When the Storm is Over
— Deuteronomy 22:8 (RSV)
Thus it was written, the first building code. When God conveyed more than 600 laws to the Israelites, it went much further than the 10 commandments that Moses brought down from the mountain. The laws governed not just fundamental obligations that most civilized persons can agree to, but food safety, criminal justice, labor management, social services, finances, warfare, the environment and marriage. They forbid the destruction of trees during a city’s siege while permitting the stoning of rebellious children.
Modern civilization likes to think that it’s more enlightened since that time, due in part to experience, compassion and a general evolution in regarding the dignity of its citizens. We have added unto the laws of ancient times many more regulations, often in response to a tragedy or injustice. While the United States consolidates its building codes, there is always the possibility of local and regional demands to address pressing concerns (Roofing Contractor, June 2002, pg. 44). It seems that there will always be storms, like the ones that spawned tornadoes in November 2002 and killed more than 30 people. However, when two hurricanes hit the gulf coast last fall, it provided an opportunity for roofing contractors and building officials alike to revisit how they respond to the “wrath of God.”
Off the HookFor many roofing contractors in southern Louisiana and Texas, times were busy with new construction, reroofing and repairs from earlier storm damage. Parts of Louisiana got a double whammy when Tropical Storm Isadore struck the coast in late September 2002, then Hurricane Lili hit again about a week later. There was extensive flood damage and so much rain that some contractors wish the storms never hit.
Oil revenue is also keeping crews busy in Texas, along with an inundation of rain this summer. After several years of drought, parts of the Lone Star State have seen flooding from storms that dumped several inches of rain in an hour, as well as the added misery of hail. When the sun bakes away at roofing, building owners seldom realize that a sudden rainstorm doesn’t cause leaks, it only finds them.
“We were very busy before,” says Irene Haeber of Haeber Roofing in Corpus Christi, Texas. “We try to stay busy all the time. We want to be sure we supply (employees) with ample opportunities to work.”
The 25-year-old company performs commercial, residential and industrial roofing, in addition to waterproofing and damproofing. Haeber Roofing installs modified bitumens, built-up roofs, metal and some single plies. Steady rains since late June have killed regular workweeks, so the non-union crews must be prepared to work on weekends. Haeber has managed to keep overtime to a minimum while providing constant income for her roofers. Homeowners and building owners also have a strong desire to see crews show up.
“It’s gotten worse in the past few weeks,” she says about the rains. “We try to be honest with the calls up front. If they have an urgent need, we try to accommodate them. If the sun is going to shine, we will work.”
The rains have also exposed some shoddy roofs that are only a few years old. Ponding on the roofs has made bad seams worse, says Haeber, who talks to a lot of customers that think “cheap is the best way.” Her company emphasizes that a properly applied roof and regular maintenance ensure longevity. Sales personnel go over each proposal with the customer, especially in the highly competitive residential market where low margins can drag a company down. Haeber hasn’t seen any storm chasers in the area yet, so long as the local companies can keep up.
“People will have a small leak, so they don’t do anything,” says Jeff Comstock, vice president of Port Enterprises in Corpus Christi, a 42-year-old roofing contractor firm specializing in BUR, modified bitumen and metal roofing. “Then all of a sudden, you get one of these rains and five or six ceiling tiles fall down. It becomes our problem immediately. If you don’t get rain, no one does maintenance.”
His area has seen three times the normal rain since July, with some storms dumping so much water that street flooding was a problem. Flat roofs with clogged drains had their live loads climb to dangerous levels as the water rose above the flashing and poured into the buildings. As a result, he’s gotten calls about old bids that he submitted long ago, along with inquiries about maintenance programs. Comstock doubts estimates in the local media that claim the storms caused $3 billion in damage.
“Man, I haven’t seen it,” he says. “I’m really surprised that they said this was a federal disaster area. We’re doing a lot of leak repairs but not as much as I thought we would see.”
Southern Louisiana also got the double whammy from Isadore and Lili, with flooding, lots of severe damage and countless homeowners with holes in their houses. While some may argue that storms piling on like that may be just more of the same, it’s double the misery for residents of Baton Rouge, La., and the surrounding area.
“If we’re going to have these tragic events, it’s better to have them spread out,” says Robert Chatelain, president of Cribbs Inc., a 52-year-old roofing company in Baton Rouge. “It just compounds the problem. You have the worst of both scenarios when you combine the two. This is something that nobody really wants.”
