Staying Above Water

June 1, 2012
Fast thinking and teamwork kept Elmo’s Auto Body afloat during a surprise flood.

Shortly after Hurricane Irene tore across New York on Aug. 28, 2011, Donald Reckner breathed a sigh of relief, knowing his shops in the state’s southeast towns of Scotia and Ballston Lake survived without a scratch.

“The storm went through and I checked on the building,” Reckner says. “We had no trees or limbs down. Power was up—both my shops kept power throughout. We were really fortunate and I thought, wow, we made it through, we’re good.”

But Reckner hadn’t considered the impact of the storm on the Mohawk River, about an eighth of a mile away from his Scotia repair center. It wasn’t obvious near his shop, but upstream, the river was swelling. The dams holding the water back would have to be opened to ease the pressure. The resulting surge would overwhelm Scotia and other towns for miles along the river’s banks.

“When I came in the next morning, I saw water down the street and a police patrol car down there had the road blocked,” Reckner says. “I walked down and asked him what was going on and he said the river is going to top out in about two hours.”

It was called a 100-year flood, something so rare in the area that Reckner’s facility wasn’t even in a flood zone. He had no flood insurance to cover potential damages. He had no protocol for dealing with the disaster. All he had was a couple of hours to prepare his shop—full of customer vehicles—for the inevitable.

Reckner sprung into action. He immediately notified all of his employees at the Scotia shop and the Ballston Lake facility, which is seven miles away. Without any prior experience dealing with a flood, Reckner was forced to think on the fly of everything he needed to do to prevent damage and keep his business running.

“It’s hard to think clearly when you’re told your building is about to get flooded,” says Reckner, who did his best to stay calm, to avoid throwing his employees into a panic.

His top priority: moving roughly 20 vehicles—many of them not drivable—to higher ground, and notifying customers and their insurance companies of the impending catastrophe. He recruited all of his Ballston Lake staff to assist with the move, along with two local tow companies that worked regularly with Reckner and volunteered the time. Cars were initially moved directly to Ballston Lake, but it soon became clear that there wasn’t enough time to transfer every vehicle. So, following a suggestion from an employee, staff started first hauling cars to a nearby Wal-Mart lot on a hill, then bringing them to Ballston Lake.

“I don’t remember which one of my guys thought of pulling cars up to the Wal-Mart parking lot to save time, but it was a great idea, because we were taking way too long getting them out of here otherwise,” Reckner says. “A lot of people just came up with better ways to do things and people were helping however they could.”

As staff frantically shuffled vehicles, Reckner instructed Scotia customer service representative Bernadette Smith to contact the phone company and roll calls to the Ballston Lake shop. Smith also loaded a crate with files for each vehicle the shop was working on and set up a temporary workstation in Ballston Lake. Staff yanked the server from Scotia and set it up in the other shop, so Smith had access to all of the information she needed to contact customers and insurance companies and inform them of the situation and the status of vehicles.

“We didn’t want customers to not know what was going on,” she says.

She says nearly every customer and insurer was understanding and grateful for the notification, since many of them had heard that the area would flood. Some customers called the shop before she could reach out to them. 

As Smith worked in Ballston Lake, staff in Scotia loaded lifts with tools, equipment and furniture. Reckner says his facilities had been working on lean processes and many tools were already mounted out of the flood’s reach—he was told to expect three or four feet of water.

Some items, such as computers, were loaded into trucks and moved because there wasn’t enough room on lifts or shelves. Reckner was warned of the flood around 7 a.m. and had all vehicles and major equipment out of harm’s way within a couple of hours.

“As we drove out at 9 or 9:30 a.m., we drove through water to get out,” Reckner says. “Water was coming into the building at that point. And from then on it was a waiting game.”

Things were getting hectic when painter Julio Santana showed up on the day of the flood—his first day of work at Elmo’s. He was hired to work at the Scotia shop, but spent the day painting cars in Ballston Lake, utilizing the shop’s second booth, which was often underused. What surprised him was the intense effort employees and community members put into helping Elmo’s Auto Body. Reckner had built such a positive rapport with everyone he came in contact with that no one hesitated to lend a hand.

“That first day showed me what kind of person he was and how fast people came to help him,” Santana says. “Another shop even offered to let us use their booth.”  

Reckner worked with son Chris Reckner, who manages the Ballston Lake shop, to fit the additional vehicles into the repair schedule while Scotia was out of commission. Delays were inevitable, but the staff worked to minimize them.

“We worked late and did whatever we had to do,” Chris Reckner says. “The most a car got delayed was a day, day and a half.”

The water only rose to about a foot at the Scotia shop, and receded after a day, leaving a thick coat of slime and mud behind. Waves from emergency vehicles moving through the water collapsed the shop’s garage doors and the water destroyed the office carpeting, some furniture, the paint on the walls and other items that couldn’t be moved. The flood caused about $10,000 worth of damage, which Reckner paid out of pocket, and the shop closed for two days.

“It could have been a whole lot worse, that’s for sure,” Reckner says.

The bigger issue was that even with staff working hard to get vehicles done in Ballston Lake, repair delays and the inability to take on more work cut into the Scotia facility’s bottom line. Revenue dropped from $142,000 in August to $117,000 in September. And even though most customers were understanding of the situation, customer service index (CSI) scores dipped from 99 to 95. 

To make matters worse, one performance-based insurer partnership was nearly lost. But Elmo’s recovered quickly and was performing as normal by October, convincing that insurance company to maintain the relationship. 

Just as things were getting back to normal a few days after Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee threatened to flood the Mohawk River again. The crew at Elmo’s repeated the vehicle shuffle and equipment move, this time more efficiently. But a second flood never came.

Since then, Reckner has positioned some of his equipment differently to keep it above water or make it easier to move if there’s another flood. The server, for instance, is elevated in case it can’t be removed in time. Reckner is also looking into flood insurance, though he’s weighing the supposed infrequency of the disaster against the steep cost of coverage.

Chris Reckner says he thinks it would be a good idea for the shop to create standard operating procedures for dealing with a flood, though he and his dad hope there won’t be a need to use them.

“You don’t ever think something like this is really going to happen,” Reckner says. “But it did happen to us.”

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