11 jobs that go into overdrive when a natural disaster strikes

Key Points
  • With Hurricane Florence set to deliver a devastating blow to the Carolinas beginning late Thursday morning through the weekend, residents there are bracing for the worst.
  • Despite the fact that the U.S. experienced its highest number of billion-dollar disasters in 2017, a large number of homeowners still don't know how to prepare when disaster strikes.
  • Fortunately, thousands of workers across a number of industries are in overdrive, helping to serve, protect, save, restore and relieve the communities that will be affected by the storm.
Bill Quinn surveys the damage caused to his trailer home from Hurricane Irma at the Seabreeze Trailer Park in Islamorada, in the Florida Keys, September 12, 2017.
Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images

With Hurricane Florence set to deliver a devastating blow to the Carolinas beginning late Thursday morning through the weekend, residents there are bracing for the worst. But while many homeowners are boarding up windows and stocking up on food and water, thousands of workers across a number of industries are in overdrive, helping to serve, protect, save, restore and relieve the communities that will be affected by the storm.

According to the National Hurricane Center, the Category 2 hurricane — one of the strongest storms on the Eastern Seaboard in decades — is expected to produce winds topping 80 mph, and "life-threatening storm surge and rainfall" could push water inland at heights of up to 20 feet along the coast, from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to Charleston, South Carolina. Rather than pushing up toward western Virginia, as initially thought, the storm's center is now predicted to pivot southward and move across the middle of South Carolina, making landfall on Saturday.

Because of Florence's predicted path — which is perpendicular to the coast rather than at an oblique angle — the strong winds from the east and southeast will cause extensive storm surge flooding. According to data analytics firm CoreLogic, more than 750,000 homes in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia are at potential risk of storm surge damage. The firm estimates threats to real estate will total about $170 billion. That would make Florence the costliest storm ever to hit the United States in terms of property loss.

What's disturbing, however, is the fact that two-thirds of American homeowners have no idea what to do in the event of a disaster, according to a new survey by Belfor Property Restoration. What's more, only 7 percent of respondents listed hurricanes as their top concern when it comes to natural disasters; most cited tornadoes (25 percent) and fires (20 percent). And even though floods are the most common and costly natural disaster, only 8 percent of respondents listed flooding as a top concern.

"It was shocking to find the results of Belfor's disaster preparedness survey showed U.S. homeowners are lacking the resources and awareness to prepare their homes, businesses and families for devastating situations," said the company's CEO, Sheldon Yellen. He says that most often, residents fail to clear storm drains of debris; turn off electricity, gas and water before evacuating; gather important paperwork and documents and move them to higher ground; and secure outdoor furniture and other lawn items that could become flying objects in strong winds.

Fortunately, with about five hurricanes striking the United States coastline every three years, there are people ready to spring into action when storm surges, flooding and high winds threaten.

Hospitality workers

Alistair Berg | Getty Images

As soon as news spread that Hurricane Florence was bearing down for a direct hit on the coast of the Carolinas, business travelers began canceling hotel reservations in droves and relief workers began piling in. When Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina began issuing evacuation orders Monday, the reservations began to far outnumber the cancellations. But many wait it out and book just 24 hours ahead of time, waiting to see exactly where the storm is will hit. This may not be the smartest move, however: With nearly 900 flight cancellations and about 13,500 delays already reported at press time, thousands of people are stranded, and as a result, hotels are almost already booked solid.

Airline personnel

Izabela Habur | E+ | Getty Images

Flight disruptions are anticipated at more than a dozen airports nationwide, and major and smaller airports from Georgia to Virginia are already seeing flight disruptions because of Florence. To accommodate, many airlines are waving their flight-change fees ahead of the storm to enable people to leave the area quickly and to assist those who wish to fly in to the region. Mother Nature is unpredictable, though, and while current forecasts call for Florence to stall out over the mid-Atlantic after it approaches the coast, it could take a turn and airlines and air-traffic control will need to react to the reduced airspace capacity. This could lead to delays and cancellations in New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Atlanta.