Isadore brought lots of rain while Lili was known for high winds. Chatelain is one of those rare contractors that performs equal amounts of commercial and residential and the latter has been keeping crews busy as long as the sun is shining. Since Lili, there has been steady rain that ruins the workday, but he has flexibility with his union crews to minimize overtime. Sheet metal crews are busy either installing outdoors or fabricating indoors for future jobs; estimators catch up on paperwork when the sloped roofs are too slick to walk on; and the crews will stretch out the work week to Saturday. To sort out the monumental work, Chatelain gives priority to repeat customers and to roofs with the most damage.
“We even had a few calls in prior to Hurricane Lili to get on the list,” he says. “Those are people who have experience and plan ahead. We maxed out our labor force pretty quick with those first few calls.”
Cribbs was already busy when the storms hit and has gotten repeated calls from Lafayette, about an hour’s drive away. The few contractors there are already jammed and insurance companies balk at the travel costs when he does submit a bid, so homeowners are willing to gamble with just about anyone. As far as outside help, Chatelain has yet to see storm chasers this time around. He does admit that they can provide a service when areas are hit hard with severe weather.
“I have mixed emotions about storm chasers. People who are following storms have a service they can provide, as long as the homeowners ... check up on them,” he explains. He’s seen out-of-town contractors come to the area in the past. As long as they’ve got credentials, don’t demand advances before starting work and have a legitimate base of operations somewhere, then Chatelain doesn’t mind them helping out homeowners with a catastrophe on their hands. “Even those guys can be of service. Unfortunately, people get desperate and pick anybody.”
After the StormOne company that specializes in storm repairs is the Roof Company Inc., based in Houston. President Bill Ferguson, who was a homebuilder in Florida before going into roofing in 1981, holds licenses in seven states so he can conduct repairs in Arizona, Minnesota, Nebraska, Louisiana and Texas. He has built up such a reputation with several insurers that they often call him after storm damage. He doesn’t even mind being called a storm chaser; his Web site is www.hailchaser.com.
“We work with the insurance companies, not against them,” Ferguson says. “Some companies try to drive a wedge between the insurance companies and the building owners.”
The former claims adjuster has extensive experience in storm repairs, as well as dealing with areas that have been hit with severe weather. In addition to increased demand, working with insurance adjusters can be difficult for the uninitiated. Ferguson had some memorable experiences in Louisiana, where three insurance commissioners have gone to jail and insurance companies have not been enthusiastic about paying claims after a certain period of time has passed.
“In the insurance business, they pull the plug as far as getting your claims in,” he says. “There are a lot of people who have holes in their roofs that are out of luck.”
He just finished storm repairs in Louisiana after a hailstorm in January 2000. He is turning over the business to a local roofer that’s been with him all that time. Likewise in Minnesota where an April 1998 hailstorm caused some $2 billion in damage and nearly a quarter of a million claims. The Roofing Company will either align itself with an existing local company or open an operation, establish a solid reputation with owners and insurers and then turn it over to key employees who’ve shown they have the technical and operational skills to keep the doors open during sunny times.
To coordinate his far-flung operations, Ferguson has extensive reporting systems and documents all work progress with cameras and written reports. Aspects like marketing, estimations and financial statements are centralized at headquarters, leaving the local crews to focus on the repairs, installations and customer service. His company offers a standard two-year warranty on workmanship, plus a 10-year material warranty. He also sells a residential maintenance program for $50 per year that generates an inspection report detailing any warranty repairs, plus estimates on other recommended repairs or modifications.
To accomplish all this, Ferguson travels extensively but primarily relies on competent crews and oversight. He likens them to special operations forces that must have a variety of skills to handle all kinds on contingencies far from home.
“I train my guys like that,” he says. “We hold our guys to a high standard. They’re going to do it right, communicate and work with the homeowner because I’m going to hear about it.”
With each warranty statement, he sends a blank form and a self-addressed, stamped envelope, asking customers to discuss their experience with the company. That kind of reporting system is crucial if a crew has to fly in to make a repair. Some crews are found locally, while others travel around the country, working 10 months out of the year. Such organizational and technical experience were obtained the hard way. Says Ferguson, “I've learned from the past too much.”