Sep. 19, 2021
Jack Orr, owner, A Rental Depot, Slidell, La., lived through the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 storm, and knew not to take chances when Hurricane Ida was predicted to land exactly 16 years later to the day as a Category 4 storm.
“I live on Lake Pontchartrain, which is the worst place to be during a hurricane. The first thing that I did was move my family to our second home in Shreveport, La.,” Orr says, adding that he thought it would be OK for him to stay behind because his home is equipped with a 24-kWh generator that runs on natural gas and his windows are hurricane rated for 165-mph winds.
At the store, Orr and his team took proactive measures, too. “We cater to the contractor, homeowner and industrial segments. We had equipment all over and made sure they were moved out of harm’s way. Then we filled all the caddies with diesel and gas and filled up the delivery trucks because I knew fuel would be an issue after the storm. I also have two employees who live in apartments that are attached to our buildings. We have four buildings. A Rental Depot is in one building. I do all rental out of that two-story building. One apartment is located on the side of that building. The other apartment is on top of our shop, what we call our Sunward building because that is where we do all our sales and service of our Sunward America equipment. We are a certified dealer for Sunward. I told everyone to leave to be safe, but these employees wanted to stay, so we put them in safer locations,” he says.
Before the storm arrived, the rental store was deluged with customers coming in for generators and pumps. “We are the rental operation that is helping fix Charity Hospital, which was destroyed during Katrina. We had a lot of our generators and pumps down there, but we were able to help a lot of people before the storm ever landed,” Orr says.
Orr’s two employees who stayed lost power before the storm even hit. “A tree fell and knocked the power out. They were running on generator power before the storm ever even got to the Slidell location,” Orr says.
Orr didn’t lose power at home until the storm hit full force. “The storm came to shore on the exact date as when Katrina landed. When it hit our area, my generator kicked on and ran the entire time until the power came back on. The bands of the storm came early. Sitting in my house, I have big windows overlooking the lake. I could have surfed on that lake. I could see the whitecaps. I could hear the wind blowing through the windows even though they are hurricane-proof. The wind really whistled through those babies. Then the water came up very close to my house. I brought home pumps from the shop. They worked. I kept water out of the house, but I must admit that at one point I second-guessed my decision to stay,” Orr says.
One of his buildings didn’t fare as well.
“The entire tile roof came off the shop, the Sunward building,” Orr says. “It ripped off and flew over the top of the other building and knocked our power pole down. The apartment at the top of this building took the brunt of it. It is a mess. The windows blew out in the other apartment that is connected to the rental building. Part of the roof hit that apartment and went through the wall, so you can see daylight through the wall. The roof is nowhere to be found at this point. It kept blowing.”
In addition, water poured into the shop, damaging the computers, security cameras and the like. “Luckily, I had an undamaged backup disk to reload to a new computer system. I had just put in a new air-conditioning system, but that was completely destroyed. It was just hanging down,” Orr says.
They also were without water for about three days. Even when power was restored to their area, they didn’t have air-conditioning because the power poles were damaged. “We sure did miss that air-conditioning. It was miserable with the record heat. Because of all of this, I became so dehydrated that I ended up with two kidney stones,” Orr says.
Even with all those difficulties, they kept operating. Independent manufacturing representative Brad Jeter with Walsh-Jeter & Associates, Houston, who serves as the associate member director-at-large of the Texas Rental Association board, was able to secure large generators that Orr needed.
“We had no phone or internet. It was very difficult to reach us, but the Superdome needed generators and people in this area needed the big generators. Brad was able to supply us with large 150-kWh Allmand generators. Brad was a big help. He reached out to us and stopped by our store even before the storm hit. He knew we would be in need. He came through. I am still working with him on several generators coming here. We also were able to get St. Tammany Parish track loaders with grapple buckets as the school board was opening schools this week,” Orr says, adding that the immediate need was great “as trees were down almost everywhere and nobody had power at that point.”
When Kenny Puff, owner Westchester Tool Rentals and Party Line Tent Rentals and Green Monster Manufacturing, Elmsford, N.Y., heard that remnants of Hurricane Ida were heading up the East Coast, he paid close attention to the weather reports but didn’t think it would affect his area to a great degree.
“We have five buildings here that house all of our operations. We weren’t forecast to get any crazy amounts of rain by us — possibly 2 to 3 in., maybe at tops 4 in. At 4 in., we can get rain in our parking lot, so we undertook our normal flood preparations, moving everything to higher ground and took care of our customers who usually experience some flooding and are always proactive when a storm is predicted,” he says.
When he left the business at 8 p.m. Sept. 1, the rain was coming down pretty heavy. “Everything was fine when I left. As I was getting out of bed the next morning, I heard on the radio that all these businesses were closing. We ended up receiving 10.5 in. of rain. I have lived here all my life. This is only the third time that I have seen water this high in this area,” Puff says.
Getting to the business that morning was treacherous, with streets flooded and trees down. When he arrived, he saw 2 ft. of water in the parking lot of his triangular building setup.
“I took my shoes and socks off and waded into the equipment rental store. All was OK,” Puff says.
The party building and new design center were fine, too. But when he got to the building that he had just purchased Aug. 5 to use as a warehouse for his HVAC equipment, he saw something he had never witnessed before: 4.5 ft. of standing water.
“All the heaters became buoyant and were floating. We had originally put them in one room. When I came to check that morning, they were spread out throughout the entire first floor. It was like a marina with all the boats untied. Thank heavens we store them with empty tanks, but everything was submerged. It was a mess. The building had a sump pump, but I guess it couldn’t keep up. Water came in everywhere,” he says.
The water stayed high in the warehouse and parking lot until about 5 p.m. that day. Even so, customers kept coming in. “One of my employees came in with boots. He grabbed a container of trash bags and took them outside. Every employee who followed suit used the trash bags as boots and waded into our rental operation,” he says.
“Before we could put the picks out for customers to walk on, they started coming in, using the trash bags as boots too. Everyone needed pumps, dehumidifiers, dryers and fans. We maxed out the inventory and sold out of our new items. While we still had them, we carried out the pumps to our customers. They really appreciated that,” Puff says.
Eventually the water had receded enough for Puff to go in and inspect the waterlogged 10,000-sq.-ft. building. “It was disgusting. We will have to gut it,” he says. “The funny thing is that as soon as I bought the building, I had plans in my head to make it better and more waterproof. I was planning to work on that over the winter. I never dreamt this would happen.”
Even with his new warehouse destroyed, Puff says he is lucky.
“All of my employees and family are safe. No one got hurt. Everyone fared well. When you put things in perspective, we are golden. You can replace equipment and buildings,” he says.
Even after what Orr went through, he too feels very fortunate.
“We have water and power now. We are already putting a new roof on and working on the apartments. There are so many who are worse off than us,” he says.
For Orr, the resiliency of the region and how his community comes together in a crisis is illustrated in a real-life dolphin tale.
“The water flooded so bad that a dolphin went into our canal. I saw it when I was able to first get out. The dolphin would have died if it stayed in the canal. Everyone got involved, including the sheriff, the police chief and the aquarium folks from Mississippi. The dolphin was rescued and returned to the Gulf. That is a hopeful story,” he says.
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