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Cover Story
Fighting Nemo
| Jennifer Zurko
>> Published Date: 6/27/2013
"Nemo is a name I’ll never forget.”

During one of the worst winter storms in history to hit Long Island, Walter Gravagna opened the door to the first bay of greenhouses at Van de Wetering’s Jamesport location. He felt the structure start to shake. Then an entire acre of greenhouse crashed down inches in front of him. If Walter would have taken five more steps, he said he would have found himself under the rubble. The Verbakel greenhouse built by Peter Van de Wetering in the late ’80s was now a heap of steel, glass and snow.

Pictured: Joe Geremia (front) and staff from Geremia’s Greenhouses in Wallingford, Connecticut, work to remove the snow off their Quonset houses after the storm.

“If someone gave me a calendar and said, ‘When’s the worst time for something to happen?’ I would have said Weeks 7 through 10,” explained Walter.

And that’s when the storm hit. Beginning on the afternoon of Friday, February 8, 2013, parts of Long Island and Connecticut—which was the center of Winter Storm Nemo’s destructive path—woke up on Saturday to see themselves surrounded by more than 30 in. of heavy, wet snow. The name of Nemo still sends shivers down the spine of many growers.

Their storm stories 
Forget those yarns your grandfather used to tell about walking to school in 3 ft. of snow both ways with no coat and no shoes. This was the real deal.

Across Long Island Sound, about 60 miles north to Connecticut, both Hughie Kurtz and Joe Geremia tried to trudge through the snow by foot to get to their facilities. With the snow chest high and extremely heavy, it was almost impossible to get through. Hughie lives down the street from Kurtz Farms’ Cheshire location and he said he would not have made it if his brother-in-law hadn’t found him with the tractor.

“I had to stop and lean against a tree because it was so hard to push through. I was sweating and starting to get cold and that’s when I thought, ‘This was a bad idea,’” Hughie recalled. “Then I saw the lights from the tractor. And when I got on, I couldn’t feel my legs.”

Joe’s home is literally 80 ft. from the greenhouse at their facility in Wallingford. It took him 30 minutes to walk through the snow to assess the damage.

“I didn’t really grasp how much was really coming. You can’t really describe it,” said Joe, still in disbelief.
In Somers, Ryan Horn, Sam Smith and a few others decided to stay the night at Grower Direct’s facility, just to make sure everything would be okay. Sam and their head maintenance man went through the greenhouses with flashlights, checking trusses and plastic to make sure things were holding up. Sam went into the propagation house, one of the oldest structures on the property, to do a safety check. Everything looked fine—after all, the heat had been turned way up, along with some back-up heat for good measure. Fifteen minutes after Sam shut the door, the house completely caved in, exposing 30,000 sq. ft. of newly stuck propagation trays to the elements. Wind gusts of 70 mph kept piling the snow on top of the house, making any efforts to melt it futile. 

“The only reason we think we lost that house is because of the wind,” said Sam. “It reached an absurd point to where we couldn’t melt the snow at all.”

An ounce versus a pound
Pierre Bennerup, long-time owner of Sunny Border Nurseries in Kensington, put preparing for a major storm this way: “They say, ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’ If you don’t make any mistakes, you won’t have a problem.” But this was no ordinary blizzard.

All nine businesses I spoke with said the same thing—they didn’t really think there would be more than 3 ft. of snow. And this wasn’t fluffy, White Christmas-type snow. This was heavy, back-breaking, heart-attack snow. (One report said that 20 to 30 in. of “normal” snow equals to about 30 to 45 lbs. per sq. ft. Add a few pounds for the thick stuff and imagine all of that on top of your greenhouse.)

“We’ve lost houses before and we know how to deal with it,” Pierre said. “They said we were going to get three feet of snow and people were like, ‘Oh, sure.’ Light snow is one thing—heavy snow is quite another.”

They all also did much of the same things in preparation for it. The first thing: crank the heat to try and melt the snow as it falls on the greenhouse roof. Then, fuel levels were topped off on all vehicles and generators. A couple even went so far as to brace their hoop houses. Mark Sellew and his staff at Pride’s Corner in Lebanon, braced 98 of their 100 hoop houses with 2x4s, securing every third or fourth hoop. Mark said the braces saved his business.
“We would have had a train wreck if we didn’t do what we did,” stated Mark. They ran out of wood, so the other two houses went without wooden braces. Those two ended up being casualties.

Mark credited his head grower Mike Emmons for coming up with the idea to brace the houses because of damage sustained in a storm two years prior. Now there’s a formal protocol Mike has developed that details what to do when there’s a major weather event.

“We’ve come a long way with our new procedures,” said Mark. “Whoever thought we’d be bracing greenhouses? What could be more low tech? But a lot of us have to deal with what we have. Without the bracing, we would have lost a majority of our greenhouses and that’s a strong statement.” 

Assessing the damage
John Casertano’s business in Cheshire was in the middle of the “bull’s eye” of the storm, reporting more than 40 in. of snow accumulations. When John was finally able to make it to the facility, 22 hoop houses—a total of 68,000 sq. ft.—were destroyed. Luckily, most of them held dormant perennials and groundcover, so the plants made it through relatively unscathed.

“Some [houses] had been around for 20-plus years and had seen a lot of snow storms, but I don’t think they saw anything like this,” said John.

Ivy Acres in Calverton, Long Island, lost a quarter-acre of glass greenhouse, along with 2 acres of their storage and packing area because they chose to cut the double poly using knives taped to poles to save the steel frame.

“What you think is strong bends and crashes over,” said Kurt Van de Wetering. “We made the hard decision to cut the plastic. The posts were bending underneath. We had to cut it to save the whole structure.”

