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Central Florida Contractors Step Up in Wake of Tornadoes

Fri March 16, 2007 - Southeast Edition
Jeff Brooks

Just hours after tornadoes tore through Central Florida in the predawn of Feb. 2, killing 21 people and causing an estimated $68 million in property damage, phone lines in Jean Kaminski’s office were jammed with contractors and builders wanting to know what they could do to help with the cleanup and rebuilding efforts.

Kaminski, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Lake County, started making a list of contractors who were ready to lend a hand for the Lake County building department . The deadly tornadoes did the most damage in Lady Lake, the Lake Mack area and parts of The Villages retirement community in Sumter County. The area is approximately 50 mi. north of Orlando.

“The tornadoes happened on Friday morning — and I started getting calls Friday afternoon,” Kaminski said. “I passed many of those names on to the building department. People did respond very quickly. I think all of us realized that at any given time we can be the ones that are in the path.”

Kaminski said many building association members took part in the cleanup, but their primary role was to be available to make sure residents impacted by the storms knew the right sources and knew who to ask for help.

“We worked with the Florida Home Builders Association on doing what we called Operation Rebuild, A Construction Fair,” Kaminski said. “We had representatives from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. We had people from FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency]. We had people from the Disaster Contractors Network. We were all out there just to be available to point people in the right direction to make sure they used properly licensed people and didn’t get taken to the cleaners.”

Kaminski said that, as in any natural disaster, there are people looking to take advantage of desperate homeowners.

“I’ve had a couple of reports of people who I’ve turned into the building department,” Kaminski said. “I’ve had several reports of people who weren’t properly licensed or were just not handling themselves in the most proficient, correct way.”

One of the contractors that responded quickly was Auburn, Ala.-based D&J Enterprise Inc., a 25-year-old general contracting company owned by Richard D. Starr and James L. Starr that specializes in natural disaster cleanup services.

“We have this contract, what they call a pre-position debris contract, and it requires us to be here within eight hours,” said William Liveoak, a project manager/estimator of D&J, who led the cleanup efforts in Lady Lake. “We have our own transports and they’re on call all the time. We load them and hit the road.”

Chris Patton, public information coordinator of Lake County, said the county’s previous experiences with hurricanes helped them prepare for this natural disaster.

“We’ve had some experience in this because of the 2004 hurricanes,” Patton said. “We signed a contract with D&J almost a year ago because we want to have debris contracts in place before the hurricane season.

“They were actually onsite that Saturday following the tornadoes Friday morning. Because we’re a government agency, we can’t go on private property, so we ask residents to bring their debris to the right of way and we go around and pick it up.”

Liveoak said their job was to clear all the debris in Lake County from the rights of way, which is just about finished. The last scheduled debris pickup was the first week of March. Liveoak said they removed approximately 120,000 cu. yds. (91,700 cu m) of debris in the last month. They had approximately 10 employees working 12-hour shifts. By comparison, the company removed 13 million cu. yds. (9.9 million cu m) following Hurricane Ivan.

“We’re about to be done,” Liveoak said. “It’ll be a couple more weeks for our part.”

The company’s contract includes demolition work for structures damaged beyond repair, but Liveoak said they haven’t received the go-ahead for that work yet.

Responding quickly to a natural disaster is a top priority for D&J and one way they’re able to do that is by using local subcontractors.

“We use a lot of subcontractors that are already in the area,” Liveoak said. “That way they can be there a lot quicker than our staff can. We need to get the debris cleaned up so the rebuilding can begin. We used four or five subcontractors for this job.”

While the company owns most of its equipment, including the self-loading trucks and front-end loaders they used on this job, Liveoak said they also rent equipment depending on their needs. D&J uses mostly Caterpillar and John Deere equipment.

Liveoak said because he does this work for a living, seeing the damage from a natural disaster is “nothing out of the ordinary for me. I’ve worked all the major hurricanes so I’ve seen it all before,” Liveoak said. “In my opinion, this went pretty smooth. There were no real bumps in the road. When you’re in this type of business like we are it’s pretty straight forward. You ramp up at the beginning of the job and it gets slow at the end when you have to release a bunch of the subs and you end up with a couple of trucks picking up.”

Liveoak said the biggest challenge on a job like this is cash flow, “which becomes a problem because it is awhile before you get paid and we have to pay our subcontractors a lot sooner than we get paid.”

At The Villages retirement development, approximately 1,000 homes were damaged by the early-morning tornadoes. SCI — Steven Counts Inc., an Ocala-based landsite development company established in 2000 — has been doing site development work at The Villages for several years. When the storms hit, they were already on site, ready to begin the cleanup.

“We’ve actually have a contract with The Villages to do site development work, grading, sewer and pavement,” said Marty McClellan, project manager for SCI. “As the storm hit we were on standby for the final word, just waiting for FEMA and the state to assess the damage.

“We mobilized all of our equipment and did whatever they asked us to do. We already had a lot of equipment on The Villages property.”

What followed, McClellan said, was an intense four days where the company was running 20 dump trucks a day to clear the debris.

SCI had 65 workers participating in the cleanup and used several pieces of equipment, including John Deere backhoes and front-end loaders.

“It was a four-day process,” McClellan said. “It was pretty intense for four days. We are complete with the cleanup. Now we are making sure there was no structural damage to the drain system, the storm system that keeps the roads dry.”

For McClellan, this was the first time he’d been involved with the aftermath of a natural disaster. One of the biggest challenges was interacting with the residents who saw their homes damaged or destroyed by the storm.

“Dealing with the people was the big thing,” McClellan said. “What they were going through and what was in front of us for the cleanup, trying to feel the pain they were going through. It was unbelievable, the devastation in the short amount of time. We were finding stuff scattered for miles.”

McClellan said one nonprofit group called to ask about using some of their equipment. He traveled to Lady Lake to meet with them. He said it was “unbearable to see the damage.”

Though parts of The Village are still an eyesore, McClellan said things are getting back to normal and people are starting to rebuild. SCI has offered to help rebuild some of the residences, but they don’t have any contracts yet.

Kaminski said the home builders association has assembled an assistance network to give people advice on what to look for when selecting a contractor.

“We even have a sample of a rebuild contract that was put together by the Florida Home Builders Association,” Kaminski said.

As D&J’s work in Central Florida draws to a close, Liveoak said he’s back to watching The Weather Channel, which will bring him the news of where the next job might be.

“At the office,” Liveoak said, “we seem to have it tuned in all the time.” CEG

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