Oak Lawn crew: Sandy clean-up ‘like being in a war zone’
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY firstname.lastname@example.org November 28, 2012 6:16PM
With pictures of the damage on his computer Doug Burton talks about his experience in New Jersey helping in the demolition and rebuild of Hurricane Sandy at his business Skyline DKI in Oak Lawn, Illinois, Wednesday, November 28, 2012. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun Times Media
Updated: November 28, 2012 10:38PM
With a week’s supply of food, four trucks and two trailers full of equipment, seven guys from an Oak Lawn restoration company set out for the Jersey shore, a place previously known to them only by the popular TV show.
They weren’t sure what to expect in the wake of Hurricane Sandy bashing the East Coast late last month — despite a week of careful planning.
“By far, this is the worst I have ever seen,” Doug Burton, the owner of Skyline DKI, said Wednesday after the group’s recent return home.
Burton and his crews often are called in after small-scale catastrophes — a flood, a fire or a broken water pipe. They typically mitigate the situation — eliminate the wet stuff, dry it out, and reconstruct.
But Sandy was unlike any incident they had ever experienced.
“It was like being in a war zone,” Burton said. “We were completely cut off from everyone.”
There was no power for cell phones, electronic equipment, fans, dehumidifiers. No gas for the generators. Roads were blocked by downed trees and power lines, turning what should have been 40-minute drives into three or four hours.
They left for Somerset, N.J., the day after Sandy struck the shore. The sooner they can get to work, the better.
“We always go in after to rebuild. It’s what we do,” Burton said.
The week before Sandy hit New Jersey and New York, he had been following the storm via weather reports and been in contact with other Disaster Klean-up International companies out East.
They waited to see exactly where the storm would hit, and how strong it would be.
Together they mobilized crews, booked hotel rooms, lined up local temporary workers, and rented equipment. More important, Burton talked to others who had worked at similar catastrophes, who said they rarely needed generators and never had issues with gasoline, he said.
Burton expected to be tarping roofs, boarding up houses where trees fell, getting rid of wet walls and floors, and drying them out.
During their 22 days on the East Coast, they worked 12 to 18 hours a day, sometimes more, and in that time, were able to help 25 homeowners from Valley Stream, N.Y., to Rumson, N.J.
Some homes had saltwater throughout the house. Others were filled with sand, mud, muck and even fish. Walls had been pushed from one end of the house to another. Huge boats and cars were tossed like toys.
“It was sad to see whole houses destroyed,” Skyline employee Carlos Sandoval said. “With no power, no water, they were trapped in their homes. It was hard to see them throwing all their stuff — their lives — into a Dumpster.”
Armed with jump suits, masks, gloves and rubber boots, Skyline DKI crews tore out walls, insulation and floors, down to the bare studs and joists, often working in knee-deep water. They shoveled 8 inches of wet sand from basements and crawlspaces. They helped homeowners navigate the insurance claims process and pack up whatever contents they could salvage.
“This was the most extensive mitigation we’ve ever done,” Burton said. “As much as we tried to plan, there were so many things that popped up.”
There were unforeseen challenges, such as numerous three-hour trips to neighboring Pennsylvania to buy not just gasoline but tanks to haul 300 gallons of gas to power their trucks, heaters and other equipment for a couple of days.
They had to buy different heaters to dry out crawlspaces smaller than ones they usually come across. GPS units were useless because so many roads were blocked. And there was no place to charge cell phones and iPads that Skyline typically uses to communicate with the Oak Lawn office and obtain insurance forms for homeowners.
When they ran out of food, grocery stores — which had no power — also had no food. People pumped gas into whatever containers they could find, after waiting hours in line, and some tried to sell their five gallons for $100.
“It was an eyeopener. It made me realize how dependent we are on gas and electricity,” Burton said.
There were emotional impacts, too.
While the work was grueling, the hardest part for Burton was seeing people throw out precious possessions, such as photographs.
“You’re coming in at the worst time of their lives. You have to let them know you are here to help them,” he said.
People’s fears are heightened at such times. They are overwhelmed with insurance adjusters and mortgage companies and wonder if they can “trust” those who come to help, he said.
“All they want is to get their life back together,” Burton said.
There was some looting, but mostly people were “upbeat,” he said. On a cul-de-sac of a dozen homes, the people previously didn’t even know each other, but now there is a “camaraderie that will always be there,” he said.
People were “very happy to see someone was there to help them so soon,” said Mike Stoots, of Burbank, another of Burton’s employees who made the trip. Although he has a sore back and sore arms, he would “definitely” go back, he said.
“We are there to help them through it, to take some of the burden off their shoulders,” Stoots said. “When you see how scared the kids are, it’s definitely gratifying to be able to help them.”
Sandoval predicted it will be “years” before life returns to normal on the Jersey shore.
“It’s really beautiful out there along the coast,” he said, “but everything was ruined.”