With the Augusta area experiencing summer-like temperatures all of this week, it’s hard to believe that three years ago around this time the entire CSRA was crippled by the ice storm of 2014.
But those who lived in Augusta during the storm will never forget the sound of cracking limbs falling throughout the night.
Every few minutes, huge pine trees were tumbling over and crashing to the ground in neighborhoods all across the Augusta and Aiken areas.
These enormous limbs would fall with so much force that they literally shook entire neighborhoods.
For many local residents, it was like bombshells going off throughout the night.
Thousands of homeowners were left without power for at least three or four days.
Cars were completely iced shut and when residents finally ventured outside, many could barely recognize their own neighborhoods because there was so much damage.
Power lines were down, tree limbs were blocking streets and there was severe damage to many local homes.
After the storm, the Metro Spirit spoke with several experts warning homeowners to be on guard for scams from unlicensed workers offering to help clean up neighborhoods, sometimes at an inflated price.
Steve Johnston, vice president and Southeast Division Manger for the Bartlett Tree Experts, cautioned residents not to make snap decisions when hiring crews to clear their fallen branches, trim storm damaged trees or clean up their yards because they might be unlicensed, unbonded and uninsured.
“If they get hurt or if they damage the property, the insurance may not cover it,” Johnston said. “If they say they are insured, you want to make sure the policy is still active.”
Johnston said many problems began when local landscapers decided they are qualified to do tree removal work.
“Here is the problem: This region doesn’t have enough licensed contractors who have the proper insurance to handle the entire area,” Johnston said.
Therefore, many landscapers servicing the CSRA weren’t going to know how to properly remove or treat storm damaged trees, he said.
“One lady we saw, they didn’t just come and clean up the branches that were on her house, they started taking down every tree in her yard,” Johnston said. “Now, that’s her prerogative. And after a storm like this, I understand and I feel that 100 percent. However, that’s a shame. Every tree doesn’t have to be taken down.”
Instead of cutting every tree down, Bartlett Tree Experts recommended appropriate treatments such as pruning, installation of supportive cables or braces and even lightning protection systems to secure a tree damaged by the ice storm.
Phae Howard, the executive director of the National Center for the Prevention of Home Improvement Fraud, also warned residents of some serious perils of home repair.
“Any contractor you deal with that walks in that door is a potential problem,” she said. “So the more you educate yourself prior to dealing with that person, the better you position yourself.”
Consumer education is especially important because she said as soon as you allow anyone on your property to fix or repair your home, it can have serious consequences. And according to Howard, whose Atlanta-based nonprofit coaches homeowners so they don’t become victims of home improvement fraud, those consequences were getting larger and harder to prevent.
“I’ve been told by various sources that it’s estimated to be a $70 billion a year problem,” she said. “We know mayors, wealth managers, attorneys, doctors and police officers who have been victimized, so everybody’s at risk.”
She wasn’t kidding.
This week, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution exposed the fact that the entire city of Atlanta fell victim to scams and bribery during the 2014 ice storm.
“In February 2014, as contractor Elvin ‘E.R.’ Mitchell Jr. paid $188,000 in bribes for Atlanta contracts, city officials awarded his company emergency work totaling $5.2 million for a devastating ice storm that month,” the AJC reported this week. “Mitchell’s Cascade Building Systems captured 65 percent of the city’s business even though it was only one of five companies hired to clear roads, haul salt and remove debris. Cascade’s prices sometimes far exceeded other companies’ cost estimates or those paid by the Georgia Department of Transportation.”
The scary part is, Atlanta didn’t suffer half of the damage that Augusta experienced during the ice storm of 2014.
“In one case, Cascade charged city taxpayers an overtime rate of $442 an hour for each of 20 plows with front-end loaders — about $200 an hour more than price quotes provided by three other companies that performed work for the city during the storm,” the AJC reported. “Cascade billed the city for more than 1,000 hours of overtime with that equipment. Additionally, Cascade’s straight-time rate of $295 an hour for the plows also exceeded prices quoted by other contractors by about $120 an hour. The company billed the city for 878 hours of straight-time.”
The profits that Cascade made during the ice storm were exorbitant.
“In all, Mitchell’s company received more than $700,000 just for the plows,” the AJC reported. “The city would have paid about $353,000 to the company providing the lowest cost estimate for that equipment.”
But Cascade’s profits came as a price.
E.R. Mitchell and Lithonia contractor Charles P. Richard Jr. both recently pleaded guilty to bribery charges and are scheduled for sentencing in April.
It has been a disaster for the city of Atlanta and the mayor, Kasim Reed.
Scandals create distrust, and these bribery charges are causing residents to think twice about Atlanta’s leadership.
It doesn’t bode well for Mayor Reed and his administration’s future.
The amazing thing about this is, here poor Augusta got grief after it was accused by the Federal Emergency Management Agency of breaking some federal regulations in procuring two contracts for cleanup from the 2014 ice storm.
Augusta moved quickly and had two noncompetitive bid awards to companies involved in the clean-up. But anyone who was here in the Garden City during February 2014 knew that the Augusta needed emergency assistance right away.
There was no time to dawdle.
The 2014 ice storm wasn’t a typical storm. It was devastating.
But Augusta officials got grief anyway.
Maybe federal authorities should have had a closer eye on Atlanta and its emergency contracts during the ice storm rather than good ol’ Augusta, Ga.