Knowles helps clean up after Sandy
A Brewton man recently took his first trip to New York, but not to enjoy the signts, sounds and excitement of the big city.
Lee Knowles, and Servpro co-workers, Stevie Sanders and Michael Jackson, saddled up for the 18-hour trip to help those affected by Hurricane Sandy.
The trio endured long hours, cold weather and piles of debris for three weeks — Oct. 30 until Nov. 19 — while helping citizens in the Northeast with the recovery efforts.
“Basically I took one production crew and we were on Long Island in the city of Long Beach,” Knowles said. “It was a two-day trip and we started our first job on Nov. 1. We were gone one day shy of three weeks. It feels great to be back home in the south. It was definitely a different world up there.”
Within the Servpro family, Knowles said there are storm teams and he is signed up with a couple of different storm teams and they travel anywhere in the Gulf Coast to basically up the Eastern Seaboard.
“The storm team I work under is called the Wilson Storm Team,” he said. “They are out of Birmingham and basically when the storm came through and the week leading up to the storm, we were monitoring it. At Servpro, we are the largest fire and water restoration company in the United States. We have about 1,600 branches of Servpro. We got put on alert that week and when it hit, we were originally going to Laurel, Maryland where we were last year. The devastation was more northeast so they repositioned us and we ended up in New York.”
There are four storm teams of Servpro across the United States. The four teams are comprised of multiple franchises across the country, Knowles said.
“This event had all four storm teams deployed there,” Knowles said. “We had folks all the way from Hollywood, Calif., working in the northeast. I talked to one of my buddies in Reno, Nevada and he was out there. That is over 1,000 miles one-way just to assist in this storm event. Basically, we pull our resources together to help the devastation. Without a doubt, it was cool to be part of Servpro there. We had the biggest footprint of any restoration company up there. It was pretty awesome. We would drive down the streets and see all the different green vehicles there. It was pretty cool. That is one reason we went was to help those people in need. Until you are there on ground zero, you cannot explain what we saw.”
Even after being assigned a work area, Knowles said the trip to get to the site was difficult.
“When we found out we were going to be in New York, we stayed in Mount Laurel, New Jersey,” he said. “We could not get a hotel closer to New York because of power outages and gas shortages. We were commuting from two to three-and-a-half hours every day just to the job site in Long Island. We did that for a week until they slowly started getting the power back on.”
As improvements were made, the group was able to get a closer base location to the area where they were working — but one that was still nearly an hour away from the job.
“We were able to relocate to a hotel in Stony Brook, New York.” Knowles said. “It was probably 45 minutes from where we were working depending on traffic. We were a lot closer and it worked out a lot better.”
In Long Beach alone, Knowles said there were about 40,000 homes flooded — some with damage from six to eight inches of water with some damaged by as much as six feet of water in the homes.
“It is kind of hard to wrap your mind around that because here, our homes have distance between them,” Knowles said. “In some of those houses there, you can put your hands out and touch wall-to-wall the houses beside each other. Just the sheer devastation, it is just hard to wrap your minds around all of it until you see it.”
Knowles and his team were one of the first to help in the area.
“I was one of three franchises from Servpro who was working on the island first,” he said. “When we got there, it was almost like it was just us, the National Guard and some of the homeowners. It was just amazing to see. You could stand in the roads and look down the roads and see all the people’s belongings that had been flooded. They were just piled up all the way down the road. It was pretty bad.”
Knowles said most of the people his team talked to were just overwhelmed and in shock. “The first day, it was like we just started working and the people just started bombarding us,” he said. “They saw all our green vehicles and they were like ‘Servpro, Servpro, we need your help.’ It was just amazing at the people that just kept coming by and needing our services. The storm event is still going on now and the people are still going to the guys there and asking for help. I think it was more of desperation and the people really didn’t know what to do. The people had been living there for like 26 years and had never seen an event like this in years.”
The New York trip was another chance for Knowles to help those in need following a storm. Just last year, shortly after opening his Servpro business, Knowles helped those affected by winds, rain and flooding.
“Last year when Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee went through, I had just opened about two months,” he said. “I went along with a franchise as part of a a team and started in Norfolk, Virginia. We then went to Laurel, Maryland and then to Fairfax, Virginia.”
Although the work is grueling, long and hard, Knowles said being away from home was harder than the work to be done.
“The hardest thing while you are away is missing the family,” he said. “We have a little girl who is nine months old and being away from my wife was hard. It was definitely good to get back and get my girls in my arms.”
Knowles said the work may have been hard, but knowing the work is helping people, he is willing to make another trip.
“I am looking forward to the next one,” he said. “We might end up back in New York before it is over. I don’t know yet. We are just kind of looking at things, but it is still going on right now. I am ready to go.”