Floridians are picking up the pieces after a series of
vicious hurricanes ravaged the state in August and
September. The combined insured losses from hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne are estimated at
between $16 billion and $28 billion by RiskManagement Solutions, an insurance-industry consulting firm. The storms
were responsible for scores of deaths and by mid-October,
the state of Florida and its residents had received over $1.8
billion in federal disaster assistance for the combined response and recovery effort for the hurricanes, according to
the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Florida's sizable swimming pool and spa industry wasn't
spared. Companies were forced to close to allow workers to
board-up homes and help relatives; some in hard-hit areas
suffered property damage and lost inventory; builders saw
sales and leads almost completely washed out; and everywhere customers stayed away in droves as a bunker mentality gripped the state.
Despite the devastation, many industry insiders expect
the drop in business to be short lived, noting that people in
the hurricane-battered region were already beginning to
come out from hiding and were anxious to get back to normal. Some even expect a spike in sales similar to the one
the industry saw nationwide after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It's something Douglas Woodward, an economics professor at the University of South Carolina, calls the "Jacuzzi
effect," and Florida pool pros are hoping he's right and
people will not only replace what they've lost, but spend a
little extra and make purchases they've been putting off.
Foremost on all Florida pool pros' mind, though, is concern for their employees whose houses were damaged and
for people whose lives won't return to normal for months
or years. Business, they say, will take care of itself.
Wendy Parker, director of marketing for the Florida
Swimming Pool Association, Sarasota, Fla., says the destruction was widespread, but that some areas were hit especially hard.
"We have members in Pensacola and everywhere else the hurricanes hit," she says. "Pensacola got hit by Ivan. Charley hit Port
Charlotte. On the east coast, Frances
and Jeanne came through within two
or three miles of each other. Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, Brevard [Counties]
took direct hits from both of them.
"We have about a million pools and
spas in Florida, and I can't even
imagine how many were affected. And almost every screen enclosure in
the path of the hurricanes was destroyed. There are people on waiting
lists just to get a chance to talk to
someone — not to get the work done
but just to talk to someone."
HotSpring Spas of Brevard and Indian River is located in W. Melbourne, an area that was pounded by
Frances and Jeanne. President Bruce
Rothschild says his store "did rather
well," with physical losses limited to a
leaky roof and water-damaged carpet. Two neighboring businesses didn't
fare as well, having had their rooftop
air-conditioning units sheared off. "They're still not open," he says.
"For Frances everything shut down
for about three days, and even though
we were open, business was non-existent," Rothschild says. "We had
power and were selling some chlorine, but mostly we were just answering questions and taking orders for
covers and cover lifters. We were taking 60 calls a day about what to do
for spas with the power out."
Next came Hurricane Jeanne,
which forced the store to close for five
days. Needless to say, business at
Rothschild's store and many others
across the region saw sales tumble as
people tended to matters more important than hot tub hunting.
"For September we were down
about 52 percent," he says. "But October has been roaring back and we're
as busy as we've ever been. In fact, we
just had a VIP night and sold 18 spas. Our previous best VIP night was four
spas, so this was a rousing success."
Another dealer, Rec Warehouse in
Orlando, was less fortunate. According to CEO Don Czech, all the storms
crisscrossed close to his Orlando
store, bringing the terrifying combination of hurricane winds and rain
over and over again.
"Our main store is close to the airport, so obviously there's not a lot of
protection from the weather," he explains. "The shopping center we're in
had the roof torn right off during
Charley, the first one.
"It happened on a Friday and when
we went in to check it out, we thought
it looked OK and we'd be able to open. But all the water was up in the ceiling
tiles, and they started falling down
quickly. All our merchandise — or at
least 90 percent of it — was destroyed."
The company was forced to operate
its flagship store in the parts and service center of another Rec Warehouse
store north of Orlando.
"We basically went from 20,000 to
5,000 square feet of retail space," he
says, "but at least our customers have
a place to go."
Among Rec Warehouse's other 30
Florida locations is a store in West
Palm Beach, which lost part of its
roof and suffered extensive water
damage. Local officials wouldn't even let Rec Warehouse occupy the site
until engineers had given the green
light, but Czech opened the store in a
tent in the parking lot. "At least we
could be open for business."
Like Rothschild, Czech remains optimistic in spite of the lost business
and says things are already beginning
to pick up.
"I don't think the hurricanes will
have a big effect," he says. "People
want to go out and spend money already. They got sick of being worried
and went back to their normal lives.
They said, 'I'm not boarding my
house again. I'm not buying 7,000
pounds of ice. I'm done.'
"We're thinking it's going to be a
great season. At least it happened in
September, after the busy season."
Czech is a believer in the "Jacuzzi
Effect." Like pent-up demand for
above-ground pools after a cool, rainy
season, the effect is tangible, but usually temporary.
"I took a call the other day from a
guy who had hurricane damage and
was rebuilding and wanted to add a
pool," says Underwood. "But there
are a lot of people that need work
done on their homes and can't get
that done, so I don't know if we've
reached the point yet [where sales will
see an after-disaster surge].
"New pool leads have been virtually
none. In September we had eight
leads instead of our usual 30 or 40. Our overall sales were half of what
they were a year ago. I mean, people
are putting plywood up, cleaning their
yards, etc. Even if they haven't suffered damage, they're wondering
what they'll do if another one comes. Their minds are just in a different
While pool and spa sales were slowing
to a trickle, many existing pools and
spas were damaged or at least dirtied
by the storm. Customers' pools were
filled with roofing, insulation, mud
and other debris. But it wasn't until
people's power was restored and their
roofs repaired — or at least patched —
that they began thinking about their
backyards again. That's when the calls
started pouring in.
