How to survive, revive and thrive after enduring a category 5

January 25, 2018

Retailers rehash the devastation and recovery from major hurricanes

January 22/29, 2018: Volume 33, Issue 16

By Robert Persons

 

The 2017 hurricane season was the most devastating on record, costing more than $200 billion. This has major implications for the flooring industry as it becomes both a resource for the recovery and a victim of the devastation.

We have seen the images from Florida, Houston and Puerto Rico this year, but what is it like to be in the flooring industry through those times? Roberts Carpets and Fine Floors, based in Houston, was among those businesses impacted as one of nine company stores was flooded with 5 feet of water during Hurricane Harvey in August.

Record floods filled the streets of Houston, washing away their contents and preventing travel within the city. It was not until an employee sent Sam Roberts, owner, a satellite image of the intersection where his store was located that Roberts saw the newly formed body of water, turning Roberts Carpets and Fine Floors as well as surrounding restaurants, Target and Best Buy into a lazy river of debris. “Never in all my years have I seen anything like it,” Roberts said of the image that would send shivers up the spine of any business owner.

Dolphin Carpet & Tile, located in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area, was lucky enough to skirt the impacts of 2017’s Hurricane Irma, but owner Jeff Katz remembers the utter destruction of the category 5 Hurricane Andrew in 1992 “like it was yesterday.” After his cringe-worthy description of the “catastrophic” damage done to the 30-mile area around his main store—which caused all its doors to be blown in, the ceiling to leak and inventory and samples to be damaged—Katz recalled the collaborative revival process.

The immediate shock of such a powerful hurricane may cause some to wallow in the misery of losing everything, but those in the flooring industry are not afforded that luxury as they make up an integral part of the recovery effort.

“Within a few days we had the lights on powered by a generator, the samples were wet, the ceiling was leaking,” Katz recalled. “I was running out every two hours to get more gas for the generator, and people were coming in like you were giving stuff away. It was the most ridiculous thing you have ever seen.”

Despite major losses of inventory or damage to showrooms, the massive demand for new flooring provides opportunity to rebound. For Dolphin Carpet & Tile, business boomed for a year following Hurricane Andrew, increasing sales when they were needed most.

Though insurance deductibles have skyrocketed since 1992, Kelby Fredrick, owner of My Flooring America with two locations in the Houston area, described a similar influx following Hurricane Harvey this past year. “Business has pretty much doubled since we opened our doors after the storm and it hasn’t fallen off yet. The new normal for us has been a doubling of everything.”

In the case of Pel Hughes Companies, a family-owned business based in New Orleans, a hurricane actually fueled its entry into the flooring business, specifically Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Mark Hughes, owner, said diversifying the family business—which at the time was primarily a printing company—was one of the main reasons they were able to rebound after their printing inventory was largely destroyed. As they put their heads together to think about ways to turn the tragedy around while helping the community, it seemed like a perfect time to enter the flooring business. As such, Floor de Lis was born.

This diversification was not an easy task. “People who were computer programmers became contractors,” Hughes said. “Everyone wore different hats at the time.” It took eight months for the building that housed the printing operation to reopen as a flooring showroom. In the meantime, Hughes and his staff operated the business remotely with “mobile showrooms,” a.k.a. cars.

In the aftermath of a hurricane there is no normal. “What was really interesting was the first influx of people were those who did not have damage,” My Flooring America’s Fredrick said. “Being veterans of the area, they knew every contractor or floorer would be booked for the next months or years, so we had a huge burst of business right away.”

After that first wave of pragmatic customers, people whose houses suffered only minor damage followed. Then, as consumers’ houses were repaired, they joined the fray of people in need of flooring—and the waitlist for installation is commonly backed up six to eight weeks, according to Fredrick.

Picking up the pieces
Business following a hurricane brings much-needed profit to help rebuild and restock, but it also makes balancing installation through the rapid influx a major challenge. Rates rise and books overflow. Back in Houston, Roberts maintained his usual installation teams as he didn’t want to risk sacrificing his quality for volume. My Flooring America brought in some crews from its Dallas locations to help with the influx. But for those without solid, long-term relationships with their subcontractors, installation fees could become exorbitant. Another challenge that arises one or two years after the recovering sales surge is a huge lull in sales because everyone in the area just purchased new flooring.

During these times of existential threat, the damage done to the communities and the people who live in them takes priority over a purely profit-driven approach. “The first few weeks, in a weird way, there was a kind of honeymoon where everyone was out helping and serving; we saw the best of humanity,” Frederick recalled. (My Flooring America alone donated six truckloads of flooring to charity following Hurricane Harvey.) “But as time passes that [benevolence] is replaced with stress.”

Dolphin’s Katz cited another challenge: In getting back to work, you might need to help out your own employees. That might mean financially or donating time to physically help them remove furniture and belongings damaged by flooding or showing compassion and understanding toward employees who have to tend to personal matters in tough times. My Flooring America did its part by organizing a gift card drive, while Floor de Lis helped employees whose homes were destroyed find a place to stay—even taking some in to their own homes.

Increasing in intensity
According to the U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA), since the 1980s the warming global climate has been a factor in leading to an increase in the frequency, intensity and duration of North Atlantic hurricanes. (It should be noted that before 2016, it had been nine years—the second longest stretch in recorded history—between category 5 hurricanes in the Atlantic basin). Even regions not typically associated with tropical weather have been impacted. In 2011, the remnants of Hurricane Irene struck Vermont, destroying homes, businesses and infrastructure. “It was a big shock because we hadn’t had a flood like that since 1936,” said Bud Dwyer, owner of Dwyer Floor Cover in southern Vermont. “It is a small community that is tightly woven so everyone jumped in to help, trying to find out who was hurt the worst and providing assistance. Some businesses in town were never able to recover after all their inventory was destroyed.”

 

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