that is still ongoing.”
The harsh reality is that a full recovery from a hurricane can take years rather than just weeks or months.
When Hurricane Harvey touched down in August, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Chief, Brock Long, said on CNN that the disaster was going to be a landmark event, and FEMA was setting up and gearing up for the next couple of years.
AccuWeather estimated the eventual costs of the storms in Florida, Texas, and elsewhere will total around $290 billion. The number is exceptionally high, in part, because this was the first time in recorded history that two Category 4 or higher hurricanes had struck the U.S. mainland in the same year.
Add in the fact that 2017 was the costliest year for wildfires in the U.S., with more than $10 billion in damages before the current Southern California fires began, per CNN, and you have a large number of contractors across the country looking to rebound from difficult situations.
“The short-term challenge [after Irma hit in Florida] was cash flow,” said Blaze. “We paid payroll a week ahead to ensure our employees had money, but getting the business up and running would take about seven days. Thankfully we operate out of the cloud, so we set up a mobile dispatch and took calls from customers and started dispatching service calls slowly. When a tech got below ¼ tank of gas, we would have him find fuel before dispatching any further.”
Blaze’s team at Advanced Air and Refrigeration Inc. had reviewed hurricane safety many times in safety meetings and discussed a plan of attack on the Friday before the storm. Employees’ homes and families were secured first.
“They needed time to clean up and set up for a long power outage (two weeks in most areas), get a generator set-up and have a portable a/c unit and a refrigerator running,” said Blaze. “Once set at home, most were ready to work, especially after missing 10 days.”
Driving was actually the biggest concern in terms of safety, according to Blaze.
“Several areas had intense flooding, and it was almost impossible to know how bad until you got to the area,” he said. “It’s easy to run into a ditch on a flooded road where you can’t see the center line. We kept track of bad areas and kept everyone up to date via email.”
Rick Wylie, president, Villara Building Systems, Manteca, California, has been impacted by the October wildfires in Northern California, which, per the Los Angeles Daily News, burned 245,000 acres, destroyed 8,900 structures, and caused 43 deaths. His thoughts were quite simple when it came to the biggest lessons he has learned from the entire experience: “Man plans, and God laughs.”
Villara Building Systems was relatively lucky to have its employees live outside of the affected area and have none of its new construction projects get impacted, but Wylie went on to elaborate that it’s not actually the short-term challenges that present the biggest obstacle to his business but rather the long-term effects that these wildfires, or really any natural disaster, can cause.
“Long term, we expect there to be a significant increase in labor needs, resulting in an even tighter labor market, which is already very difficult in the areas we serve in Northern California,” he said.
While Blaze and other contractors may have put in place a great plan for both before and after a hurricane, many homeowners are not as forward-thinking. There is confusion, panic, and worry as homeowners attempt to rebuild their lives in the wake of these storms, and their HVAC systems may not always be top of mind.
“Standing water in a yard or house can damage a home’s heating and cooling system in ways that are not always readily apparent,” said Stephen Yurek, president and CEO of Air-Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), in a release from Carrier Corp. “We advise homeowners to play it safe and replace, rather than repair, flood-damaged heating, cooling, and water heating equipment.”
Zac Linde, president of Carrier Enterprise in Houston, a distributor of heating and cooling equipment, added that, “It’s possible that a water-damaged unit is still operating and seems fine, but there could be problems. The best way to find out is to call in a local, reputable dealer who can show you what’s wrong and give you options on how and when to fix or replace the unit.”
Blaze said flooding is definitely be a problem for those living in low-lying areas.
“[Homeowners need to] make sure everything is dry before starting the system up,” he said. “In addition, make sure that power is fully back before starting everything up. If using a generator, make sure you have an adequate size. Most portable generators are not large enough to run their a/c system. A lot of damage takes place when an undersized generator is used. A lot of refrigerators at the curb after a hurricane.”
Sonny Roncancio, owner of Fresh Air, a Houston area Carrier factory authorized dealer, also noted in the release that air conditioning units are designed to handle normal rain water, but not flood water.
“Just a few inches of water can contaminate the lines, damage the electrical parts, and cause things like bearings to eventually seize,” he said. “We’ve also seen a lot of units that were swept off their pads because of the flood-water current. One of two things may likely happen: The unit will fail, or it will lead to poor indoor air quality if it keeps running.”
“Hurricanes are exhausting events,” said Blaze. “They are exhausting for homeowners and twice as much for a business owner. Preparation is key. Plan and discuss before the event happens. Buy the generator, chain saw, plywood, water, and fuel before the emergency. There is nothing worse than standing in line waiting to buy plywood at 10 o’clock at night. After the hurricane passes, take care of yourself first and then work on the business. Take one customer at a time and one day at a time. It may not seem like it, but things improve slowly. Key items to have are water, food, gas, generator, chain saw, and cash. Final word of thought: Remember more people die after a hurricane than during.”