Like most people, Ron George has had his share of trials surviving hurricane Ivan.
He’s moved seven times since the storm and is working elbow-to-elbow out of makeshift offices where a coffee table serves as a desk and cardboard boxes have become filing cabinets.
But the marketing manager at Jacques Scott isn’t complaining – it’s night and day from what it was just a few months ago.
The entire Jacques Scott complex was ravaged by the storm, its warehouses and offices ripped apart by the unrelenting winds. Millions of dollars of inventory – from dry goods to fine wines – was ruined by the flood waters.
It took weeks to clear the compound at the corner of Shedden Road and Bobby Thompson Way.
‘It was a just mess,’ recalled George. ‘We were taking truckloads of stuff out of here – just tons and tons and tons.’
George weathered the hurricane at his workplace with several co-workers and their families; 14 people in all.
When the storm surge came, it backed up the septic tank and flooded the downstairs offices.
With Ivan raging outside, they bashed a hole in the wall with a sledgehammer to get to the stairwell and reach upstairs. The only access to the stairwell was outside the building.
‘The water probably rose from two to four or five feet in what seemed like a matter of minutes,’ said George. ‘But everybody was calm. We had food and water. We were in good shape compared to what some people went through.’
When they emerged on Monday, 13 September, it was chaos.
The entire parking lot was under three to four feet of water, with debris and sewage strewn everywhere.
The warehouses were destroyed and the back gates had been blown over. The fleet of trucks was destroyed by the saltwater – only one out of eight survived.
With no power, thousands of pounds of food in its huge walk-in freezer was in danger of going to waste.
Food products and dry goods on the bottom pallets in the warehouses were beginning to spoil from the sewage-filled flood waters. Security became a big concern as the warehouses had been ripped wide open. Looters had already broken into one of its retail liquor stores, with all but one trashed by the storm.
It didn’t take long, however, to switch gears into recovery mode, said George.
‘Practically all of our employees showed up on the Tuesday or Wednesday. They were arriving by foot, on bicycle, by whatever means possible. It was really an impressive sight to see. You knew everybody had their own problems. People had lost their homes but there wasn’t a word of complaint from anyone,’ he said.
‘We all realized that because we’re a food and distribution company, we needed to get the business up and running.’
They organized work teams to clean up the warehouses and compound and to pitch in with the relief effort. Ray Doxey, the company’s contractor, brought in a work crew and dump trucks to begin hauling spoiled goods and debris to the dump.
The compound was secured and security established at its retail stores.
Food and supplies were trucked to shelters and relief workers and, later, to the few restaurants that managed to open after the storm.
A makeshift kitchen was set up on site to feed employees, emergency personnel and anyone else who showed up in need of a hot meal.
Sergio Serrano switched hats from wine sales manager to chef, cooking around 180 meals each day on a portable grill supplied by Mise En Place. In turn, Island Supply Co. – a Jacques Scott subsidiary – donated food from its walk-in freezer to the mobile catering company, which was also pitching in to feed relief workers.
‘That was an experience,’ said Serrano, who cooked meals at the compound for well over a month. ‘We were eating well – everything from duck to filet mignon to rack of lamb. We left the hamburgers for last.’
Serrano, a former restaurateur, said he and his wife had been planning to leave the island but changed their minds after he stopped by Jacques Scott two days after the storm.
‘I went to work just to see what was still there. When I saw Ron (George) out there doing everything, I just said, ‘I have to help out somehow.’ I cleaned up my office and we started making soup that day.’
Randy Burns, a sales rep at Island Supply, took charge of getting food out to those who needed it. He arrived at the compound on Tuesday, wading through thigh-high water to get to the walk-in freezer.
‘Our concern was to get rid of the food as opposed to throwing it out. There was about $500,000 worth of food and I’d say 90 per cent of it was used. Every day I had truck after truck going in and out.’
Meanwhile, Nick Ward, the company’s financial director, was co-ordinating relief efforts from Island Supply Co.’s Miami-based office, flying in generators, fuel, water and other supplies.
Two pick-up trucks arrived within a couple of weeks.
Ward had been in Florida when the storm hit, which proved to be a fortunate turn of events.
‘It would’ve been very difficult to manage our recovery without those guys up there working day and night to get stuff down to us,’ said managing director Peter Dutton. ‘We couldn’t have done it without them.’
George spent a good deal of time clearing goods at the airport.
‘The people at customs were under unbelievable pressure with so much stuff coming in and so many people around. They were just so helpful. It was absolutely amazing what these guys did.’
Dutton said employees worked under arduous conditions, pitching in wherever they could. ‘Everybody’s job description changed. The staff was absolutely tremendous.’
Among them was Jacques Scott wine marketing manager Ross Phillips who assisted with everything from clean-up to food distribution. Working in the heat was taxing.
‘Like everybody else, you’d leave here – which was a big mess – and then go home and have no power, no water,’ he said. ‘But the nice part was seeing the camaraderie and everybody pitching in.’
Dutton said the most difficult part was trying to run the company without power – nearly an eight-week stretch – but there were lighter moments as well.
When the first shipment of Heineken arrived, they put an ad in the paper announcing the popular brand as ‘the island’s third utility.’
Recovering from Ivan
While the company is now back in the swing of things, there’s still a good deal of work to be done.
Employees continue to work out of cramped quarters – about one-third of its normal office space – and are still cleaning and repairing the facilities and replacing office equipment.
‘We’re slowly getting back. We’ve got lots to do to rebuild,’ said Dutton. ‘But we’re through the worst. Now, it’s just a question of looking ahead and making sure we look after staff as best we can. They’ve been very good to us through these difficult times.’
The majority of its employees – around 80 – are still with Jacques Scott, which is rebuilding all of its retail and distribution operations. Three of its five retail stores are now operational, with a fourth (Red Rabbit) set to re-open mid-March.
Its flagship store on Crewe Road, Jacques Scott Fine Wines, was the first to re-open after the storm and is now undergoing a complete renovation.
The Wine Cellar in Galleria Plaza has also been rebuilt. Ironically, the only store to survive intact was The Little Liquor Store, which is right on the waterfront.
The status of its West Shore Plaza store is still being decided.
It’s been a trying time but Ron George says the experience has been uplifting as well.
‘The lesson learned is how we all stuck together to rebuild this business and rebuild this country. I’m really impressed with how the country has come through this considering what happened. It’s amazing to see the resolve of people in difficult times.’