The high winds and 40-plus inches of rain that accompanied El Nino in Ventura County caused plenty of upheaval for business owners as well as residents. And perhaps none were hit harder than members of the local home repair industry.
For contractors, painters and operators of building supply stores, the question changed day to day: whether to bring more workers in for repair emergencies or send them home due to lack of business.
"It actually was a difficult winter," said Gary Abrams, a Newbury Park-based contractor who has worked in Ventura and Los Angeles counties since 1980. "We've just been doing our best to keep up with demand. I liken it to what happened in '94, after the earthquake. Even though it was a boost to business, I'm glad it's over."
As a general contractor, Abrams specializes in a range of home repairs, including roofing, rain gutters, house foundations, drainage and other weather-related problems. He said the winter storms brought a little bit of everything.
"Not only was there roof and deck leakage, there were maintenance problems on the same," Abrams said. "I keep a list of clients who require roof inspection and maintenance and that work went up at least 100% prior to the rains because of the predictions. Where we might normally have 10 inspections a month, we had 20 to 30."
Likewise, drain-cleaning jobs increased by about 150%, he said.
"I saw damage in brand-new homes, homes that were 75 years old, damage in high-rise buildings on Wilshire Boulevard where windows were leaking in the facade of the buildings," Abrams said. "From the most expensive mansions in Beverly Hills to the most modest apartments in the Valley and on the Westside, it was pervasive."
Perhaps the trickiest part of taking on the additional work was trying to keep his regular customers happy at the same time, Abrams said.
"I'm in a position where I have plenty of work coming in all the time," he said. "When a winter like this comes along, I don't particularly consider this as good news. I have to put other work aside and take care of the emergency work. It can be very difficult. Like a doctor on call, when you have 50 emergencies at once it can drive you crazy."
Vincent Gutierrez, a contractor in Ventura for 34 years, called the 1997-98 storm season one of his busiest.
"It was hectic--we're still working on it," he said. "We got a lot of calls, people wanting us to go up on their roofs. Some needed repairs; some didn't. We did a lot of patching tile roofs, and the driving rains and the downpours had a lot of drains plugged up. If you don't maintain your roof, if you don't keep the leaves out of the drain, that's what happens."
Like the professionals, the do-it-yourselfers were pushed into action by the rough winter weather. That resulted in higher-than-normal sales of home-repair materials at retail businesses like the California Do-It Center in Simi Valley.
"People were coming in for roof work, sandbags, weather stripping, stuff like that," said Chris Carroll, manager of the Do-It Center. "We didn't see an increase in business with contractors, but most of our customers are the home improvers themselves, the homeowners, and we saw an increase with them."
Higher sales of home materials at the Do-It Center helped offset a downturn in the sale of garden supplies caused by El Nino's delay of the gardening season, Carroll said.
"It pushed our springtime nursery sales back about a month," he said. "People who would be planting flowers or landscaping weren't able to do it. We usually get a good turn about March, but this year it was the middle of April."
The Sherwin-Williams Old Quaker Paints store in Oxnard was similarly busy at the start of spring, largely the result of homeowners preparing the outsides of their homes for any future wet weather.
"During the first three months of the year business was slow. Then all of a sudden, business picked up," said store manager Jason Font. "Customers were doing a lot of waterproof coatings. We're typically busy, but this was a record year."
While Font's store benefited from outside rain damage, Mike Ogden, a Ventura painting contractor, has seen an upswing in his business due to problems with home interiors.
"There's water damage in a lot of places, so that means there's got to be new drywall put in and it's got to be painted," said Ogden, who has worked in the county for 15 years. "There's also water stains and stuff like that. I've gotten called back to jobs I've already painted because of leaky roofs causing water damage."