Written on: February 1, 2013 by Mike SanGiovanni
The lonely pickup sat for hours on a certain stretch of road on the southern shore of Long Island. Periodically, the silence was broken by the ringing of a cell phone or two. This was, in a sense, the first line of communication for OSI Comfort Specialists, one of the hardest hit oil companies feeling the wrath of SuperStorm Sandy on October 29th, last year.
In the truck were Phil Wurtz and his brother-in-law, Michael Levi, both taking calls from frantic customers whose heating systems were out. Wurtz is OSI’s manager of Marketing and Sales, and general office manager as well. He explained that after Sandy hit, there was considerable chaos: “There were times when the phones weren’t working at all, and we were having calls forwarded to management’s cell phones. I remember, the first few days after the storm, cell phone service was so horrendo
us my brother-in-law and I would drive out at night and sit in this one area of the road, about 20 minutes away [from the office], where we actually got some cell phone service, and we’d just take phone calls from people calling at night, or if they left messages, listening to voice mails. We wanted to make sure we got back to the people the next day. We’d sit in the pickup truck for a couple of hours, trying to have a makeshift night service so people had someone to call and talk to at the end of the day.”OSI was in the heart of Sandy’s storm surge. Even though hit as badly as most of its customers, the company never closed doors, except for the one night Sandy hit the south shore. OSI is headquartered in Oceanside, Long Island, situated just north of Long Beach, which is right on the water. It is not uncommon for storms moving up the East Coast, before they make that turn out to sea, to skim Long Island’s south shore on the way, so so
Superstorm Sandy, actually a category 2 storm, was the largest Atlantic hurricane on record, at 1, 100 miles in diameter. Damages are estimated at $65.6 billion ($63 billion in the U.S.), with over 250 lives lost. Although it affected 24 states, the storm surge severely affected New Jersey and New York, flooding streets, tunnels and subway lines, and causing significant loss of power for many in the area. It was the second costliest storm on record.
Some estimates by Oilheating industry experts put the loss of home heating systems a formidable task for heating oil and HVAC companies striving to help homes and business repair or replace their heating and airconditioning systems.
For example, ICM’s sources say at least 100,000 heating systems and oil tanks need replacement or repair. On Long Island, 40,000 homes were severely affected, with another 30-40,000 in New Jersey. Just coming up with replacement equipment seems a Herculean task, not to mention the manpower needed to install replacement equipment.
For more information, also visit www.oilheatingstorm.com.
“We had a few gas powered pumps and we were trying to run them to keep the water out of the garage area, but at that point, we started to think, if this is going on here, what’s happening two blocks away, down at the office?\
“We tried to get in touch with the dispatcher at that point. Meanwhile, all the transformers were blowing in the streets, power lines were going down, power was out everywhere and the water was rising and rising, with no end in sight.”
They were able to contact Wurtz’ father-in-law, Richard, who lives about 15 minutes away and kept him apprised of the situation. Because a number of OSI’s customers are nursing homes and similar facilities, as well as hospitals, Richard had taken an oil truck home that night (he lives closer to the Rockaways), reasoning he could get going early in the morning to take care of his customers’ generators.
“We told him what was going on here in Oceanside. He wasn’t getting any flooding in his area, so he decided to take the truck and get as close to the office as he could, because he was worried about the men that were still in the shop. He didn’t want anybody stranded in the office.”
Richard hopped into the truck and started to make his way towards the office to, in effect, rescue his employees. One roadway, Long Beach Road, runs from Long Beach through Oceanside, connecting a few towns along the way. But once the truck reached the main part of the road, Richard noticed the area was flooded, and water was rushing in. At that point, he reasoned he could lose the truck or have it get bogged down, so he parked in an area that wasn’t particularly flooded, but still near the main road. He could only wait—and wonder about what was going on at the offices and with his employees stranded there.
Meanwhile, back at Michael’s, everyone was frantically trying to get the water out of the house, but their minds were equally focused on Richard and the men in the office. By this time, it was about 2:30 in the morning and Richard had been sitting in the truck for a few hours. Worried about his employees, he took a chance and eventually he was able to make it to the office.
He found that the water was significantly higher than the one foot they had originally feared. Then he discovered the door wouldn’t open. He couldn’t get in the building because water pressure on the office door was so great, the door wouldn’t budge. What was happening on the other side of the door?
“He pretty much had to bust down the door,” said Wurtz. Inside, the water was three to three and a half feet deep, up to the desktops. Wading through, he found the employees in the conference room, huddled on a desk because it was a bit higher than the others. “They were just kind of handing out on top, unsure when it all was going to end, whether they were going to get out or what would happen.”
