January 21/28, 2019: Volume 34, Issue 17
By Rob Persons
On September 14, 2018, Hurricane Florence made landfall near Wilmington, N.C., as a category 1 hurricane, traveling south before being downgraded to a tropical storm. It claimed the lives of more than 50 people, according to Reuters.
Dropping a massive 18 trillion gallons of rain over seven states, it caused up to $50 billion in reported damage and spawned a period of disaster for the flooring industry. Less than one month later, Hurricane Michael, reportedly one of the most powerful storms to ever hit the U.S. mainland, brought devastation that is still in its initial stages of recovery.
“They’re still hauling trash away,” said Jimmy Walters, owner of Carpet One Floor & Home in Wilmington, N.C. “The roads are lined with fallen trees, it’s like driving through a tunnel. They’ve been hauling for two weeks and I don’t expect them to be done for a month or two.”
Also in Wilmington, Hobbs Sutten, president of Sutten Rugs & Carpets, described a temporary scarcity of supplies compounded by limited mobility as a result of the flooding and fallen trees—leaving people waiting in gas lines for over an hour and even following tanker trucks to the station to ensure the pump wouldn’t run out as they waited. Further south in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Holmes Floor Covering & Granite skirted the major impacts but Tom Wilkes, owner, said the store was forced to close for a full seven days because people couldn’t get back in the area after they had evacuated—as many of his employees had chosen to do.
Again, one year after a devastating hurricane season, the people of the Carolinas are left picking up the pieces. For Myrtle Beach, this is the second hurricane in two years after 2016’s Hurricane Matthew. Florence has now destroyed some of Wilkes’ customers’ carpets even before they lost that new carpet smell.
“I try to give the best prices, especially if I just redid their floors two years ago, but as a business owner there is only so much you can do,” Wilkes explained. “Some of these people are living paycheck to paycheck so it makes you feel bad. You are talking about a whole house of hardwood, 1,500-square-feet, that must be re-gutted.”
In North Myrtle Beach, Williams Carpet, celebrating its 49th year as a family business, is knocking $1 to $2 off each yard of carpeting for devastated clients, according to the second-generation owner, Sandra Williams Lee. While Lee’s store was largely unaffected by damage, her sister’s store in Wilmington had two 80-foot trees crash through the roof. Despite the damages, the store is back up and running.
While a hurricane may increase the demand-to-supply ratio, many retailers agreed it is not a time for shady or opportunistic price gouging. “Floor covering is a matter of trust,” Sutten said.
While some companies have increased their staff across the board to deal with the increase in volume, Sutten is standing pat. He said he won’t risk working with people he doesn’t know, maintaining that loyal customers are willing to wait for his guaranteed, quality service—some of whom are turning minor damage to their carpets into an opportunity to redo their entire home.
Barbara Leininger, design associate for Floor Coverings International Shallotte in Shallotte, N.C., examines the damage and tries to match partially damaged carpets or estimate the cost of full replacements. “This is our community, we have no advertising ploy,” she said. “We are trying to be very sympathetic and give the best pricing we can in every situation, not blasting out storm specials in advertisements but going on a case-by-case basis. One person had their ceiling collapse, so we took a flat dollar off the project, which ended up being a lot.”
Only one month out from the storm and many people are not back in their homes. Alan McLamb of Cape and Fear Flooring and Restoration in Fayetteville, N.C., said the past few weeks have been extremely busy with appointments, estimates and collecting insurances rather than sales, as a lot of houses are simply not ready for new carpets until the major work—from roofing to dry wall—is done. He predicted some people affected might not be ready for the flooring for nine months to a year.
Leininger said the first week after opening was quiet, as people were still surveying the damage. Starting the second and third week, however, “our phone was ringing like crazy.”
Not only are houses damaged and construction backed up, but toxic pollution as a result of the flooding has created hazardous conditions. This includes toxic coal ash from Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee plant in Goldsboro, N.C., and the waste and excrement from 9.7 million pigs that have contaminated freshwater tributaries, which, in turn, threatened to contaminate drinking water.
Unsanitary conditions led to the death of Ron Phelps, a community member of Wilmington, N.C., who succumbed to an infection in his leg due to floodwater as he performed recovery work on his house. Retailers pointed to Phelp’s death as a demonstration of the continuing danger for recovery workers, including floor layers working in flooded areas.
While demand may be high for flooring in the coming months, things will not necessarily be easy for flooring retailers. Jobs may include those for community members unable to easily pay for installation or those without flood insurance. This is also coming at time when price increases resulting from the tariffs imposed by the president are trickling down from supplier to retailer to consumer. Retailers such as Blake Rouse at The Flooring Gallery in Kinston, N.C., said they find themselves unable to give special deals to their reeling communities as relief from above does not seem realistic.Predatory mentality
The biggest lesson learned throughout this process was seeing the community come together in its response. However, there have been instances where opportunistic construction crews have come into town looking to capitalize on storm victims. Williams Carpet’s Lee said she remember floorers coming in after Hurricane Matthew and Floyd seeking business without the personal touch required to serve customers. While Williams Carpet has become an institution in the community, for newcomers or people looking to get back home, it might be more susceptible to these practices.
Hurricanes, like all major tragedies, are a time where communities and relationships trump the importance of maximizing profits. There is not much one can do to prepare for it, aside from boarding up the windows and hoping luck finds you. Chuck Quicksill, an estimator at All Shore Floor in Southport, N.C., advised people looking to open a business to buy a space on high ground so potential flood waters don’t overtake the building. Other than that, retailers should take each day at a time and be there for their community. For Wilkes, that meant giving his employees paid time off to recover. “Being a good boss and caring about your employees goes a long way to keep them,” he said. “If you work hard for them, they will work hard for you.”