Storms Place Heavy Demand on Contractors

Thu October 28, 2004 - Southeast Edition
Giles Lambertson

“We’re not a storm-chasing contractor,” said David Sharpe, whose C-Sharpe Company LLC nevertheless is overrun with hurricane reconstruction work. The storm came to him.

The restoration and waterproofing company’s office is in Orange Beach, AL, which pretty much was ground zero for Hurricane Ivan. The category 3 storm blew ashore Sept. 16, flooding streets, downing trees and power lines and almost destroying the beach area where Alabama meets the Gulf of Mexico.

As Mayor David Bodenham in neighboring Gulf Shores told the Associated Press, many homes survived “but the beach is going to be a mess, a big mess.”

Sharpe knows all about it. His company has “a lot of very loyal and good clients” among condominium and individual property owners on beaches stretching from Mississippi eastward into the Florida panhandle.

Many of the properties were damaged by Ivan and C-Sharpe responded to calls for help from the property owners. The sense of the emergency in lower Alabama can be seen in a few excerpts from a report posted on the Web site of one C-Sharpe client, the Romar House Association:

• Sept. 30 — “C-Sharpe will begin soon to remove some of the large concrete debris. They are working to cover the missing areas of skin on each end of the buildings with temporary plastic.”

• Oct. 2 — “C-Sharpe has started covering the east end of building A with plastic. Work is ongoing 7 days a week.”

• Oct. 13 — “Construction cleanup is going well... C-Sharpe is doing a good job leading the teams we have on site.”

• Oct. 19 — “The Board of Directors and management met with C-Sharpe (general contractor). The following decisions were made... (1) It will be about 3 months before owners can stay overnight; (2) It will be 6-9 months before rentals can resume.”

Life is returning to the area, in other words, but normalcy is still a long way off.

Sharpe said the storm damage incurred was, not surprisingly, from two elements: wind and water. The 100 mph winds did the usual kind of things when it encountered structures in its path — ripping stucco cladding from the sides of buildings, punching out windows and patio doors and tearing apart tin roofs.

“In the city of Orange Beach,” Sharpe reported, “several wood frame structures were completely destroyed.” Heavy concrete-and — girder structures survived.

While that was bad enough, it was the water that mostly devastated the properties.

“Concrete slabs on grade were completely blown out,” Sharpe said. Storm surges carved away sand from beneath the slabs, from underneath the ocean side foundations of entire buildings and from around the concrete walls of in-ground swimming pools.

“All the swimming pools in every condominium complex were washed out,” Sharpe noted. The pools are uniformly located on the south or coastal side of houses and condos and, thus, were fully exposed to Ivan’s surging waves.

“We had a massive amount of erosion of the beach sand,” Sharpe said. In some cases, the elevation of a site has dropped 5 and 6 ft. (150 to 180 cm), leaving buildings and pools teetering on the edges of drop-offs.

Three weeks after the storm, Sharpe and his crews are “still in a demolition and cleanup stage.”

Much of the work is clearing out and hauling away debris. Tracked excavators and backhoes “of all sizes” are a common sight, as are rubber-tired loaders.

“The single most popular piece of equipment is the skid steer loader with a track on it,” he said. The small machines are moving debris from tight spaces and breaking up concrete with hydraulic jack attachments.

Sharpe said September’s hurricane was a benchmark storm. “Ivan has caused by far the most damage since the start of development of the area. It is by far the worst storm we’ve had since Frederick in 1979.”

The 36-year-old company owner bought C-Sharpe in 1990 from his father, Bill Sharpe, who started the firm. It normally employs about 100 people. But in the aftermath of Ivan, the company is working twice that many plus some contractors.

But the extra work isn’t a boon, not to Sharpe’s way of thinking.

“Contrary to popular belief,” he said, “we are not in favor of the storms.

“They hurt our community and our economy. They damage the normal flow of business. We’d rather not have the storms at all.”

Hidden Roads

SJ&L Inc. knows all about storm recovery. Ivan is just the latest hurricane to which the Mobile, AL, general contractor has responded in 26 years of doing business.

Alabama Department of Transportation officials called SJ&L as soon as Ivan’s fury receded. Company owner Michael Tew sent crews south to clear roadways of sand. A lot of sand.

“The sand was three and four feet deep over Highway 182,” recalled Ronald Glass, vice president and operations manager for SJ&L. The gritty material covered the pavement for up to 8 mi. (12.8 km).

There was no mystery about where the sand belonged. The powerful hurricane’s wind and surging waters had carried it northward from its natural habitat.

Glass observed that one nearby beach that had been 200 ft. (61 m) wide had disappeared.

SJ&L assembled equipment — some owned, some rented — to relocate the sand to the beaches. Komatsu and John Deere rubber-tired loaders scooped up the sand and loaded it into Volvo, Cat and Terex off-road trucks.

Because much of the sand was mixed with debris and natural materials, it had to be screened to sift out foreign material. A Powerscreen Chieftain 1400 unit is the center of that operation, screening about 350 tons an hour for 10 hours or more each working day, Glass said. The cleaned sand then is carted back and dumped next to the now-calm Gulf waters.

