FRANKLIN, Va. — As he tells his story, Parker Darden’s voice is surprisingly fresh, considering the weeklong nightmare he has withstood and the stressful future he faces. His cell phone, through which his voice must rise over the static, is his only link to the outside world.

His shop is under 12 feet of water, his phones are out at least until the middle of this week, and he is looking at months of negotiating with federal and state relief agencies to help get him up and running again.

In the vast world of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Small Business Administration, which are dealing with millions of claims, one small contractor in Virginia will have to wait his turn.

Oh, yes. Darden doesn’t have flood insurance, either. Neither do any of the other businesses in this small rural town. In the strange world of disaster insurance, if the water comes through the window, you may be covered. If it seeps up from the ground, you’re out.

Each night, Franklin’s business owners gather to fashion a plan, but the disaster is reeling so fast there is hardly time to fashion a recovery plan.

“I feel like I just got fired,” Darden says. “This is the worst storm since 1941, and hardly anybody remembers how bad that was.”

Huge forced market

Darden is one of thousands of small businesses on the Eastern Seaboard trying to pick up the pieces after getting mugged by Hurricane Floyd.

The region’s hvac dealers, from Florida to Maryland, face a huge, forced market: the tens of thousands of condensing units, furnaces, and other equipment. And it will be weeks before they can get their own operations functioning before they can start dispatching service techs to their customers’ buildings.

The storm extends their service business, but at a terrible cost.

Darden, a 46-year-old Bryant dealer, isn’t a rich man. His $350,000 business is mostly residential and his only competitor is the local oil company, where he learned the business before starting out on his own in the mid-1970s. He also dabbles in some industrial refrigeration work.

The hell began on the night of Wednesday, Sept. 15, when the rain started getting serious. In the early evening, Darden spent three hours as part of a human chain filling sandbags to shore up the local phone building — to no avail.

Then he got real worried about his building downtown, adjacent from the City Hall. Around midnight, he and his assistant went to the shop and began hauling out files, computers, and even some small parts and pieces. Luckily, his few pieces of equipment were up on the second floor, where they survived high and dry.

By 4 a.m., the water on the first floor was at knee-level. Time to leave. Darden said he hasn’t set foot in the building since.

His biggest loss: an ancient service truck.

Maybe by mid-week he will be allowed back in his shop. The National Guard is now protecting the area.

Sunken units down in Tar River

One state over, down in Greenville N.C., hvac units have been hostages to the flood, thanks to the swollen Tar River, which (as of press time) is 10 feet above its normal level.

To make things worse, last week Mother Nature gave the area a second dose of heavy rain. Greenville is a flood-locked city where many buildings are still under water, and many contractors confront thousands of phone calls requesting help.

The flooding is so bad that it exceeds not only the 100-year flood plain but also the 500-year flood plain, says Larry Riddle of Advance Mechanical.

It’ll be weeks before the area’s heating-cooling systems can be dried off, scraped off, analyzed, and put back into operation.

Like other contractors, Riddle’s normal service work has been interrupted, so he has used at least one of his crews for public service duty: carrying people and supplies to and from shelters.

Stocking up

To prepare for the massive repair activity, he is stocking up on flex duct, motors, and contactors to service the least-damaged condensing units. He expects the repairs to be complicated by deferred payment.

“A lot of folks just don’t have the immediate cash to pay for a lot of things,” Riddle says. “They’re worried about insurance. They’re worried about FEMA.”

Riddle has told his techs to “keep very good records” of what they do on repairs to avoid later confusion, when the invoices go out to his frazzled customers.

Steve Tele, of Sam Pollard & Son, an Amana dealer, says his service techs face a two-hour drive just to get to the office — a trip that usually takes 15 minutes. Greenville is cut in two by the Tar River, which began flooding after Hurricane Dennis hit town earlier in the month.

Unless you have a boat or helicopter to cross it, you are confronted with a very long route to get to the other side.

In search of Noah's ark

“We need Noah and his ark,” said Tele, who refers to Hurricane Floyd as “the storm of the century.”

The dealer has about 10,000 residential customers who have a mix of heating-cooling systems: straight cooling, heat pumps, gas furnaces. A lot of homes are on stilts, making them allegedly “waterproof.” But even here, water is lapping up against them, says Tele.

Out on Oak Island, at Bell Supply, a subdistributor for Loman Garrett, Greensboro, the building withstood 100-mph winds, according to Kevin Bell. Power is just now being restored, and the combination distributor-service contractor looks for “several months” of repair work ahead.

“Often, the condensing units are put on two-foot-high foundations in the beach front homes,” says Bell. “Of course they didn’t survive the surge, which reached 10 and 11 feet high.”

He continued: “We just closed off our normal cooling season, but this will extend the season till almost the end of the year.”

On Holden Beach, a spokeswoman for contractor Al Fulford said homeowners haven’t even been allowed back to view their homes. The region is a short, thin stretch of land on the southeastern-most part of the state.

“We’re just waiting for the phones to start ringing,” she says.