Rebuilding after a disaster

Rental operations play a key role

Earthquakes, wildfires, floods, tsunamis, hurricanes and tornadoes. When any one of these disasters strikes a community, major chaos and destruction are left in its wake, requiring specific equipment to help those impacted restore power and pick up the pieces to begin rebuilding. Rental operations are key players in this effort to help individuals and entire communities get back on their feet.

Robert Pedersen, president, A Tool Shed, Santa Cruz, Calif., has experienced more than his fair share of natural disasters.

“Living in California, we have experienced everything from hurricane-force windstorms and fires to floods, earthquakes and tsunamis,” he says. “With all our disasters, there is an immediate need. It hits and we are called to respond. Usually when a disaster hits, the priority is power and lighting, but there are all kinds of issues and needs that can come up along with that. We are registered with the Office of Emergency Services in our area. They have our cell numbers and call us for equipment. We have come back in, depending on what the needs are and opened stores during a disaster. With our seven locations, we can pull a lot of people and equipment.”

Pedersen still remembers the worst disaster he has lived through — the earthquake of 1989. “The earthquake happened  when we were closing — right at 5:09 p.m. We stayed open. Everyone made phone calls to family. If everything was OK at their homes, they stuck around. I stuck around. All our yards stayed open because we weren’t sure what would happen with the police emergency services. Sure enough, they called and needed tractors to move debris out of the streets. We took trucks out rather quickly. It didn’t stop for a couple of days. That earthquake was the worst disaster we have dealt with by far. Our buildings needed some repair, but none of them collapsed, thankfully,” he says.

Pedersen is grateful that none of his seven facilities have ever been destroyed in a natural disaster. “We have survived three different fires in and around our businesses, but we have never lost one of our facilities in any of those disasters, allowing us to stay open to assist the communities we serve,” he says.

Different equipment needs arise depending on the disaster, Pedersen says. For instance, in a:


“We immediately send out water pumps and equipment for cleanup work and water damage, such as dehumidifiers, carpet cleaners and wet/dry vacs. The tsunami that came through here — we knew it was coming, but it was worse than what we thought it would be for the low-lying communities. There was a lot of damage, so we brought in lighting, water pumps and items to repair infrastructure, including excavators, loader scrapers and track loaders, to clean up the debris and assist with other cleanup,” he says.


“More heavy equipment is usually needed to rebuild the infrastructure that can be so severely damaged in a widespread area. We rent load scrapers, track loaders, dump trucks and generators for extended periods of time because the infrastructure can be so damaged,” he says.


“­The immediate need is for generators to get the power back to certain areas, particularly to those who are able to move back into their homes but don’t have power. Water is an issue. We don’t have potable water, but we can supply nonpotable water and water trailers. Then the cleanup process begins. We still have a lot of track loaders cleaning up the debris and moving the burned-out homes. There is a lot of wood that needs to be cleared out, so chippers are needed. We bought 12 more commercial chippers during the last fires. I don’t expect them to come back in for a couple of months yet, and maybe even longer, because of all the cleanup work. Then after the cleanup comes the rebuilding process. That is when the forklifts are needed for unloading the material. The excavators are needed for rebuilding the infrastructure and putting in the pipelines and power poles. It can go on for a couple of years,” he says.


These types of storms are the predominant disaster that Dean Henagan, president, Grand True Value Rental, Lake Charles, La., has had to deal with over the years. Last year was exceptionally tough, with both hurricanes Laura and Delta making direct hits to the Lake Charles area. His branch operation, which was about 12 miles north of Lake Charles, collapsed, leaving little of a shell left. His main location also suffered damage as did his home, but his main operation remained functional and his home stayed livable.

Dealing with hurricanes is somewhat different as Henagan says he usually has a small window of time before he is slammed with customers.

“Right after the storm, the needs aren’t as great as they are a few weeks and a couple of months after the storm. We have time to get most of our people back before we become super busy,” Henagan says. “After Hurricane Laura, there was no power in most of the parish for three to four — even five to six weeks, actually. Most people weren’t coming back to our area until the power was restored and even then there were so many homes that were destroyed. It took two to three months to get campers to come back and start staying here. I had a couple of employees who were commuting more than an hour to come to work every day because there were no places for them to stay locally.”

Henagan and his team were functioning at the main location within a couple of days of the hurricane, “but it was at limited hours and we were running off a generator. We were limited,” he says.

