By H. Kent Craig
Special to CONTRACTOR
NEW BERN, N.C. — When mechanical contractor David Novak finally went outside his home here on the morning of Sept. 19 after the center of the eye of Hurricane Isabel had passed over his residence the day before, what he found surprised him.
“My home had survived intact,” he told CONTRACTOR. “No wind damage at all, the roof hadn’t leaked a drop even during the most intense part of the downpours from the hurricane, even my power and phone lines were both still working. I knew my family had been very lucky, and that many of my neighbors hadn’t been.”
He had already received more than four dozen calls that morning from customers needing his services, so he rolled up his sleeves, called in his employees and went to work.
“My first priority was my own family,” he said. “We were OK, so my next priority was my employees, making sure they survived OK and didn’t have any life-safety issues at their own homes. The next and co-equal priority were my customers that I knew had medical problems like asthma or emphysema and those families with toddlers who really needed their air conditioning.”
After dispatching his employees to the most critical jobs of the first batch of calls that had come in, Novak began methodically trying to call those customers whom he knew had special needs. With more than 1 million people without power and a large percentage of those without phone service as well, he couldn’t reach everyone.
“I’m just a small HVAC contractor but I was doing the best I could to help,” Novak said. “When a customer couldn’t pay right then, I told my guys to go ahead and do the needed repair and we’d worry about the money later. And I began making many, many service calls myself. I have been working 16 to 18 hours a day or more to try to help what I can.”
Anthony Lowe of C/A Heating & Air Conditioning, also in New Bern, echoed the sentiment.
“Those first couple of days were like a zoo,” he said. “All low-lying areas in Craven and Pamlico and surrounding counties had suffered the effects of rising waters from Hurricane Isabel, destroying many homes not from wind or heavy rain but from the flooding that followed. Almost all flexible duct and other supplies sold out within a couple of days at local supply houses. Since Isabel hit us I’ve put more hours in than anytime before, even more than when Hurricane Floyd hit us so hard a few years back.”
Days before Hurricane Isabel made landfall at Cape Lookout just a few miles south of New Bern, the state government had been preparing for the worst. Having learned many valuable lessons from past hurricanes such as Fran in 1996 as well as Floyd and Dennis respectively in 1999, all state and local agencies were much better prepared this time to handle the inevitable crises that followed. Still, state officials knew that they were but one part of the solution and that all repair, rebuilding and reconstruction to follow would take place using private contractors.
“In the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel, HVAC, plumbing, electrical and similar contractors will be working with emergency management officials to help those in need, especially in the more rural counties where there might not be enough local contractors to go around,” said Linda Wiener, assistant secretary for communication and external affairs for the North Carolina Department of Commerce. “Emergency management officials will help contractors assess market opportunities and areas most in critical need of their services and then help give them entrée there.
“Isabel was no match for our citizens. If hard work and dedication is any indication, the local residents of eastern North Carolina will have their economy turned around in no time.”
Darrin Callahan, owner of AirWaves Inc., located on the southern tip of Hatteras Island, which literally had been cut off from the main part of the island by Isabel’s creation of a new inlet a couple of miles north of his home and business, echoed Wiener’s sentiments but added some real-world insights.
“Despite the fact that we’re now completely cut off from the main access of Highway 12 because of the new inlet and have to have all parts and equipment brought in by ferry service, we got back to business very quickly even though it has been a daily battle with Mother Nature,” Callahan said. “I intend to hire as many local residents as possible such as fishermen and those formerly in the tourist industry to help me even though they don’t necessarily know much about HVAC, because they need jobs and I need good workers to help with all the work that will need to be done.”
He predicted that the next eight to 12 months would require 70- to 80-hour workweeks and it will take a full two to three years before the local economy fully recovers from this blow.
“Ever since the hurricane hit, I’ve done many repairs for free, as I know other contractors and businesses have as well,” Callahan said. “People are stressed out beyond belief, and getting their A/C working again makes a huge psychological difference in dealing with the stresses coming from the aftermath of the storm.
“The fact of how Mother Nature spared me, my family, my tools, equipment and shop makes me realize being fair and honest over the years has given me my good fortune, so now I can help my neighbors. The business and the profits that follow will come from continuing to be honest and fair with them.”