Business Lessons From Superstorm Sandy


In a matter of weeks it will be five years since Superstorm Sandy ravaged the U.S. East Coast. Folks entrusted with dealing with Sandy’s destruction and working to return their communities back to a semblance of normalcy (referencing landscape and tree pros in this instance) certainly haven’t forgotten.

Hurricane season is upon us again and Patrick Donovan, owner of Classic Landscaping, Edison, New Jersey, shares some of the lessons he learned in the brutally long, chaotic days immediately following Sandy’s landfall. Some of what he experienced may be helpful to you, too. No region of the U.S. is immune to the catastrophic consequences of a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, tornado, wildfire or earthquake. As a landscaper or arborist, sometime during your career you will likely have to help property owners — perhaps even your own clients — pick up the pieces when their properties are damaged by a natural catastrophe.

Have a basic plan in place

You should, at the very least, put together a basic disaster response plan to share with your team in the event (unlikely as it may seem today) of a natural disaster. Your plan doesn’t have to be complicated. Start with knowing how to contact each other during and immediately after Mother Nature’s wrath. It’s also wise to have some basic materials on hand or easily accessible, such as water, an alternate power source like a diesel generator, fuel, appropriate equipment, etc.

But let’s get back to Sandy, which resulted in damages estimated at more than $71 billion in the U.S., second in terms of costliness only to Hurricane Katrina. Superstorm Sandy didn’t arrive without warning but it did arrive rapidly. On Oct. 29, 2012, the hurricane lumbered into New Jersey and New York after birthing as a tropical wave in the western Caribbean a mere seven days earlier. Sweeping up the East Coast, it veered west and made landfall just a few miles north of Atlantic City. Its ferocious hurricane-force winds pushed a huge storm surge inland destroying or severely damaging thousands of homes and properties in low-lying regions of New Jersey and places in and around New York City, as well as inundating streets, tunnels and subway lines in the city itself.

Sandy brings many challenges

Donovan counts himself and his family fortunate, a sentiment he maintains even almost five years after the event. Indeed, like a scab that has yet to heal, some of the storm’s destruction — ruined homes, damaged trees, etc. — remain evident. “There are many houses still in a state of disrepair. For reasons unknown, homes have not been repaired or demolished,” he says.

“In my area, which is not much above sea level but far enough away, most of the damage was downed and uprooted trees. Getting utility companies to shut power off was the issue. Cutting power took days at some locations. Our issue was trees on top of wires or buried under wires. To this day, you can drive anywhere in the tri-state area and see extremely large-caliper trees uprooted, snapped, widow makers and dead trees still left after they and Sandy crossed paths,” he adds.

Two challenges immediately revealed themselves to Donovan and his team as they got to work as soon as the worst of the hurricane had passed.

“Lack of communication was at the top of the list. I, myself, had no power for five days. We had limited phone service but were able to get internet service, go figure,” he says. Some of his clients had services, but many did not.

Another complication — and a big one — was the lack of fuel. “Stations had no electricity so they were unable to pump fuel. We were experiencing gas lines like back in the 1970s,” he continues. “Once the electricity was restored, the states ran out of fuel. We were siphoning fuel out of mowers and machines we were not using. These are the things you don’t think about on a day-to-day basis when all is well in life.”

Sandy’s size and ferocity created another huge problem that anyone having to cleanup properties after a hurricane, tornado or huge storm will instantly recognize.

“The amount of tree and vegetative debris was overwhelming,” Donovan says. “The mulch piles were 60 to 70 feet high. It actually got to the point the state regulatory agencies modified the quantity of material suppliers could store on-site. It was necessary because there was no where to deposit the massive quantities of debris.”

The financial and emotional toll

Then there’s the financial and human emotional toll created by destruction on such a scale. The financial toll is easy enough to understand if not measure precisely. The emotional toll on individuals and families that lost their homes and possessions can never be fully tallied.

Donovan says he has friends who lost their houses. “We mean they lost their houses. They were not there when they returned to them,” he emphasizes. Others, especially in New Jersey, have had to raise their homes on stilts 9 to 10 feet in the air, most at their own expense. If they don’t, they will be drowned in increased insurance costs.

Finally, and this is a sobering thought for any landscape pro who predicts a huge bump up in their revenue after the initial cleanup work – landscape renovations on most properties will not begin for months, if not years, later.

“Many of my clients’ facilities expended their grounds budgets and every other budget on the storm,” says Donovan. “There were no additional monies remaining in budgets to do anything other than clean up. Renovations after the storm were not even on their radar.”

In many instances, as a landscape pro or arborist, some of your time and the time of your employees will be devoted to helping to bring your community back to life — community service.

“My family and I volunteered to help a church group clean out peoples’ homes in Staten Island affected by the storm,” Donovan says. “I wanted my children to see firsthand how fortunate we were by not taking a direct hit like so many others did.”