Flooding swamps restoration companies

The phone started ringing at 2 a.m. By late afternoon Wednesday, First Restoration Services had received about 200 calls for service – from museums, colleges, hospitals, apartment complexes and plenty of single-family homeowners, all anxious to dry out.

In the wake of Tuesday's and Wednesday's storms, the Charlotte-based disaster repair business and others like it across the region were fielding a torrent of calls, and they aren't expecting the stream to let up just yet.

“We call it a mini-catastrophe,” CEO Frank Headen said inside the company's headquarters just north of uptown Charlotte.

Headen and his colleagues pay close attention to weather forecasts, so they expected a busy day. But even in his line of work, he said, you can only do so much to prepare.

On an ordinary day, First Restoration Services receives about 6-10 service calls. Wednesday was not an ordinary day: By 6:30 a.m, Headen himself had begun to receive phone calls, which meant everyone else on staff was already busy.

Inquiries flowed in from a 90-mile radius of Charlotte. At the office, staffers wrote down requests on sheets of white paper, then stuck magnets imprinted with customers' names and addresses onto a wall-sized whiteboard organized into columns – one for each active work crew. Wednesday, 11 crews were on the job, up from three normally, with reinforcements called in from the company's office in Greensboro and elsewhere.

There were requests from Davidson College and Rowan Regional Medical Center, water in an elevator shaft at the Mint Museum, windblown water in the Fifth & Poplar condos downtown. Stuck toward the bottom of the board, unassigned, was a magnet reading “Doral Apartments” – an east Charlotte complex surrounded by so much water that crews hadn't yet been able to reach it. Stacks of other call requests sat on a table in the middle of the whiteboard room.

Prearranged corporate accounts came first, then repeat residential customers. Beyond that, crews responded to calls as they arrived. By Wednesday afternoon, they had responded to about 35 locations, and expected to get to about 50 to 75 by the end of the day. The company still had to turn customers away due to sheer volume, Headen said.

In its more than 20 years in business, the company – which employs 78 in Charlotte and has four other offices in the Southeast – has responded to disasters small and major, including Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Pentagon after 9-11.

Locally, however, residential calls still make up the bulk of its business. On Wednesday, many came from the Briar Creek corridor, from the Charlotte Country Club in Plaza Midwood, past Headen's childhood neighborhood along Commonwealth Avenue, to the Mint Museum area in Eastover. Most calls involved flooded basements.

Vans, trucks and trailers of equipment sat at the ready in the company's parking lot and warehouse, full of tools and industrial-sized dehumidifiers and fans. (Vanity plate on one SUV: “BIGSTORM.”) A crew dispatched to Myers Park, where overflowing Briar Creek had turned people's backyards into a big, muddy lake, prompting 25 service calls.

Trucks from First Restoration and several competitors lined the street as families sprayed their driveways and hauled wet cushions, carpets, sporting equipment and boxes to the curb. Toward the end of the road, First Restoration vice president John Foggo instructed a 13-man work crew – more were on the way – preparing to head into houses to cut out not-so-dry drywall and lug out soaking rugs.

“Thanks everyone for coming out today,” he said. “We have a major flood situation here, and we want to take good care of the homeowners.”

After one member of the crew translated his words into Spanish, for many of the workers' benefit, they broke into groups and headed to collect supplies from a waiting trailer. In some homes, the water had reached up to 51/2 feet, Foggo said, calling it the worst flooding he has seen in this part of Charlotte in his eight years on the job.

Nearby, a boy stood on his front porch, talking on the phone, marveling at how his backyard had disappeared underwater.

And though the waters had largely receded from their height earlier in the day, company officials knew there was plenty more work to be done. “This time tomorrow, we'll probably be just as bad,” Headen said. “People will come home from work today and discover water has shown up in a place they wouldn't expect it.”

At this rate, he said, they'll be working 24 hours a day for a week. Critical infrastructure, he said, demands it. “Things like hospitals, you've got to get them dry. You can't stop.”