The office was utterly destroyed. Richard brought the men back over to Michael’s house, and all stayed there, getting some rest after the ordeal. “We closed our eyes for a few hours, but were back in the office early the following morning to survey the damage.”
The water was still eight to 12 inches deep as they surveyed the damage: the loss was considerable. In addition to the physical damage to the building, contents, interior walls and floors, up to 20 service vehicles were put out of commission, and one oil truck was completely under water, unsalvageable. In addition to the vehicles, they also lost most inventory, parts, new equipment, a number of computers, just about all their files—everything in the office had been destroyed.
“We had a bunch of people show up for work anyway. Our workers had been phenomenal during this, showing up every day, not knowing what to expect.” During those first few weeks after the storm hit, most were working frantically. “Our servicemen were working around the clock.”
The terminal was terminal
Located right on the water, OSI’s terminal was totally destroyed and rendered inoperable. As far as operations go, the loss was not too severe, as it wasn’t used as much these days, more of a way station for servicemen to pick up parts as they serviced Far Rockaway, or for storage if a really good deal on bulk oil came available. There were a few vehicles there, an office, some storage tanks.
But it was an expensive installation. In New York, because the terminal is on the waterway, Coast guard regulations have to be met as well as the New York Fire Department regulations. A foam system is in place to control fires or explosions, and it consists of expensive underground piping. That system was totally wiped out, so it would need to be replaced if the terminal were to be used. That isn’t likely, as drivers routinely pick up fuel from other terminals in the area anyway.
What about wheels?
You can’t get to customers without a vehicle. Fortunately, through a contact at Enterprise, they were able to obtain a number of vans that could be adapted as service vehicles. “We got whatever parts we could get into the vans and tried to get to as many people as we could,” said Wurtz, explaining that the company not only does heating, but plumbing, electrical work, airconditioning, water purification and other services. “People were calling us for everything under the sun.”
But whom to see first? The first day, he said, they tried to map out a plan of action, and to get the office into some sort of operating condition, to get some people set up to answer phones, an important first step, he said. “We knew they’d be ringing off the hook and we weren’t sure what to do about it.
Unfortunately, the phone lines were all down, as was power. They do have a big backup generator at the office, so the power problem was solved, “…but the phone lines were just wiped out.”
That’s when it pays to have good suppliers. “Thankfully, our IT company came in, and we were able to make an internet connection, and restore a working internet. From that, they linked up voice phones that worked over the internet, and had our lines forwarded to the voice phones…. They were ringing non-stop. Going home after a 14 hour day and you just hear the phones ring and ring and ring….”
And of course, they had that pickup truck.
The conference room became their command center, and they brought in whatever computers they had that were still working, as well as folding chairs and tables from home, and ran in some temporary power lines.
“From that point, we just put our heads down and tried to get to as many people as we possibly could. We have close to 10,000 customers and it seemed they all were looking for help. It just becomes maddening. No company is built to handle their entire customer base all at one time! Usually, it’s drips and drabs, whatever comes in, and even thought this time of year is a lot busier…to take everybody on all at once is a pretty difficult task.”
At least eight to nine thousand of their customers were affected by the storm. The customers on the north shore were relatively unscathed, mostly just losing power, but those on the south shore were devastated.
“If they weren’t totally under water, they were partly submerged. Maybe the burner was covered, but some equipment survived intact. There were other places where the water was eight feet high. The basement was totally under water and the water was coming into the first floor.
OSI had about 25 service techs, but many of them live in the hardest hit areas themselves, and their first priority was to attend to their homes and families. “We started to bring some helpers back, guys who were out of work or who worked for us in the past, trying to get help wherever we could. We were lucky enough to have a couple of out of state companies lend us a hand, to send down an installer or two.”
Over the years, through various visits to trade shows and other industry events, alliances and friendships were forged, and thanks to that, some sorely needed help was a phone call away. “We had guys coming in from Rhode Island, down from Massachusetts, upstate New York, all coming down, sparing whatever time they could.”
A good friend of Richard and Marty is Dan Holohan, industry writer and lecturer. Holohan, through his website, Heatinghelp.com, has many contacts in the industry. He was instrumental in connecting them with companies that weren’t affected and “…who could lend a helping hand by sending out some crews for service and installation and who could bring parts and supplies.”