"The pool people weren't the first to
get called," says Parker. "But after a
couple of weeks most people had
power and they started worrying about
taking care of their pools again. Their
pools had been off for a couple of
weeks, plus they were full of debris.
"It's a huge project to get the pools
cleaned up, in every county in Florida."
The glut of calls from homeowners
seeking one-time pool cleanouts has
put a burden on the state's pool service professionals, many of whom
have stopped doing work for anyone
but their loyal customers.
"There's no time for anyone else,"
Parker says. "Some companies don't
even have the time to service their
Another source of service calls has
been customers looking to have
screen enclosures, many of which
were knocked down by the hurricanes' high winds, repaired or rebuilt. Aqua-Blue Aquatech Pools & Spas,
which has three locations in hard-hit Brevard County, has a screen-enclosure division.
"We don't solicit them, we just
build them for the pools we've sold,"
says Underwood. "But we got to the
point where we couldn't even keep up
with the work. We'd been writing estimates for people's insurance, and
that was going pretty well, but once
Jeanne hit we just got overloaded
with calls, and that's when we had to
say we couldn't really handle any
more. But we're one of the only companies where you can even talk to a
human being. The others have answering machines but the message
boxes are full."
The problem, Underwood says, is
that the workers who build screen enclosures are spread thin, and have
been able to charge "an arm and a leg"
for their services. "So it's hard to get
our screen guys to stick around here."
Unlike dealers and builders, whose
businesses rely on in-state customers,
most manufacturers didn't have a
slowdown in work orders. They were,
however, forced to shut down to
allow workers to go home and either
board up and wait storms out or to
"We're fortunate in that 95 percent
of our sales are outside Florida," says
Michael Johnson, president of
Dream Maker Spas in Lake Mary, a
suburb of Orlando. "We lost 10 days
of work, but we've been doing a ton
of business in the Midwest, California and Europe.
"The biggest problem we had was
we couldn't get trucks in here to take
our loads. Still, we were able to meet
our quotas. We had to work lots of
overtime and nights to do it, though."
Johnson, who lost the roof on his
beach house and had a Dream Maker
spa picked up by the wind and tossed
into his yard, avoided damage to the
plant by pushing several trailers together and bringing every pallet,
trash can and other potential missiles
inside. "We came out pretty good,
other than the phones and power
going down," he says.
Jack Beane, president of Jack's
Magic in Largo, says his company lost
five work days total, though physical
damage to the plant was nominal.
"We have an SOP where all the
computers are unplugged, the phone
system is unplugged, all computer
backups are taken off site, and we
make sure there's nothing that can
blow around outside," he says. "Then
we shut down the facility and hope
for the best."
Overall, Beane says, the business
didn't suffer. His mind has been
more on the employees, several of
whom had property damage.
"Charley caught us off guard a little," he says. "But when we heard
they were tracking it up through
Tampa and it was heading right for
us, we sent everyone home right
after lunch so they could prepare. Business comes second when it
comes to hurricanes.
"Everyone was given free reign to
attend to what they needed to attend to."
Johnson's employees were also allowed to go home and take care of
their homes and families.
"The employees don't want to work
for two days before it hits, and I don't
blame them," he says. "With Charley,
nobody expected it to be as bad as it
was, and it really kicked our butt. Frances wasn't as bad, but it stayed
around for four days. Ivan was headed straight for us but turned to Pensacola and .attened that area.
"Everyone has generators and all,
so we were prepared, but you can't
believe what it's like to go through it
four times. It's incredible."
FPSA's Parker says that overall the
industry has reacted very well.
"A lot of companies paid their employees for the days they couldn't
work, and everyone is working hard
to get their parts of the state back in
order," she says. "The spirit here has
been tried and tested, but it hasn't
How You Can Help
Though CNN has stopped covering the hurricanes and turned its full
attention on more pressing matters (like flu vaccine.), many in Florida
are still in need of financial assistance. People wanting to help the victims of this season's hurricanes — or next season's, should lightning stike
the state twice — are urged to heed FEMA's guidelines:
- Financial aid is an immediate need of disaster victims. Financial contributions should be made through a recognized voluntary organization
to help ensure that contributions are put to their intended use.
Before donating food or clothing, wait for instructions from local
officials. After a disaster, relief workers often don't have time or facilities to set up distribution channels, and too often these items go to
Volunteers should go through a recognized voluntary agency such as
the American Red Cross or Salvation Army. They know what is needed
and are prepared to deal with the need. Local emergency services officials also coordinate volunteer efforts for helping in disasters.
Organizations and community groups wishing to donate items should
first contact local officials, the American Red Cross or Salvation Army to
find out what is needed and where to send it. Be prepared to deliver the
items to one place, tell officials when you'll be there, and provide for
transportation, driver and unloading.
Wendy Parker, director of marketing for the Florida Swimming Pool
Association, says the FPSA discussed holding a special fundraiser, but
soon realized organizations like the Red Cross and Salvation Army were
better equipped to do it.
"They're very good at that, and we encourage people to support those
agencies," she says. "It's still early and the need will go for a year, if not
longer. This isn't something that affected people for the weekend, it's
going to affect them for years."
Barrett Kilmer, has been on the editorial staff of AQUA magazine since 2000. He has a B.A. in English from the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and currently lives in Madison, Wisc.