Florida firm worked overtime to service those in need following Hurricane Irma.
By Mike Price
Proper planning and a determined staff at Partridge Well Drilling Co. Inc. in Jacksonville, Florida, helped the multi-generational company service those in need following the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
The most intense Atlantic hurricane to strike the United States since Katrina in 2005 caused record flooding in Jacksonville. Irma’s flooding surpassed the record set by Hurricane Dora in 1964. Developed on August 30, 2017, Irma dissipated on September 16, 2017.
For Partridge Well Drilling, September 10 and 11 were the worst parts of the storm with wind gusts reaching as high as 75 mph. Following these two days, staff sprang into action, responding to as many as 70-plus service calls a day within the first week.
“To this day, I’m amazed at the number of calls we were getting, and we responded to most of those within a day,” says Merritt Partridge, CVCLD, vice president, “which to me, is baffling. I’m impressed with that.
“We put in a lot of hours and overtime, and again, if someone had an issue and needed to go home, that was more than fine. For those who worked on the weekends, we gave them bonuses and they also received substantial overtime for their hours. We also waived our emergency rates on the weekend for customers as a good will gesture. That was very well received and people really appreciated it.”
Below are key steps Partridge Well Drilling listed out to meet the demand of service calls following Irma. This practical information along with what they learned can be of use to any water well system professional in a natural disaster situation.
Taking Care of Staff
As a company, Partridge Well Drilling first made sure all their employees were safe and their homes were in order leading up to and after the storm. If the employees needed to evacuate, the company didn’t expect them to be at work.
Necessities like fuel and power generators were in high demand and not readily available. If an employee needed gas, Partridge Well Drilling used the company’s fuel tanks to help them. The company, which had a half-dozen power generators before the storm, loaned some of them to employees so they could have power at home.
“Pat (Partridge) and Merritt made it clear: Everybody needed to be safe,” says Russell Stevens, vice president of pump and water treatment divisions.
Prior to the storm a company meeting was held to lay out tentative plans in response to its arrival. The meeting covered who would be evacuating so they could get a handle on how many employees would be available as well as rounding up any additional power generators they could find. The fact there would be long hours and an all-hands-on-deck mentality was explained during the meeting.
The company began putting together an action plan on September 12. A large portion of it consisted of answering everyone’s questions and concerns internally so they would be ready to help customers that week.
Following Irma, downed trees and downed power lines were common. This made traveling to customers’ properties a challenge.
“Keep safety first and foremost,” Stevens says. “Water is important, but safety comes first.”
A variety of service calls consisted of generators that did not function properly or were not connected correctly. Power generators may or may not be used correctly by customers, so staff needed to beware of electrical hazards.
“That was something we had to be cautious about because that did provide a bit of a hazard,” Stevens says. “We had several calls where the customer stated their pump was not working and we found that they had 110-volt generators trying to run 230-volt pumps, or they made connections with undersized extension cords which would not allow the pumps to function.”
Typically, the flood debris was removed before Partridge Well Drilling’s staff arrived at a customer’s property. Once on site, proper protective equipment was used like always.
Trees damaging pumps, wellheads, and pipes are common following storms of this magnitude. This time, though, there were less of these issues due to the record flooding from Irma.
“We did see a lot of debris from the river and ocean floating onto the properties and damaging wellheads,” says Partridge, a sixth-generation well driller who serves on the National Ground Water Association Board of Directors.
Assessing the Water Well System
Floodwaters caused some pressure tanks to dislodge and float away from the property of customers. If the pumps weren’t subjected to floating debris, they remained in place.
Partridge says due to the power being out for an extended time, it made it difficult to see if the pumps would run. Even after power was restored and the pumps were tested, they could seem fine and run for a couple of days. However, as rust began to set in or wear and tear from the flooding reared its head, the bearings would begin to go out.
“If there was an issue with a pump, our preference was to replace them with new ones,” Partridge says. “Cleaning them out was an option, but we pushed for total replacement just to be on the safe side for those pumps.
“We replaced so many pumps in that week that our distributors were having a difficult time keeping up with the demand.”
Interestingly, most wells did not need to be disinfected. This was due to the flooding in low-lying areas where the wells have artesian pressure and are tightly sealed from any kind of leak.
“You’re not going to have a reverse of the floodwater getting into the well,” Partridge says, “so we really didn’t see that being an issue. Most areas that were flooded had artesian pressure with a check valve. The artesian pressure was usually greater than the floodwater.”
Modify on the Fly
In natural disasters, being flexible and able to think of creative solutions to problems that arise help through the difficult times.
For instance, the aeration systems that Partridge Well Drilling has custom made due to its specifications were difficult to find following Irma. As a result, to get water to the homeowner for sanitary purposes, they bypassed the aerator treatment system. This allowed the homeowner to have access to water while they waited for the aerators to be in stock. Once the aerators were available, Partridge Well Drilling would return and install the aerators to treat the hydrogen sulfide and make any final repairs or installations.
To address the number of employees needed to handle the service call volume, Partridge moved the staff of 15 from the drilling department to the pump department, which also has about 15 on its side. Devoting all the company’s resources to the pump side of the business was necessary and logical as no new wells were being drilled anytime soon following Irma Partridge Well Drilling increased its fleet of eight service trucks to more than 10 with some modifications. Well drilling trucks, sales trucks, or pickup trucks were converted into flatbed support vehicles with tools to service pump-related issues. The goal was to get the homeowner’s emergency under control, patch the well, and come back at a later date to fully recover the well system.
As of mid-December, the company was still fielding service calls from the storm and expecting more to trickle in the first quarter of 2018.
Stevens advises assume power will be an issue in a natural disaster situation. That’s why power generators are so critical. Fortunately, Partridge Well Drilling’s office had power soon after the storm tore through its area. Partridge’s staff located power generators it didn’t know it had. It also modified parts so generators could work. Like fuel, parts for generators were in high demand.
“I promise you this: We will make sure our generators are up and running and have a good inventory of them,” Partridge says. “We didn’t know how many we had and we knew that was going to be a big issue.
“We even bought a couple since then for a number of reasons, but one of them is to increase our stockpile of generators because without power there is really not much we can do to fix pump-related issues.”
Mike Price is the senior editor of Water Well Journal. In addition to his WWJ responsibilities, Price produces NGWA’s newsletter and contributes to the Association’s quarterly scientific publication. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.