February 24, 2014 at 9:20 am

Metro Detroit businesses snowed under with fix-it work

Towing services are among the many businesses booming with weather-related work around Metro Detroit. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)

Insurance agencies, restoration companies and others that handle weather-related emergencies have been deluged with claims from frozen pipes, ice dams, roof collapses and vehicle damage, all stemming from one of the harshest Michigan winters on record.

These businesses say the past three months have been grueling because of nonstop work. Rather than enjoy the extra revenue, many have had to turn away jobs. And, in one case, one employer had to visit workers being treated for exhaustion in the hospital between service calls.

“Everybody is in the red zone right now. Every carrier is pressed to the max,” said Wayne Wudyka, chief executive officer of Certified Restoration Drycleaning Network, a textile restoration company in Berkley. “We’ve been working seven-day shifts. We have not shut our plant down since Dec. 1. There’s been no letup.”

Wudyka believes the next two weeks will be the worst in terms of water damage at homes and businesses. He said the number of claims his company is processing from across the United States and Canada was up 39 percent in January, which is typically a high month. In Michigan, claim volume has doubled.

“Record snow and record temperatures means record claim volume. We’ve been in the textile restoration business for 23 years now. We’ve never experienced a winter like this,” Wudyka said.

Insurance company State Farm estimates it normally sees a few hundred cases of frozen pipes during this time of year in Michigan. Now, that number is close to 4,000 and growing, said spokeswoman Angie Rinock.

“The conditions are ripe for more,” Rinock said.

The company, which insures one out of every five homes in the state, also has activated its catastrophe team, bringing in people from other parts of Michigan and beyond to handle the increase in work. The goal is to help customers as quickly as possible, Rinock said.

Marty O’Neill, a State Farm agency owner in Ferndale, has had some claims for vehicles damaged from potholes and fender-benders. There have been a few burst pipes. But those will pale in comparison to the flooded basements, failed sump pumps and bungalow-roof issues to come, he believes.

“I don’t see any relief,” O’Neill said. “We’re going to see ice dams rear their ugly heads. The warmer temperatures will exaggerate and accelerate the melt, and then we’re going to have basement issues as well.”

Some residents, business owners and landlords such as Gary Andrus believe the worst is yet to come as the “thaw-apocalypse” begins with warmer temperatures.

Battling harsh conditions

Andrus is one of the many Metro Detroiters seeing dollar signs for every snowflake this winter. Last winter, the owner of South Adams Square Shopping Center in Birmingham spent about $10,000 on snow removal and salt. This year, that total will top $40,000, he said.

What was worse was the 6 inches of water that flooded the building’s lower level earlier this month, putting 42 tenants, ranging from insurance agencies to psychologists to music instructors, out of commission.

Normally, the shopping center with more than 100,000 square feet of retail and office space is 95 percent occupied. Now, only some offices can be used, and the affected tenants are storing their couches, filing cabinets and other goods in the building’s empty ACO Hardware until the floor-to-ceiling repair work can be done.

“First, there was the snow — there was nowhere to put it, and it filled the parking lot,” said Andrus, who has owned Adams Square for 12 years. Then there are the unexpected costs of asphalt failure, ground heaving, possible roof damage, skyrocketing heating costs and the burden on his staff.

“The effects of this will last long into the summer,” Andrus said.

Al David and his brother, John, own Emergency Restoration, a 24/7 residential and commercial cleanup company in Troy. The company specializes in restorations due to water damage, and its phones have been busy.

Their biggest job to date was the Frank Murphy Hall of Justice just a couple days after New Year’s Day. “From there, it just snowballed,” Al David said. “It’s been residential calls, commercial calls — seven days a week, nonstop. There are people who have owned homes for 30 years without a problem who are seeing frozen water pipes for the first time.”

Every piece of drying equipment, all of his 25 technicians and every one of his 25 Emergency Restoration vans have been on the road consistently, David added. That is part of the reason why two of his technicians ended up hospitalized for exhaustion and dehydration.

Enormous task

At one point, the company had a waiting list of 35 people. David said they encouraged people to seek other companies, but most could not find another service provider. David even called into “The Handyman Show” with Glenn Haege on WJR-AM 760 and asked him to make a public service announcement about the delays.

“The insurance companies have been bringing in adjustors from out of state to keep up. We’ve worked with ones from Texas, Iowa, Kansas. They keep flying them in to help out,” David said.

Typically, Jarvis Restoration would see an average of 20 cases of burst pipes in January. For the month, the company went out to more than 200 cases, said Don Wilgus, director of sales and marketing for the Harrison Township business.

The full-service restoration company has been doing work across Metro Detroit, Wilgus said, and things seem especially bad in older homes like those found in the Grosse Pointes. Without proper insulation or winterizing, trouble ensues.

“We’ve been in business for 35 years, and I’ve never seen a winter like this,” Wilgus said.

Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.