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October 30, 2007

Recovering from the Memphis Tornado

Written by  Keith Mathias
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When a powerful tornado touched down last November in Germantown, a suburb of Memphis, it struck a deadly blow, killing three area residents. In terms of property loss, the twister damaged a total of 400 homes and destroyed 22 throughout Memphis, ultimately causing an estimated $25 - $30 million in damage. It also devastated Grace Evangelical Church, Inc. a non-denominational congregation of 1,000 members.

The church, a new structure that was completed in early 1994, sustained extensive damage, including a torn roof. Virtually every area in the 30,500 square foot structure, including the sanctuary, several offices and a kitchen was affected. Office equipment, computers, copier, faxes and phone systems, as well as chairs used in the sanctuary were drenched as a result of the storm. All of the carpeting throughout the complex was soaked, as were books, files, sermons, resources and personal affects.

The powerful tornado tore two HVAC systems off their stands on the roof, throwing one into the front yard of the church. Two trailers parked in a lot and housing temporary classrooms were wrapped around the front of the building like aluminum foil.

According to Reverend Bill Garner, one of the first members of the congregation to arrive on the scene, he could see the path of the tornado from a nearby forest, leading right to the church. “It seemed to cut right through the building, as it directly hit the buildings’ southwest side.”

Luckily, no one was injured, and important church records, which are downloaded daily and stored off-site were not destroyed.

Since the church was relatively new, Reverend Garner initially turned to the building’s architect and general contractor for assistance in digging out damaged objects. However, it soon became apparent this was a unique situation requiring recovery experts.

“We have a good relationship with our general contractor,” said Rev. Garner, “but he didn’t have the ability to do the type of work that needed to get done.”

The disaster struck in the hometown of ServiceMaster Disaster Recovery Service’s corporate headquarters and a congregation member called Rev. Garner to alert him to the company’s services. While ServiceMaster DRS typically works on catastrophic commercial recovery jobs, within 30 minutes after the initial contact, they were at the site, surveying the damaged property.

As a first step, Watford and Rev. Garner conducted the all-important “walk-through.” As they assessed the damage, Rev. Garner explained his initial priorities - sealing the building to mitigate further water damage, determining what was salvageable, deciding which items should be moved to storage, and protecting the church from looters.

The walk-through helped Watford clearly communicate to Rev. Garner what could be restored, to what extent, and what would be most cost-effective to replace. This up-close analysis of the church helped Watford accurately and fairly judge and communicate to Rev. Garner exactly what needed to be done and how the work would be performed. The mobilization effort to begin restoring the church began four hours after the initial walk-through.

Ultimately, the walk-through enabled Rev. Garner to decide to award the restoration contract to ServiceMaster. But perhaps most importantly, his quick decision mitigated costly secondary damage to the church and its contents. Prompt action lead to approximately $125,000 in savings, as drying chambers salvaged many items - such as interior walls - that would have been lost if restoration had been delayed further.

With a torn roof, shattered glass, and water-drenched walls, the church required immediate and expert attention to mitigate secondary damage from rain that continued throughout the week following the tornado. The project, which was approved at 11 a.m., was well underway by 3 p.m. by a clean-up crew of 44 workers, including four supervisors.

Since the storm had downed power lines throughout the area, five generators were also brought to the site to provide electricity for power lights used into the evening. A drying chamber was erected on site to dry the walls, and sophisticated equipment was used to measure humidity in the walls.

The restoration crew worked until midnight of the first day of the restoration project to prevent further damage to the church’s computers - hand cleaning computers, video equipment and packing out 900 chairs. The crew also tore off soaked wallpaper to prevent further humidity from seeping into the walls.

A construction crew created temporary covering for the roof, and security guards were hired to prevent vandalism of the exposed structure.

On the second day, the restoration process continued with crews packing out the remaining contents of the church from the sanctuary, offices and kitchen. In total, over 1,400 boxes were filled, and the 40 foot trailer was filled four times with material and a 26-foot container filled eight times.

The contents of the church were moved to a 43,000-square-foot warehouse. At the warehouse, drying chambers were created to begin the restoration process. A portion of the warehouse was roped off and secured to serve as the chamber, as workers created walls of six mill plastic in which they placed the soaked chairs, desks, books and other objects. Huge drying fans and desiccant units pulled dry air through the area, funneling the air through plastic tubing. The burst of forced air into the sealed chamber pushed out the moisture, drying and restoring the objects.

Within two days, Rev. Garner was housed in a temporary work-space, enabling him to prepare the payroll for the church’s 12 full-time and 20 part-time employees. By the end of the first week, the church’s temporary office was established, with a few computers operational and eight employees back to work in this temporary office space.

“Overall, it was a good team effort by all involved - Church board members, insurance adjuster and our construction crew - that helped us get back on our feet in such a short time,” said Rev. Garner.


Keith Mathias is director of ServiceMaster Disaster Recovery Services, Memphis, Tenn.

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