Help! Air Conditioning’s Korey Knobloch puts the final charge in two 12-SEER remote condensers that were replaced due to both units being completely submerged in flood waters.
NEW ORLEANS - Sonny Knobloch was one of the relatively few New Orleans' residents who stayed after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding wiped out most of New Orleans. The HVAC contractor figured he could ride out the tough times and be available to help his customers once they started returning to their homes.

Knobloch, owner of Help! Air Conditioning & Heating, has been doing just what the name of his company says –– helping out his customers. That is, what is left of his customers after Hurricane Katrina roared through the Gulf Coast.

"I probably lost 60 percent of my customer base in New Orleans," he told The NEWS.

Knobloch said that people are slowly returning to the area, but it is going to take time to assess all of the damage and how much flooded equipment needs to be replaced.

"A lot of people don't know what they have lost," he added. "One guy called and said he was coming back to town and would need the equipment replaced that we had installed about a year-and-a-half ago. He said he wanted us to come over, let him know what it would cost, pull it all out, and change it. We will be changing a lot of fairly new equipment that is still under warranty."

Knobloch said that getting the equipment shouldn't be a problem as most of his suppliers remained "high and dry" during the flooding and some anticipated the demand for equipment be-cause of the flooding. Some are working Saturdays and Sundays to keep up. But there is too much uncertainty right now because so many people left and haven't re-turned; and many other construction and cleaning businesses have been totally wiped out.

"There is no way we will go under any houses right now be-cause of the health dangers," Knobloch said. "And there is no one around to come in and professionally clean up.

"But we do a lot of attic installations, so the inside might be okay unless the water got really high. We can change out the equipment and upgrade it to higher-efficiency equipment."

Knobloch said that communications have been very sporadic and he has depended on visiting neighborhoods and leaving informational packages to take the place of his normal advertising.

"I call it ‘Sightsee Marketing 101,'" he joked. "This is what you do when there is no way to reach your target market. There is no newspaper, no mail, no telephone, no television, no radio, just yard signs and hand delivered flyers. In our case, we ride through a neighborhood, take pictures, record streets, and then have someone de-liver a small PR package, consisting of three or four pages telling them how to clean up and how important air conditioning is to the drying out process.

"A couple of radio stations are coming on, but the TV stations are broadcasting from somewhere else and they really don't have a pulse for what is going on."

Sonny Knobloch shot a picture of a rooftop unit sitting upright after Hurricane Katrina knocked it around.

Looking Out For His Family And Business

Knobloch, who did not comply with the mandatory evacuation orders, simply wanted to stay and ride out the storm and aftermath. He stayed in his home with his wife and two sisters-in-law. The flooding never reached his home.

He lives approximately five miles west of the city limits, in Jefferson Parish. The home is on a small ridge and the water only came up to the bottom of his first step. He only had slight wind damage, some roof shingles, two small roof leaks in the den area, and a rear fence blown down. His family lost electricity, water, and phones for two weeks.

"We were locked down for the first week," he said. "We had filled up the freezer and filled up the bathtubs with water. We barbequed like crazy. People I know brought me ice and a package of MREs (meals ready to eat, usually supplied for military personnel). I tied into a neighbor's generator to bring power to my refrigerator.

"I stocked up. I even have food upstairs, like water and crackers."

Knobloch noted that if there was one positive in all of the chaos, it was the fact that families who stayed behind probably became closer. "Everybody has to be off the streets by 8 p.m. so we have better home lives," he noted. "Now you can spend time with your family."

His second family, his work crew, was also a major concern for Knobloch. Four weeks after the flood there were still people who hadn't returned.

"A number of our people went to other parts of the country, getting jobs from other contractors," he said. "Some took my trucks and left. A number of them lived in St. Bernard's Parrish, which was just devastated. They had fairly new trucks and were concerned because I had no place to put them.

"I know I've lost two trucks. A couple of guys are trying to get back but to get to St. Bernard's you have to go through New Orleans, which is guarded and locked down. The clips are in the guns."

His business was damaged by the flooding, too. "I had eight to twelve inches of water in my business," he added. "Our family came in and cleaned up as much as we could.

"Some invoices got wet. We lost vacuum pumps and recovery machines. We put UV lights in the ductwork to get the smell out and to catch some of the particulates. At first we were all kind of breathing funny. And there were leaves everywhere. I have no idea where they came from."

Fortunately, the employees who have returned are able to keep busy and have started changing out equipment. Knobloch said that most of his customers had flood insurance and insurance adjusters are being very lenient when covering claims for flood-damaged equipment.

"We've been booked up with calls, giving our one installation crew and two service men some work," he noted. "There will be a spurt of replacements at first and then it will flatten out until the government can decide what to do. We are giving a lot of estimates on what it will take for replacement, but there are no people available to tear out and rebuild the homes."

Knobloch has authored articles on how to improve business during an economic downturn, but he said he has never experienced anything like this. He is happy to have a solid customer base but knows the future is uncertain. "It's hard to stay focused," he added. "So many things have changed."

Publication date: 10/10/2005