In that way, they started to get the installations rolling, but it was difficult to keep up with the number of people needing systems, and it takes a good day to get in a brand new heating system. “And just about everybody needs a new heating system or at least repairs.”
Having able bodied installers and technicians on hand isn’t much help if they can’t get parts or supplies. The local supply houses began to run out of everything that was needed—burners, motors, boilers, whatever—all was flying off the shelves.
At times, it seemed there was always some type of hurdle they had to leap, whether it was supply, or manpower, or communication. But, explained Wurtz, being in the service business means taking care of customers first and foremost. Customers may be returned to some semblance of normal, while back in OSI’s offices, the drywall was just going up. He doesn’t expect things to be back to normal for another six months. And whenever they get a moment, little by little, “…on the off hours, we put up molding, tear down wallpaper….”
Due to the water’s high level, the bottom half of all the drywall, about five feet or so, had to be cut away and replaced, and there’s still no office furniture.
“But,” says Wurtz with evident pride, “…besides the first day, right after the storm, we haven’t been down at all! There hasn’t been a day we missed. We fought through a lot, and we’re still having a lot of phone issues here, but we’ve been fighting through it and we’ve kept going with the help of employees and management.
“Thankfully, the majority of our customers are understanding, and they know we obviously were affected as well.”
It is so important to maintain that continuity for a number of reasons. One, in an industry that is losing customers to other fuels, customer retention is paramount, but that’s not the only reason. Competition is not standing still either. It’s no secret packs of roaming utility salespeople, like wolves, are moving in for the sale and the conversion, and Wurtz said he heard that even a few competitors had been claiming OSI was out of business, or dying, or had shut its doors, to make a sale.
When someone has lost his entire heating system, and has been awarded “a big, fat check” from the insurance company, it is likely whoever gets in there the quickest can get them to convert. “We’ve lost some customers to gas conversions who have been with us 30 or 40 years.”
Another phenomenon, uncommon except in cases like this, is when 40 or 50 homes in a single area need new equipment. With that many new potential customers, gas companies are happy to run lines where there had been none before.
Adding to the company workload: New York City has been running a program called Rapid Repair, which, at no cost, comes in and gets people up and running. And while it is fine to help people out, whether it is cleanup or installing a boiler, many times the installers may not be expert.
“A number of people have called, saying Rapid Repair put in a new boiler, ‘…but they didn’t pipe our oil line,’ or ‘connect this or that,’ or ‘it’s smoking.’
“So now, we have to go over and try to fix this or that. Other times, it may be plumbers that simply drive around, trying to pick up business or get people going, but they just don’t know the system. So despite the fact that these individuals are trying to help, often the work isn’t getting done to the standards it should be.
Most of the repairs right now are for the heating system, but a good number of air conditioners and condensers have also been affected, so as the winter winds down, business will shift to repairing these systems. OSI will be busy for a long time.
So who’s paying for all this?
For residential customers, the insurance companies and FEMA provide funds. Still, if you need your heating system fixed now, but the insurance company is taking its time, somebody is floating that cost. OSI is making every effort to be flexible, delaying payments and waiting on the bill for people who are expecting their insurance payment. They also work with people on financing, breaking down payments over several months—after all, said Wurtz, many people don’t have $6,000 to $8,000 to plunk down on a new heating system or for repairs that are needed. Also, they may be only getting a small amount from FEMA, or they may not have flood insurance, so a lot of this is out of pocket.
OSI works with them as best it can, because this is an issue of customer retention—but they also have to cover the cost of buying equipment and dealing with their own losses. FEMA may help homeowners, but it only offers low cost loans to businesses.
New business, usually welcome, is another unusual result of these catastrophic events. Suddenly, COD customers are calling, customers who never had service agreements, clamoring to have work done. First and foremost, companies try to take care of their own contract customers, “Customers who pay to have a service contract and things like that,” said Wurtz. “Unfortunately, we had to turn down a lot of new business, because it is not fair to the current customers, and there is no way we can keep up with it all. You can really see the value of [a service contract] when a disaster like this happens…. It’s good to have somebody there you can rely on.”
Still going strong
Seventy-seven years ago, Irving Levi started the business as a small gas station in Far Rockaway, eventually getting into the heating oil business as well. The business grew, OSI acquired a few companies along the way, but it is and always has been a family-run and oriented business. Four generations.
And they have four generations of customers as well. One thing is evident: no utility will ever respond the way this typical energy service company has, and that is what sets it apart. If another Sandy comes along, OSI’s customers will know they made the right choice.
For more on the company, visit: www.osicomfort.com.