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.

Damage Assessment

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 place."

Digging Out

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 usual customers."

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."

Diversity Helped

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 evacuate.

"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 been broken."

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 waste.
  • 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."

—B.K.