Emergency responders

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First responders from across the United States — including California, Indiana, Texas, Vermont and Colorado — have been rushing to North Carolina all week to work evacuation routes, prep shelters and plan for the significant flooding. All in all, officials are expecting 1,000 rescue personnel to arrive in Raleigh. Their work starts long before a known disaster strikes and will continue for weeks afterward. They come with rescue boats, generators and medical supplies to aid in search-and-rescue operations and will be on hand to help the many residents opting to defy the odds and stay in their home.

Restoration specialists

Water main breaks, fire and harsh rainstorms keep disaster cleanup services busy day to day, but when a natural disaster strikes, these companies are called on to help out anywhere in the country for weeks on end, tending to flooded basements and cleaning up debris. "While water damage is challenging because it infiltrates and flows through everything, no damage is better or worse ... it's all catastrophic," said Yellen of Belfor Property Restoration. "We expect that the damage from this storm will be devastating."

The revenue of a disaster restoration business is driven by natural disasters — one major storm can garner a couple million dollars' worth of business.

Disaster relief workers

Red Cross volunteers assist in managing Hurricane Harvey evacuees at the Delco Center in East Austin on August 29, 2017.
Suzanne Cordeiro | AFP | Getty Images

More than 700 disaster-relief workers are planning accommodations for those affected by Florence, according to Jeff Hall, spokesman for the Massachusetts chapter of the Red Cross. While many disaster-relief workers are volunteers — 95 percent at Red Cross — they respond to a startling number of disasters every year, providing comfort and shelter in a long-term recovery effort. The Red Cross claims they respond to 64,000 disasters yearly, or one every eight minutes, mostly home fires.

Forensic weather experts

If your property is damaged due to a natural disaster, you will most likely need to gather information for litigation or mediation purposes. This includes verifying wind speeds and/or the height of a storm surge at a specific time and location. A forensic meteorology and weather expert can provide comprehensive and site-specific analysis of past weather events affecting your specific case.

Self-storage unit owners

As homeowners prepare for reconstruction, the demand for self-storage units rises considerably. And small businesses damaged in the storm often vie for the extra space as well as they scramble to save their inventory. Yet it's hard to say if they will be lucky enough to find a unit to store their wares: The self-storage industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. commercial real estate industry, with total rentable storage space in the United States covering more than three times the size of Manhattan.

Tree-removal experts

High winds, especially those from a Category 2 hurricane, can gust 80 miles per hour or more and leave unprecedented destruction in its wake. Weather forecasters are saying that just because Florence has weakened slightly to a Category 2 hurricane, it is still extremely dangerous, as the storm surges will still be those of a Category 4.

Even the healthiest trees are vulnerable, often wiping out power lines, crushing houses and cars and blocking roads. The damage can happen in an instant, yet the cleanup can take months, costing anywhere from $200 to $1,500 depending on the size of the fallen tree.

Auto mechanics

Flooding, accidents and tree damage wreak havoc on automobiles. In 2013 the damage after Hurricane Sandy resulted in 54,642 auto claims in New Jersey, with insurance companies paying out more than $530 million to auto-repair shops. In New York claims nearly reached 110,000, with auto-repair shops hauling in $1.5 billion.

Hardware-store employees

With batteries, flashlights, bags of sand, portable generators and plywood at the top of every hurricane survival-kit checklist, people are flocking to box stores such as BJs and Home Depot, as well as every mom-and-pop hardware store, to stock up. Many stores are opening hours earlier than usual to accommodate the rush. Sales will continue in the aftermath, as people try to repair the damage. Home Depot said it expects to see a rise in the purchase of tarps, cleaning supplies, chain saws and fuel.


An employee stocks shelves at a Kosher grocery store.
Fabrizio Bensch | Reuters

Demand is so high before a major storm that grocery stores work nonstop with their vendors to increase their deliveries to every hour. First to go, of course, are bread, water and ice. But what is surprising is the spike in sales of cookies, chips and alcohol before a hurricane hits. In 2004, Walmart reported that it orders extra strawberry Pop-Tarts after analyzing its consumers' buying habits before hurricanes. Keeping up with the frenzy before a storm is difficult — yet the long lines at the register can be even tougher to deal with.