Last fall’s Hurricane Sandy was an equal-opportunity creator of mayhem. More than 140 deaths were reported, tens of thousands were left homeless, millions were without power and heat for a week or more, and dollar costs were estimated at about $20 billion in property damage and between $10 billion and $30 billion in lost business.

Wood industry businesses of virtually every type—small and large, shops and suppliers, showrooms and factories—were among the victims of the massive storm that smashed the Northeast on October 29. But because of the need to rebuild almost everything that was destroyed, the wood industry may ultimately recover from the devastation a little more quickly and fully than many other businesses.

Meanwhile, even if there comes a time when woodworkers can speak of Sandy and think, “Not so bad,” that time isn’t now. In the immediate aftermath of the so-called Frankenstorm, and for months thereafter, anyone and everyone along the coastline stretching from New Jersey to Connecticut shared the same fears and frustrations—and that included woodworkers.

The night the trees fell

Glen Guarino, who taught high school shop for 32 years and has been creating one-of-a-kind furniture pieces and art objects since 1978, almost lost his small studio when not one, but two of his neighbor’s trees fell on it in the storm.

Guarino had done his best to protect the one-man shop, which is housed in what once was a detached one-car garage in his Cedar Grove, N.J., backyard. “We tried to prepare for Sandy, putting things in storage, tying things down and cutting tree branches near electrical lines,” he said. He also relocated all new work to his house earlier in the day.
Showing no respect for Guarino’s diligent effort, Sandy sent a large red oak through the ridge near the back gable breaking several roof rafters. Two hours later, the craftsman and his wife Marie heard another loud crash. Looking out the window, they saw a second tree, an ash, resting on the studio roof. And the storm was still in its early stages.

Dealing with the emergency, Guarino and his neighbors put up a tarp to channel rain into a plastic garbage can. They also removed all hand tools from the studio.

Then, adding insult to injury, Sandy cut off electricity to most of New Jersey. Guarino was without power for seven days, but he observed, “We were lucky compared to the people who lost their homes and all their belongings.”

Although his business suffered a major disruption and unwanted expenses, and required paperwork to settle an insurance claim, Guarino has tried to remain positive about the experience. For example, he joked, “It was an unexpected lumber delivery!”

He also said, “I had been putting off enlarging my studio for a very long time. I now have a contractor and a fair bid to do the work. I have been working on plans and applying for permits. I plan to work in the studio during several stages of construction, and when that proves difficult I will work in my friend’s shop; he was kind enough to offer bench space.” Because his is a one-man operation, Guarino lacks redundancy and is dependent on such outside help.

Meanwhile, despite his own troubles, Guarino told CabinetMaker+FDM that he is interested in doing some volunteer work to help other people who have been affected by the storm.

Sources of help

Guarino is not alone in his desire to assist fellow woodworkers. In fact, within the first week after Sandy’s assault, this magazine and the Milwaukee, WI-based Cabinet Makers Association, launched mechanisms intended to be a “catalyst and conduit” to pair those in need with those willing to share the burden.

Sean Benetin, owner of Millwork & More in Blairstown, N.J., and a past president of the CMA, used his largely undamaged facilities as a clearing house for relief supplies. Benetin and other CMA shop owners offered facilities and services to other shops that suffered more serious damage. Dave Grulke, CMA’s executive director, said most CMA members in the area escaped the storm with little damage, but many experienced cancellations of ongoing work as the storm held up previous scheduled projects.

For more information on the CMA efforts, contact Grulke via telephone or email—(414) 377-1340 or Director@Cabinetmakers.org. Or visit a special disaster relief Web forum sponsored by CabinetMaker+FDM at www.SawdustSoup.com.

A foot of water

Naturally, not all wood industry organizations required outside help—although virtually all benefited from the loyalty of workers, clients and vendors, and some received support from colleagues who were less affected by the hurricane’s fury. Atlantic Plywood, for example, is a sizable organization with 11 locations throughout the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions. Its principal business is warehousing and distributing hardwood plywood and panel products.

Steve Ciecura, who manages the firm’s Carlstadt, N.J., branch, reported his 85,000-square-foot facility was flooded when the hurricane sent a tidal surge through Newark Bay and roaring up the Hackensack River, overwhelming natural barriers that were incapable of protecting low-lying areas.

“We had a foot of water throughout the entire building. And power was unavailable for 12 days,” Ciecura said. “The storm struck on a Monday, and we couldn’t even reenter the place until Thursday. Fortunately, none of our 25 employees was on premises when the water hit us.”

The company diverted all calls to their branch in South Windsor, Conn., and arranged for South Windsor to initiate shipments to customers unable to accept deliveries. “Since our market area covers most of New Jersey, Rockland County, NY, and The Bronx, there were a lot of clients who were too busy mopping up to even consider receipt,” said Ciecura.

Getting back to work

When interviewed in mid-December, Ciecura reported that all of his branch’s customers expressed their intent to stay in business. That kind of optimism has to be respected, he said.

With some semblance of normality returning to operations, Atlantic Plywood management turned its attention to restoring the facility. “We lost 5,000 panels as well as some stone products and others made of recycled quartz and concrete.”

Damage to the actual structure was minimal, but the offices were destroyed and had to be entirely reconstructed. “Fortunately, we had a second floor that was still in good shape, so we set up temporary desks,” Ciecura said. “It looked like a bookie joint in there, but we were getting things done.”
Because Atlantic Plywood doesn’t own the building, it had to work not only with its own insurance company, but that of the landlord. And, said Ciecura, claims were also filed with FEMA, which sent a couple of inspectors to assess the damage.