Slowly, the area is beginning to be reclaimed.

“There is a drastic change in how it looks since I first saw it right after the storm,” Glass said in late October, a month after Ivan passed through.

“It was terrible then.”

He recalled seeing a house that had been picked up by the water and moved more than 300 ft. (91 m) north to the other side of the highway.

“I’ve never seen a storm tear up condominiums like Ivan did,” he said. “It must have been a pretty good wave to do what it did. I wouldn’t have wanted to be there.”

SJ&L and other contractors working in the area are systematically coordinating their jobs, Glass said. “Everybody is working real well.”

As the DOT highway work wound down in the coastal area, municipal officials in and around Orange Beach talked to the company about other projects. So in mid-October, one SJ&L crew remained nearer the coast while another worked on DOT highway repair work further inland.

“We’re been real busy,” said Glass, in something of an understatement.

Organic Debris

Blue Goose Growers has seen numerous hurricanes hit southern Florida in 50 years of business. Even so, the three hurricanes that visited in just four stormy weeks this fall will be long remembered.

Frances swirled in Sept. 5, Ivan slipped by about 10 days later and Jeanne stormed through Sept. 25. The hurricanes dropped a total of 30 inches of rain on the Fort Pierce area, about half the rainfall that normally falls in the area over an entire year.

Blue Goose’s contractor services division battled the water.

The company’s task, according to operations manager Larry Tarr, was to clear canals of debris and vegetation so that water would keep flowing and reservoirs could be preserved against rising water levels.

Blue Goose management decided early on to stay home and service its regular customers rather than contract for cleanup elsewhere. Water districts, citrus growers and ranchers in four counties –– St. Lucie, Indian River, Okeechobee and Martin –– looked to Blue Goose for help as the waters rose.

“The story for us was, we are here, we are in it,” Tarr said.

Tarr has 20 equipment operators. They worked long hours on Kobelco, Case and Komatsu long-reach excavators with 65-foot (20-meter) booms. Six Kobelco and Caterpillar excavators with 37-foot (11-meter) reaches also were kept running.

Some machines were rented at the height of the emergency, with rental equipment supplied by Florida Tractor & Equipment in Cocoa and Briggs Equipment in Palm Beach.

A crew worked around the clock at one reservoir, operating a 40-ton (36 t) Kobelco excavator with a 3.5-yd. bucket, barely staying ahead of rising water. Because fill dirt couldn’t be hauled in, the crew robbed Peter of adjacent soil and paid Paul by dumping the reinforcement material on the banks of the reservoir dam. The structure held.

“In some cases, we had to take laborers and chainsaw crews and cut trees so they could be pulled out of canals,” Tarr said.

Brazilian Peppers and Australian Pines are the trees usually toppled in these storms. The non-native plants were imported long ago as wind breaks for citrus groves, and grew thick and tall. Unfortunately, their height is not a particular advantage when hurricane winds blow through.

When they crash down, their root balls on the edges of canals rip up earthen banks, which then quickly erode, all of which happened in September, Tarr said.

Indian River County was hit hard, an area that produces some of the premium fruit in a state that accounts for a huge percentage of fruit grown in the United States. Ag officials put the produce and structural loss for Florida growers at about $3 billion.

The hurricanes are gone for now and Blue Goose contractor crews are involved in long-term reconstruction efforts. Tarr looks back with admiration on the “heroic efforts” of everyone who worked the crisis.

He includes among them his heavy equipment manager, John Allen, and supervisor, James Clark. And the operating crews and laborers.

“We gave everyone a cash bonus,” Tarr said. “They responded to the emergency when they could have stayed home and repaired their homes. We felt it was important for them to know that they had a job after the storms.”

The evidence of the September hurricanes is still all around, he said. “Blue tarps are on the roofs. Trees are laying over. It will be with us a long time. We won’t be able to forget it.”

The Work Has to Get Done

HP Construction Services specializes in hurricane restoration work. It has plenty to do.

“It’s been a nightmare,” said HP owner Michael Hayes. “There is so much work out there.”

Working in the central Florida area around Orlando, HP had six projects going in mid-October. The hotel and condominium industry was able to let repair contracts within a couple of weeks of the storms, but other projects awaited settlement of insurance claims. So Hayes expects yet more work will come.

The company specializes in mold mitigation and remediation, and such restorative work as re-roofing, repair of drywall, replacement of boardwalks, installation of new windows, sliding doors and tile — “pretty much the whole thing,” Hayes said.

“This week we might have 20 men in our crews, next week 60 men. We gear up for each job,” Hayes explained. Project manager Steven Cooper keeps track of it all.

The company has been in business for 18 years, mostly working with commercial clients like hotels and high-rise and mid-rise condominiums.

Living in hurricane alley periodically can nearly overwhelm the specialty firm. But the work must be done by someone.

“I don’t see this slowing up for two years,” Hayes said. “If storms keep coming, it may be perpetual.”

Photo: A Bobcat skid steer relocates a fallen palm tree in Sanford, FL.