Once people started coming back to the area, the equipment needs came in.  The most called-for items included “mini excavators, posthole loggers, skid steers, mini track loaders, and a lot of grinders and floor refinishing tools as everyone was remodeling and changing their floors,” Henagan says.

Surprisingly, generators are a very short-term product in terms of need, he adds. “Right after the storm, you could have 500 and sell them all. As soon as the power comes on, the generators become a lot less of an issue. Because so many people buy generators after the storm, it becomes difficult to rent generators after the power comes on. Everyone either has one or knows someone who has a generator. We rented out a few generators. We kept most for our employees to use,” Henagan says.

Business on the equipment side hasn’t slowed at all for Henagan even though the hurricanes occurred back in September and October of 2020.

“After a storm, there usually is a 12-month curve and then it tapers off to a more normal schedule. This storm, the city officials say, created a lot more damage than the last major storm we had. They are expecting that it will take a decade to get everything rebuilt. I don’t know if our business will be in this super-busy mode for the next decade,” he says.

The event side of his business has not recovered, though. “While it has been good that we have been busy on the equipment side, overall it has been challenging because we were about half event and half equipment before the coronavirus (COVID-19) hit. Louisiana has started to lift restrictions, but there are no corporate events. Normally in the spring we do a lot of crawfish boils and company picnics, where they rent tents, tables, chairs and games. We do not have a single corporate event on the books for the spring. Some say they may do something in the fall. We have seen a slight increase in backyard parties, though,” Henagan says.

Not only has he been busy but so have contractors in his area. “After seven months, we haven’t even repaired a single thing on our building or gotten new fences. We have barricades around our fences that fell down. Whenever I talk with different contractors in our area, they tell me that they can’t get help. I could get an out-of-town company to come in, but you take chances with that. The contractors here are overwhelmed with work and can’t find the employees to help them finish the work. I hope by the fall we will be able to start on repairing our building. It will be next year before we can even think about rebuilding the branch location that was destroyed. It will probably be two years after the storm that I will get my branch location back up and going,” Henagan says.


While Charles Hewett, president, ABC Equipment Rental, Tulsa, Okla., doesn’t have hurricanes to contend with, he does have tornadoes as a primary disaster concern because his state is located in what has been referred to as “tornado alley.”

“We are the emergency contact for the city of Tulsa, too, so we will be called if the municipality needs equipment during an emergency,” he says.

The threat of tornadoes “is just the way of life here,” Hewett says. “Rarely have they turned into anything in our area, so we have been lucky. Our operation has never been hit. We will receive tornado warnings pretty regularly, though. Then we have to go under a counter, into the smallest room in the building that has the most walls between you and the outside walls of the building and the least number of windows or go next door where they have a basement. It is second nature to all of us.”

After a tornado, Hewett says the types of equipment going out the door include “generators, chain saws, manlifts to do tree work, limb chippers, skid-steer loaders to move debris and excavators to move debris. We cater to both homeowners and contractors. If the phone lines are tied up, we have had people line up outside our door trying to get equipment. We even have had people from metropolitan areas that are miles away come to us to rent stuff to take to the disaster area,” he says.

Other issues:

Another disaster concern has been floods in his surrounding areas. For that type of disaster, the most-requested items include standard water pumps and restoration equipment, Hewett adds.

Earlier this year, Hewett dealt with a new type of disaster — cold arctic air came through his area, dropping temperatures and snowfall totals that his area normally doesn’t see.

“All our generators went out — people didn’t know whether they would lose power or not. People were being proactive. Then we rented out restoration equipment because of all the water from broken water pipes, heaters, etc.,” Hewett says.

While no one wants to go through a natural disaster, these operators are ready to assist after one occurs. “Because these are unplanned events, no contractor is planning to do this stuff. They need the equipment immediately to assist in the cleanup and rebuilding efforts. That is our job. We can provide that equipment to contractors, municipalities and homeowners — equipment that is so needed after a disaster takes place,” Pedersen says.

By Connie Lannan
Connie Lannan

Connie LannanConnie Lannan

Connie Lannan is special projects editor for Rental Management. She helps plan, coordinate, write and edit ARA’s quarterly regional newsletters, In Your Region. She also researches, writes and edits news and feature articles for Rental Management, Rental Pulse, supplements, special reports and other special projects. Outside of work, she loves to bake for others, go for walks with her husband and volunteer for her church and causes she believes in.

Other articles by Connie Lannan
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