A month ago, Luke Smith and his crew of 15 workers literally drove toward the eye of the storm.
As Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the eastern seaboard in October, Smith, owner of the Watkinsville franchise of restoration business ServiceMaster Complete, and his crew prepared themselves for a storm that ended up inflicting an estimated $20 billion in property damage.
Almost 900 miles later, a day after the storm passed through, they drove into a suburban neighborhood filled with people dealing with devastation that made them seem “homeless even though they had homes,” Smith said.
Seawater had rushed through, up to 7 feet deep in some places. It plowed debris through car windshield, carried boats a mile inland and drowned countless dreams of home ownership. While the crew gutted and repaired waterlogged and ruined homes and furniture, the streets would fill with wreckers to take away cars irreparably damaged from the flood waters.
“(Category three water) has the greatest chance of getting you sick,” Smith said. “And it was category three water everywhere.”
Their first day there, Smith said they had one job, but it didn’t take long for people to stop his crews in the street to ask to be added to their growing list of clients. Only now is the team, which worked with Chris Lovejoy’s Conyers and Sandy Springs-area ServiceMaster crews, starting to rotate back to Georgia, with some having never left and others heading back to honor promises made to help families dry out their lives.
“By the end of the day, we had … 60 families that needed our help, and that was in a quarter mile,” he said. “It wasn’t one or two houses. It was every single house.”
The signs of the damage began as the ServiceMaster team made its way through New York, when the big-city lights gave way to suffocating darkness. As the weeks wore on, Smith spoke with people who waited up to 12 hours for gasoline so they could go to work or otherwise carry on with their lives. Smith said he gave 5 gallons of gas to one man as an act of random kindness.
“He had the most devastated look on his face,” he said. “Then all of sudden, you’d think we’d have given him $1 million.”
Smith said they squeezed in the charity where they could, while covering the costs of housing, feeding and paying the ServiceMaster crews. They rewarded a volunteer firefighter with free service as a thanks for the times he had risked his life for others, they cleared out trees from an elderly widow’s yard, and decided to haggle with the federal government directly instead of making families dealing with “total devastation” wait weeks, sometimes months, for reimbursements.
But the hits came coming to the neighborhood they were working in, he said.
Days after the storm, a foot of snow fell, enough to shut down Georgia, Smith joked. One of the houses burned down after power was restored without the electrical system being properly repaired. And all around, signs of flooding.
“You could look down the street and there would be debris 5, 6, 7 feet tall, with it 8 or 9 feet across and it was all the way down the street,” Smith said.
The gratefulness of the people they helped was immeasurable, Smith said. Many even invited the crew to Thanksgiving dinner. But with the holiday being their first day off in weeks of 16-hour days, it wasn’t an offer they accepted, he said.
“They just wanted to rest.”
• Follow government and business reporter Nick Coltrain at twitter.com/ncoltrain or on Facebook at facebook.com/NickColtrainABH.