News Column

Sandy Means Lots of Business for Contractors

Nov. 6, 2012

Michael L. Diamond

construction worker

Frank Tilton, owner of Accurate Tree Service, arrived at the West Lincoln Avenue home in Ocean Township early Monday morning to downed telephone lines and a tangled mess of 75-year-old oak trees.

He and his crew began to chip away, but the work was so complicated he didn't expect to be finished until after 3 p.m.

"They're healthy," Tilton said of the downed trees. "But the ground was wet. When you get 80 mph winds, there's nothing that can hold them up."

Contractors at the Shore are ramping up their crews, working extra hours and answering endless phone calls from customers, who, in the wake of Sandy, need their help.

It's providing an economic jolt to a group of workers who were hit hard after the housing bubble collapsed four years ago. But as they work through the worst storm many of them have seen, cutting away age-old trees, repairing electrical wiring and drying out flooded homes, they are displaying ambivalence with the knowledge that their fortune is someone else's pain.

"It's a sad thing to say, but stuff like this, it will boost the economy," said Herb Zahlmann, owner of Superb Lawn Services & Landscape in Neptune, while visiting customers' homes in the Shark River Hills section of town. "There's a lot of work that needs to be done."

Hurricane Sandy turned the Shore upside down with storm surges of more than eight feet and sustained winds of 80 mph. A week later, trees remained uprooted and electrical and telephone wires dangled on the ground.

Homeowners were faced with rebuilding, and not all of it was covered by insurance. In a Neptune neighborhood, Jim Dowling's home had an orange X on it in a sign that it was unfit to live in until inspectors gave him the OK.

The retired school teacher has lived in the home for 11 years. He said the Shark River created so much pressure during the storm that water shattered the concrete floor of his basement and filled it 61/2 feet deep. He paid a contractor $5,000 just to clean it.

He doesn't have flood insurance, which means, short of government aid, he will have to foot the bill.

"It's all on me," Dowling, 69, said.

Michael Elkow of Marlboro said four giant oak trees in his backyard collapsed during the storm.

Elkow's safety wasn't in danger; the trees missed his home. But his insurance company would have picked up much of the cost of the trees' removal if they did hit his home. Now, he has to pay as much as $10,000 out of pocket.

"We just have a cleanup that's going to be a little on the expensive side," he said.

Contractors could use the work. The construction industry in New Jersey fell from 171,000 workers in January 2008 to 129,200 workers four years later, losing almost a quarter of its jobs in the aftermath of the housing bubble, according to state figures.

Now, the industry is getting help from outside the state. Spotted in Ocean Township Monday was Davey Tree, a Kent, Ohio-based tree removal company that contracted with Jersey Central Power & Light's parent company FirstEnergy to help restore electricity.

Larry Stress, the foreman for the company, said about 60 workers made the 12-hour drive. They are working from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. And they are involved in work that is dangerous given the combination of trees and electric lines.

"I've been doing this for 40 years, and this is probably the worst I've seen," Stress said, in a nod to the sheer number of trees that were toppled.

Tilton himself is battling a sore throat and a power outage at his Wall home. His office number isn't working, so he had his cell phone number painted on his trucks instead.

He has two sets of equipment -- backhoes, cranes, chippers and bucket trucks. And he has tripled the size of his crew to 15.

A nor'easter appears to be on the way, which could delay his work. But after that?

"There's still many more weeks of work to go,' Tilton said.

Source: (c)2012 the Asbury Park Press (Neptune, N.J.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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