“Before we could come back in,” Ciecura said, “the place had to be sanitized. We had a Zamboni floor cleaner run through the warehouse, and special crews also disinfected those surfaces that the water reached.” And the landlord brought in a testing lab to measure air quality and address any other environmental concerns. As there was no electricity those first several days, the company used two generators to power lights.

Throughout the ordeal, said Ciecura, Atlantic Plywood “did the right thing,” keeping its employees on payroll. One mitigating factor was that the company had flood insurance.

The fickle nature of the storm—trashing some areas and leaving others with only minor damage—was inexplicable. For example, another Atlantic Plywood branch, located in Bethpage, NY, continued to operate without a blip.

Outwater Plastics Industries, a well-known name to most woodworkers, also escaped serious problems. The company’s East Coast headquarters in Bogota, N.J., lost power for several days, but had no damage to its premises and only partial business interruption. “We also have a facility in Phoenix, Ariz., and that helped us cover some of our more critical shipments,” said Joey Shimm, marketing director.

Calamity in Kearny

Things didn’t work out as well for West Hudson Millwork, an 8,000-square-foot Kearny, N.J., shop that produces cabinetry, closets, furniture and countertops in wood and laminate.

Owner Jon Giordano said, “We had 5 feet of water in the shop, and all our machinery, computers, paperwork, forklifts, were ruined. The employees and I are on unemployment until we can get the machines running again.”

The building itself came through the storm OK, said Giordano, but the flooring, sheet rock and cabinets all must be replaced. The owner estimated the cost at about $50,000 to fix and possibly between $100,000 and $200,000 to repurchase everything.

In addition, he said, four jobs valued at about $33,000 were lost, as was another $15,000 to $20,000 in materials.

With no power, no machinery and no usable materials, workflow came to a screeching halt, and, along with it, so did cash flow. Giordano said he had no flood insurance. He also said he believed his business too small for FEMA aid. He did approach the Small Business Administration, which, he said, “may provide … a loan at roughly 4% to 6%.”

Despite the accumulation of bad news, the Kearny-based woodworker said, “I am trying to finish some jobs with the help of other shops that still are functioning. We’re also trying to order parts and diagnose machines and rebuild motors and bearings.”

Still, it’s not easy to deal with the emotional shock of seeing your business in ruins, Giordano acknowledged. “Your first impression is you’re out of business. You ask for help and don’t receive any. You realize you’re truly on your own, and your choice is rebuild from ground zero and re-buy everything from CNC machinery to paper clips or go bankrupt,” he said. “Bankruptcy isn’t really an option because you will carry those bills and bad credit with you. It is easier for a successful company to pay the loans off than it is for an individual.”

Quite a year

Gary and Lisa Horvath will never forget 2012. After having signed a lease the month before, they opened Real Antique Wood Mill in Irvington, N.J., in January. And 10 months later, they learned that their 16,000-square-foot rented facility was not strong enough to withstand Hurricane Sandy’s sustained wind speeds of 40 to 50 miles per hour with gusts into the 70s.

“The roof was peeled back,” Gary Horvath told CabinetMaker+FDM. “Inside is where we disassemble reclaimed wood, mainly from barns, and then denail, resaw, sort by size and quality, determine moisture content (and dry kiln when needed), and square up and plane the pieces so that they can be used for flooring, furniture and architectural moldings.”

Horvath said that four major projects were delayed, affecting cash flow. Nevertheless, he counts himself lucky that it wasn’t worse. Lacking power from Monday to Monday, Real Antique Wood Mill adjusted by “making last week’s jobs this week’s jobs. We had to work a little harder and a little longer, but we knew that in the end we would get it done.”

Another roof in the wind

Artisan Interiors in Frenchtown, N.J., faced much the same situation. Owners Arthur and Deborah Orchowski founded the business 10 years ago, focusing on personalized cabinet refacing and redesign, specialty cabinets, including kitchen islands, and vanities, applying custom designer 100-percent waterborne finishes, as well as varied design services and color consultation. Their facility went “topless” when Sandy tore off 60 percent of the roof.

Deborah Orchowski described the scene: “There is a second floor to the building, currently used for storage, so things could have been worse. Nevertheless, until the roofers arrived in mid-December, we had water pouring out of the first floor ceiling every time it rained or snowed. It quickly overflowed the buckets we placed upstairs.”

Orchowski continued, “Mold was everywhere. A demolition crew was here for about two weeks at the beginning of December, ripping down the wall sheetrock and ceilings upstairs, as well as the ceilings in about 60 percent of the first floor. So our facility is a mess right now, a filthy mess. It has been very stressful trying to keep sections of the space clean enough to spray and do finishing.”

Amazingly, Orchowski reported, only minimal damage was done to jobs in progress. The business owner said, “A kitchen’s worth of new cabinet doors, a radius cabinet we just built (along with the radius doors), and a vanity we just built were mostly spared.”

Nevertheless, production schedules were all but obliterated. “We’re approximately a month behind right now,” Orchowski said a few days before Christmas. “In addition to the timing issues, there are space issues as areas of our shop have been consolidated into each other to either avoid additional water damage, or to accommodate the demolition process, which started at the beginning of December. Obviously, cash flow has been negatively impacted, but at least we have projects in progress and, despite the cancellation of several estimates, we have been gaining new work.”

In retrospect, she regretted the absence of business interruption insurance. “I guess our insurance agent didn’t do a good job of up-selling us,” she said. “Depending on the parameters of the insurance we would consider it for the future. We are under the impression that it does not pay out for interruption of work due to loss of electricity, however, so we would have to weigh other scenarios that might arise where it would be beneficial.”

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