When Hurricane Charley came ashore in southwestern Florida and moved northeast across the state, it tore down thousands of buildings and cut power to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses at the height of a hot and humid summer. As people start to rebuild their lives, the restoration of air conditioning and refrigeration becomes important both for personal health reasons and the preservation of food products.

The process began within days as power slowly began to be restored.

Paul T. Stalknecht
Paul T. Stalknecht, president and CEO of the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA), was in Florida making site visits when the storm hit on Aug. 13.

"Having witnessed first hand the devastation that Hurricane Charley dealt the state of Florida, all of us at ACCA send our heartfelt thoughts and prayers to the thousands of Floridians who were affected by the storm," he said.

"If there is a silver lining in this latest show of force by Mother Nature, it is the strength and resilience shown by the HVACR contractors and technicians in Florida who are working around the clock to service their customers. We are receiving countless calls from our members across the nation who are asking if there are ways they can help their fellow contractors down there.

"The work of our ACCA Florida chapter and our ACCA Florida contractor members in times like these shows just how strong and committed our industry is."

Ken Bodwell, president of the Florida ACCA and head of Innovative Service Solutions, a 20-employee company based in Orlando, experienced Hurricane Charley's force. His company serves an extensive stretch of the Gulf Coast, including areas that took a direct hit.

Charley's 145-mph winds "literally ripped off screw heads on equipment," said Bodwell. Wind and falling power lines took their toll on condensing units, he said.

As of the middle of last week, Bodwell said some power had been restored along the coast and repairs were starting. Recurring problems, he said, are power surges as electrical grids come back on-line.

It all adds up, Bodwell said, "to a lot of work that still has to be done."

He said he has not heard of contractors who had lost their lives or businesses due to the hurricane.

Homeowners Beware

Todd Morgan, P.E., president and founder of Comprehensive Energy Services (CES) Inc., a 150-employee company headquartered in Orlando, also had customers in the eye of the storm as it came ashore.

"We have been facing some interesting challenges, especially in the hardest hit Port Charlotte/Fort Myers area, where we are responsible for servicing critically needed cell sites that support cellular phone services," Morgan said.

"We had employees from Miami coming in to help in Fort Myers, but the National Guard wouldn't let them in without written proof of the work they were going to do."

As for the company's headquarters building, "We lucked out. We were in the path but we didn't lose power."

Getting gas for service vehicles has been difficult. "It's bad in central Florida and worse in Fort Myers," said Morgan. "Many areas don't have power yet to pump gas. Many gas stations that do have power have run out of gas."

Hurricane Charley may send a message concerning building construction, he said, noting that the high winds showed the difference between new buildings that comply with newer hurricane construction standards, and older buildings.

But even for newer buildings, "There are a lot of air conditioning units blown off of rooftops, lying on their sides. Once the power gets back on, people will be finding out if their air conditioning systems work."

Lack Of Power

In some areas, electric service was not expected back until late August, according to Bill Mack of Arctic Breeze Mechanical in Sarasota. Mack's company was on the northern fringe of the storm and came through it okay.

In fact, Mack said that at the time he was contacted by The News, he was planning to drive some 40 miles south to the main path of the hurricane to volunteer his help with the cleanup.

Once power is restored, the extent of the repairs will depend on the nature of the damage, noted Dave Hutchins of Bay Area A/C Inc. in Crystal River.

Hutchins' company ended up being out of the path of the hurricane once Charley changed course. The hurricane was originally supposed to have tracked farther north to the Tampa area, where Hutchins' company is located.

As a veteran of wicked weather, Hutchins said flooding could mean relatively simple repairs once things are fairly well dried out. Roof damage, on the other hand, means ductwork replacement at the very least.

Carpet Baggers

Contractors in the area also have to face the problem of disreputable individuals coming in to perform service work.

The Service Roundtable contracting group developed direct mail pieces warning people about "‘carpet bagging' contractors who descend on disaster areas to prey on victims."

The mailer suggests that homeowners select local contractors. It also suggested using contractors who offer flat-rate prices if there is a concern about price gouging.

The mailer also urged contractors to offer free safety inspections involving a check of the line set, the refrigerant charge, power connections, and debris that could be blocking vents.

Contributing to this report were News staffers Barbara Checket-Hanks and John R. Hall, plus freelance reporter Jim Norland.

Publication date: 08/23/2004