How High’s the Water, Mama?

By Donna West

The rain was relentless; a block away at the foot of the street, the usually sleepy creek was churning. Hurricane Floyd was punishing the east coast as far inland as Collingdale, Pennsylvania, a southwest suburb of Philadelphia. On Thursday, September 16, 1999, Hank Schwab, owner of The Phone Works, was blessedly unaware that within hours this storm was going to wreak havoc on his business. They had beefed up their staffing in anticipation of a higher than normal amount of call traffic, but basically it was business as usual on this dismal morning. The Phone Works occupies a three-story storefront with administrative offices on the second floor, the operations center on the main floor and equipment and storage in the basement. The front door opens at street level while the back yard slopes toward the creek allowing about six feet of the basement to be above ground.

At around 11:00 a.m. Hank looked down toward Darby Creek and noticed that the water, usually about thirty feet below the banks, was lapping over the edge. The slope of the street was fairly steep, raising about 45 feet from the bank of Darby Creek to The Phone Works front door. The creek had flooded many times in Hank’s memory and even engulfed cars on the street downstream, but his unit had never had a drop in the basement.

In the operations room, calls were coming in fast and furiously as the weather worsened. Outside, Darby Creek was creeping up the street, over the curbs, storefront by storefront; Darby Creek was taking over the lower block.

Inches high and rising: It was just a little after 1:30 p.m. when Hank decided to go down to the basement and move a few things. On shelves around the perimeter of the room were tools, spare monitors, boxes of neatly stored records, and the myriad of “stuff” we accumulate in our businesses. He moved a box in the corner; and as he watched, the concrete turned dark. The water oozed in and spread over the floor in an ever-widening circle. In the process of lifting file servers to a higher shelf, Hank suddenly, instinctively made a split second decision. “Pull the plug! Get stuff out!” “I am not a panicky person,” Hank noted later, “but something was telling me there was no time to waste.” He called upstairs to his wife, Patty, and phoned his sister, Annette at home (both of whom take part in running the business), to tell them he was taking the operation down. Then he started unplugging the equipment. If it didn’t easily unplug, he cut the wires, working faster and faster. There was no orderly shut down; there was no notification of customers. He knew he needed to get it out, now.

Two feet high and rising:: He was right. Fifteen minutes later the cold, brown water was up to Hank’s thighs. He and Patty, with the help of their staff, furiously ripped out the PI server, fax computers and voice mail, and carried them up to the main floor. They managed to haul the Telescan up the stairs with a hand-truck. The rugs were floating up, making movement difficult; file boxes were floating off shelves and a small refrigerator kept in the basement was bobbing off the floor. Still they worked, determined to save everything they possibly could.

Three feet high and rising: Hank abandoned the hope of doing more as the water reached his waist. There were still boxes and boxes of employee records, customer files, financial data and memories. There were Telco blocks, UPSs, the stationary back-up generator–all submerged. The smell was awful, the water full of sewage and mud. In only twenty minutes Darby Creek had claimed the basement.

Four feet high and rising: Reporters from the local television station were in the street outside The Phone Works, standing at the edge of the water looking down the street at the devastation. “Looks like you’re lucky so far,” they told Patty. “Come in and see,” she insisted. So camera crew and reporters trouped in, and little more than hours later their business was highlighted on the nightly news. Now, their customers would understand why their phones weren’t being answered. Now, friends and ex-employees would know what was happening. Now, help would be coming.

Five feet high and rising: Tired and unbelieving, Hank and Patty watched the water climb ever higher. As it lapped against the last step, they realized the nightmare wasn’t over. They formed a “fire brigade” with their staff and began almost throwing things up to the second floor. The equipment from the basement went first, and then the monitors, keyboards, and PCs from the operations room; everything had to go up. They never lost focus. They never panicked. They had no game plan; they just worked. Pick something up, hand it off, pick up something else, save every piece of equipment possible.

Nine feet high and rising: The relentless water reached the ceiling of the basement, setting off the smoke-alarms. The shrieking added to the surreal atmosphere–the incredulous, this isn’t really happening. The water began to stain the floor of the operations room, slipping silently over the threshold of the door, flowing over the top of the basement steps.

The National Guard arrived to patrol the area; banks and businesses were all under water. It was time to vacate the building; there was nothing more they could do. A small touch of humor, The Phone Works had electronic door locks. No one could find the key to the deadbolt. The National Guardsman taped the door. It was only 5:00 p.m. While closed away in the basement, totally focused on saving his business, Hank had been unaware of the tragedy that had taken place only fifteen feet from his door. A van had been swept away by the turbid waters with a man trapped inside. One fireman’s clothes were literally torn from his body in the attempted rescue, but they couldn’t reach the van. The scene, now that he actually saw outside, was frightening. Cars were floating and buildings only a block away were completely submerged. Angry water was continuing to ravage the devastated area. The Phone Works was on the fringe of the disaster. As they looked around in semi-shock, employees came up to them. In tears, believing both the company and their jobs were gone, they told Hank how much they had loved their jobs, how much they appreciated him as a boss, how much they cared for Patty and Annette. How sorry they were. “Oh no,” said Hank, “this is not the end! We are absolutely not going to close.” Already looking ahead, he told them, “Go home, go home and get a good night’s sleep. There is nothing we can do now, but we’ll begin putting things back together early in the morning.”

