Surviving Sandy

When Hurricane Sandy barreled up the eastern seaboard in October 2012, there was little anyone could do except prepare for the worst and hope for the best. But no one could have been fully prepared for the damage suffered by many East Coast towns…and when it was all over, there was little anyone could do except pick up the pieces.

“There is nothing we can do about an act of God,” notes Sharon L. Sherman, CKD, certified interior designer and president of New Jersey ASID. Fortunately Sherman’s business – Thyme & Place Design, LLC – and home in Wyckoff, NJ, were spared the worst of the devastation. However, many people in her area – including past customers – were not so lucky. And helping them put the pieces back together wasn’t easy as she faced struggles of her own, managing a business with no power or Internet, storm-damaged inventory and closed ports that made it difficult to get product – or gas – into the region.

The larger picture

Sherman was fortunate in that she had invested in a generator previously. So, while much of the area was without power for days or weeks, her generator powered the essentials of her home, which she and her husband shared with a couple of area families who were not so fortunate.

“We had heat, and we could keep the refrigerator going and cook,” she says. Her smartphone was a lifeline. But even hot spots couldn’t save Internet service – and her ability to do business was further damaged by gas shortages so severe, people slept out on gas lines.

While the area tried to come to terms with the de-vastation, Sherman also struggled with how to keep her business running. “Jobs were in progress,” she says. “Suppliers who aren’t in this area were still contacting me about projects and orders that were in the queue.

“It was more than not being able to walk into the kitchen and flip on a light,” she continues. “We couldn’t get building materials because there was no way to ship them in and out. Ports were closed. There was no power. It really ground everything to a huge, huge halt.”

In addition to the stresses of trying to run a business in a storm-devastated area, Sherman also was faced with the challenge of helping both new and former clients who had suffered major damages.

One such client had finished a bath remodeling job just six years ago, but “it was totally destroyed by the storm,” she says. And insurance coverage can be complicated, Sherman soon found. That’s because when damage is evaluated by insurance companies, they don’t necessarily look at the cost to rebuild today. Rather, “They’re looking at the value based on age,” she says. “So it’s tough when the costs [of materials, work, etc.] have increased,” leaving a financial gap.

Another insurance-related challenge came in the form of long wait times to receive payment on claims. “If you have the finances to do a remodel or repair without waiting for insurance money, you’re lucky,” she says. “But some of the toughest problems people are facing are trying to replicate their homes [while still waiting for insurance checks].”

Neither was Sherman’s own business immune to this. She notes, “We had cabinets in a warehouse, waiting to go into a project, and when I went to inventory them, there were yards and yards of cabinets that were totally destroyed…hundreds of thousands of dollars in losses. I was very lucky my products were only slightly damaged, but I’m still waiting for the insurance money. I’ve had to reorder, and I’ve put out money again to have them installed, but I still haven’t seen the money recouped to my business.”

Yet, ultimately, Sherman still feels lucky. “Things are replaceable,” she says. “New Orleans came back, and we’ll come back, too.”

Human kindness

While it was rough going, and will continue to be rough for those who suffered the worst losses, Sherman also had the opportunity to see some extraordinary acts of human kindness, both in the community and in the design industry. “People really came together,” she says. “ASID chapters across the country called and asked if we needed help. [We saw] the resiliency of the human spirit…people pitching in to help one another.”

Sherman’s company also did a bit of pitching in, as well. At the firm’s holiday party, they collected donations for the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund. They also gathered toys for Toys for Tots, food for the community pantry and clothing for a local charity designed to help women get back into the work force.

Personalized service

Through it all, Sherman focused on maintaining what she says has made her successful in the first place: offering “unparalleled design excellence with outstanding personalized service.

“In the era of large companies and online retailers, I think the personal touch is being lost,” she says. “But I think it will gain in popularity again.”

While it may seem counter intuitive, Sherman believes the right technology can help build and strengthen relationships and that much needed personal touch. She references Web sites such as Houzz, which she encourages her clients to utilize, as helping connect people. “Being able to work electronically is really, really important,” she says. “But I also think as people isolate themselves and our world gets smaller, our desire for human contact becomes more important. Relationships are still really important, and I think they’ll become more important in the future.”