Tradesmen working on contract for FEMA have begun safety inspections and and basic repairs to Long Island houses so that residents can use their own homes as emergency housing while long-term repairs are underway. Notes Sal Ferro: "There's just not enough temporary housing anywhere on Long Island." (Photo Credit: Eliud Echevarria/FEMA)
Tradesmen working on contract for FEMA have begun safety inspections and and basic repairs to Long Island houses so that residents can use their own homes as emergency housing while long-term repairs are underway. Notes Sal Ferro: "There's just not enough temporary housing anywhere on Long Island." (Photo Credit: Eliud Echevarria/FEMA)

Communities on the South Shore of New York's Long Island have been devastated by the onslaught of Sandy. While most of the island has power back, and gas shortages are ending, thousands of homes on the South Shore are still in the dark because they can't be connected to the grid until they've passed a wiring safety inspection — or because they've already had the inspection, and failed.

One remodeling company that is right at the heart of the action on Long Island is Alure, Inc., run by Sal Ferro. Alure is one of the largest remodelers in the country, if not the largest, and certainly is the biggest and best known in Nassau County. Unlike most smaller operations, Alure has a tiered management structure, with 47 sales reps, two directors of operations, multiple operations managers under them, and a whole force of project managers running individual jobs.

With a footprint that big, Alure was directly impacted by the storm. Two of Ferro's salespeople lost their homes, he says. The company had a full backlog of work before the storm; many of those jobs have been put on hold. Now, Ferro says, he's in "a kind of learn as you go mode. We've never been in this type of disaster."

Says Ferro, "It's as if we've shifted the business from full-service remodeling to insurance work. Not 100% — I still have two of our operations managers focusing on our previous work, and probably 50% of our project managers are focusing on our existing business. We did the same thing when we participated in the Extreme Makeover show — I kept several of my managers focused on our usual work. Now, in the same way, we've shifted a lot of our resources over to storm remediation and emergency response. But I think it's imperative that I keep some of my business operating."

In the early days, says Ferro, "It was all hands on deck. I was out there looking at things myself, and I had the sales managers all out looking at things." Even before the storm hit, says Ferro, the company had put together a response team to manage the storm and aftermath. But the early going was rough: "There was no gas on Long Island. And we couldn't operate out of our headquarters because it's all electric. We didn't get power back for two weeks."

As the storm abated, Ferro began to explore the area near his own house, in his all terrain vehicle (ATV). "You couldn't get around in an ordinary vehicle because there were trees down everywhere. I saw a tree down on a roof, and some kids up there trying to get the tree off the roof. They didn't seem to know what they were doing, and I said, 'Do you have a tree guy?' They said, 'We couldn't find anybody. We couldn't get a contractor.' So I said, 'I'm a contractor.' Well, within the week I had that complete roof off. They had lost 30 rafters, cracked or damaged. We replaced 30 rafters, we replaced 80 sheets of plywood, we put on a whole new roof, a new chimney, a new electrical mast, new service, and we were done, within the week. That's an example of the success stories — people who can pay for the work and wait for the insurance money."

Most wind-related damage on Long Island from Sandy is tree damage, says Ferro. "It was not the kind of wind that would blow off a whole lot of roofs." Much more common, however, was surge flooding. "The surges were 14, 18 feet in some places. So a lot of people got four or six feet of water in their house. So that's complete restoration work — getting to it before mold breeds, going in and cutting out the Sheetrock from that point down, drying the place out, and then redoing the electric, Sheetrock, spackle, tape, cabinets, whatever's necessary."

But there are many cases more severe than that, says Ferro — homes that were damaged beyond repair by a combination of flooding, wave action, and wind. "Some homes were just destroyed and have to be rebuilt completely."

Ferro's company is in good shape to adapt to the new conditions. His team already has some familiarity with insurance work: "I have a couple people who have worked in that industry," he says. "We are not experts, but we are definitely ahead of the curve compared to regular general contractors in understanding the process and working it. And at this stage of the game we have become quite good at it. We have been here a long time. We're a large, reputable, secure company, and we do know how to work with the insurance companies. It's not an adversarial relationship; it's a matter of, 'What do we need to do in order to get these people back in their homes? And let's play ball, let's work together to get them back in their home.'"

But Ferro says, "It's yet to be seen how profitable the insurance work will be." And he's concerned about cash flow: "Sometimes you have to negotiate with the insurance company, and sometimes the money comes in slow — and one thing we all know is, in this business cash flow is everything. You gotta have cash flow to go along with profit. So these are some tough waters we're navigating."

Meantime, as Ferro knows, there are people impacted on Long Island who won't have insurance, or won't have enough to meet their needs. "FEMA is doing the best they can, but they're not loaded with a lot of money. And I think the next step is going to be to find out what's going to happen to rebuild the shores of Long Island. How are we going to start all over from this?"

Long Island has no room for temporary housing, Ferro notes: "This is different from some other areas that have had a disaster. We don't have a lot of space. Hotels are all filled up, there's not much space on most of these properties to put FEMA trailers. So right now the question is how do we get people back in these homes temporarily and maybe they can live there while the renovations being done?" Ferro has been working with a group connected with his local NAHB chapter to find solutions. "Right now that's in the process of being done: they're going to be having local contractors go into these homes and just make them livable — a couple circuits, a couple lights, whatever it takes — baseboard heat, a small 25-gallon hot water heater — just enough to get these houses livable. Because there is just not enough temporary housing anywhere on Long Island."

Business is only part of Ferro's concern, he says. "Sure, let's make sure that we're taking care of the business," he says. "But more importantly, we want to help find a solution for Long Island and make sure that we are part of the rebuilding process. To me, ten or twenty years from now I think I'll be happier that I did that, rather than if I was opportunistic and made a couple extra bucks off it."