At daybreak, Hank, Patty, and Annette were back at The Phone Works. Annette, who had not been there the day before, burst into tears when she saw their business. They surveyed the mess and tried to determine where to begin. Hank had made a list: buckets, mops, wet-vacs, generators and hairdryers were needed. Their staff began arriving wearing old clothes and boots and bringing the requested supplies–they were ready. Their building was intact and so was their spirit. The first floor had never really flooded. The rugs were soaked, and the place looked ransacked from the hurried evacuation, but the damage there was minimal. The basement was a disaster. The water had receded leaving behind mud and filth. The horrific stench of raw sewage permeated everything. Cardboard boxes full of records had disintegrated and left a layer of slippery, slimy paper underfoot. It was filthy, exhausting work to clean it out.

They broke a window and shoveled out the mud and debris. They hosed down the walls, including the phone blocks and electrical boxes that contained an inch or more of mud and pumped the filthy water out using garden hoses. They scrubbed the racks, shelves and floors and spread things out to dry. Fans were going in every area. They had been at work for less than an hour when they heard a knock. There stood the telephone installer who had put in their T-1s only months earlier. He knew he was needed and came without being called. He worked most of the day to bring the up T-1s. The day before, while he was madly tearing out equipment, Hank had noticed a box of caps that had been taken off the ends of the fiber optics when the T-1s were installed. Amazingly in all of the turmoil, he had the presence of mind to put those caps back on to protect the fiber from the mud. That action helped save the day.

Throughout the day help arrived from unexpected places. A manager who left The Phone Works two years earlier arrived on Friday morning with her husband. “You were so good to me when I worked here,” she said, “I had to come to help.” She worked for two days scrubbing floors and equipment. A friend Hank had lost track of resurfaced offering to pull wire or do anything else that was needed. A customer arrived to see what he could do, rolled up his sleeves and stayed for hours. Friends brought food, coffee and cold drinks. Hank’s mother sent over a huge pot of beef stew for everyone. As so often happens after a disaster, camaraderie reigned. Willing hands made the work go faster. When the floors were relatively clean and dry, Hank put helpers to work with hairdryers, blowing the phone blocks, jacks and other critical connections until they too were dry. By 7:00 p.m. Friday night everything was dried out enough to plug the equipment back in, and it worked!

Amazingly, Telescan came back without a hitch. Remarkable, since they had not done an orderly shutdown. PI also came back up with very little trouble; even the voice mail was fine. The only problem arose when a digital switch he used to front-end the Telescan “lied” about its settings and ports. Night had fallen. Hank sent everyone home and then spent hours sitting alone in the cold damp basement determined to reconfigure the switch. The manufacturers were no longer supporting it; the manuals were mud soaked and useless. Alone with the rank odor and the hum of dehumidifiers, he wouldn’t give up. Finally, at 3:00 a.m.–success! Exhausted beyond belief, Hank could now climb the stairs to his second floor office and close his eyes, confident that with the sunrise, they would once again be taking calls.

At 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, September 18th a cheer went up as the first call rang through and then another and another, The Phone Works was back! The first order of business was to send messages and faxes to all of their customers. They also sent a letter that went out special handling. It was on the desks of every single customer on Monday morning. There was something else waiting on Monday morning, a call from Maryann. We all have a Maryann, he or she is the first customer to call whenever anything goes wrong. And our Maryanns are not shy about letting us know just how displeased they are! When they told Hank that Maryann was on the line, his first reaction was “Oh, no!,” but Maryann surprised him. “Thank God you guys are back!” she said. “After what I saw on TV, I thought you were gone! I’d never want to look for another service.” Why does it take a catastrophe to get good feedback?

Taking calls was not the end of the cleanup; however, removing the debris went on for months. It took ten dumpster loads to get rid of all of the damaged furniture, tools and equipment. They had not been able to save any of the spares; they threw out over 60 monitors and nearly as many keyboards, three switches, two hard drives (completely refurbished and not even paid for) and other parts. It was necessary to replace boilers and rebuild generators, all long, painstaking and costly jobs. None of the damage was covered by insurance. Their location near Darby Creek precluded their ability to buy flood insurance. The loss was great but not enough to keep The Phone Works from recovery. In fact, the company was nominated for the Phoenix Award, given by the Small Business Administration for companies that have risen again after a disaster. “I never, for one minute, thought we would go out of business,” Hank said. “It never occurred to me. We just did what we had to do to get back up and running. It never seemed heroic to me.” To that I say, “Oh Hank, what you all accomplished was heroic; it really was.” Often in times of stress there is one incident that brings real comedic relief, one thing you’ll laugh over for years to come. This tale of disaster and recovery is no exception. Hank’s sister, Annette, had nagged him for years to throw out the four garbage bags of packing peanuts he had stored in the basement. The flood came. The water rose and so did the bags of peanuts, until they were pressed between the water and the ceiling of the basement. The water continued to rise; the bags burst open from the pressure. The water forced peanuts into every crevice and impaled them on every snag in the ceiling. Peanuts were everywhere! Annette had the ultimate “I told you so!” The welcome laughter broke the tension and gave them an unforgettable memory.

Donna West is President of Focus Telecommunications, Inc., www.focustele.com.

[From Connection Magazine – July 2001]

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