The osteos and dianthus that were in the glass house, which was built in 1971, were discovered with piles of snow lying on top of them.

“The money from insurance is minimal to what we lost in the greenhouse,” explained Kurt. “We had the potential to lose four turns.”

Summer Hill Nursery in Madison, Connecticut, lost their propagation house the night of the storm, but it wasn’t until two days later when the rain started that most of the damage happened. Holly Johnson said that they couldn’t dig down to their hoop houses in enough time, so 3,500 linear ft. of growing space went down. They were also blessed to have most of the plants make it out okay.

“The losses were amazingly small,” Holly said. “Some things with long branches snapped and some plants in the aisle didn’t make it because the house caved in. But it’s amazing how durable plants are.”

Geremia Greenhouses lost two Quonsets and one side of their lean-to greenhouse, which snapped a heat pipe, taking out the heat in most of the houses. Kurtz Farms had the same problem when their propagation house collapsed. When the water pipe broke in that house, it took out the heat in all 10 acres. Sunny Border Nurseries lost seven houses—all of which had no heat on during the storm—but fortunately, the plants inside were what Pierre calls “Alpine plants” that are used to winter weather.  

Rebuilding, recovering, re-energized
On Saturday morning, February 9, the sun came out to shine on all of the broken glass, caved-in cold frames and 12-ft. snowdrifts leaning on the side of the greenhouses. And because most of the staff were snowed in at their own homes, many owners and managers had to deal with the beginning parts of the clean up on their own. Once the plows could make it through the towns, employees showed up for work Monday morning facing a grim reality. But after the losses were tallied and it sunk in, everyone rolled up their sleeves and got to work clearing out the snow and rebuilding.

Several members of the Van Wingerden family came out to move 12,000 sq. ft. worth of propagation trays from the wreckage at Grower Direct to a different greenhouse. Sam said they were able to re-order the product that was lost and re-stick everything, only losing one week of production time. They’re in the process of putting up 158,000 sq. ft. of new greenhouses that will be ready for mum season and are looking at using the space where the greenhouse collapsed for storage. “We would never have been able to justify [replacing the greenhouse] under different circumstances, but when Mother Nature decided to destroy the house, we decided to capitalize on it,” said Sam. 

Within four days, six out of Casertano’s 22 hoop houses were rebuilt. And before the spring, four more were replaced, while the other 12 were bent back into place to get the product in. John said his team was physically and mentally exhausted from the rebuilding, but they were able to have a decent spring.

The staff at Sunny Border Nurseries tore down the hoops from the damaged houses and sold them for scrap. Two of the larger houses were rebuilt and the others will be replaced and covered over the summer.

Hughie said Kurtz Farms didn’t wait—they ordered new polycarbonate and hoop houses the very next day after the storm. And because they were able to rebuild everything themselves and so early in the season, it barely affected their spring.

Pride’s Corner replaced their potting shed since they needed it immediately for transplanting. Although their plant losses were almost nil—a few Japanese maples and rhododendrons—Mark estimates the damage at between $30,000 and $40,000.

Which is significantly less than some of the other growers. According to Pierre, the storm cost Sunny Border about $100,000 to get back into shape, plus all of the extra time his staff had to put in for repairs instead of working on the production

Pictured: The staff at Pride’s Corner in Lebanon, Connecticut, wasted no time in bracing their hoop houses when the storm was coming. All but two houses were saved.

And that’s what most of the growers said they lost the most—labor and production time. Joe said it put Geremia Greenhouses back one to two weeks later than usual, causing them to cut a few things out of their lineup.

It was a similar story with Ivy Acres. “It put us behind in transplanting and we needed 10 guys to re-cut and put the new poly back on,” said Kurt. “Everything got in the way and the problem was exacerbated by using more labor and maintenance than normal. We’re not behind any more. We surpassed last year, but not where we planned, though.”

Plus, the dismal spring in April didn’t help. “It certainly felt like a one-two punch when the weather didn’t cooperate in April,” said John. “We had a short period of low morale, but when the weather broke in May, there was a great sense of accomplishment.”

Then spring was underway and it was business as usual. Well, this year’s “usual” for Van de Wetering was having to move 40 million plugs to other suppliers. So, they didn’t lose any growing space; it was just in a different location. “For the most part, it was the same challenges as every year,” Walter said matter-of-factly. “It was just frustrating that you can’t do what you want to do. But we finished with a good spring.”

Walter and his team will have 4 acres of new greenhouses ready by October 1, which is breathing new excitement into the business after a trying few months. 

Now that it’s summer and everyone has dealt with the challenges of rebuilding after one of the severest snow storms many of them have seen, there’s some time to reflect on lessons learned and what they could have done differently.

Kurt is hoping this will convince his dad Jack to look at a southern location for Ivy Acres, smiling as he said it, knowing it’s easier said than done. But then he turned serious: “Another southern location may not be the solution, but we have to look at it. We also should look at reinforcing the current structures, which we’ll eventually replace.”

Some said next time they would take their local weatherperson a little more seriously.

“I realized how vulnerable we are. With the heat and valves not shutting off … it makes you think about the whole place,” said Joe. “If they ever predict more than 18 in., we might have more people here.”

John’s preparing himself for more storms like this in the future. 

“Unfortunately, I think climate change is going to bring more storms and we’re very aware of that,” explained John. “We would probably do the same things we did before, but we might turn up the intensity—brace the cold frames more, turn up the heat earlier so the poly is warmer.”

The real thing to take away from the entire experience is to count your blessings. Many said it could have been a lot worse.

“Looking back at it now, it seems like a distant memory,” Holly said. “I look at everything now and it’s like it never happened. Then I see what happened [with the tornadoes] in Oklahoma and I think we’re not so bad off.”

And when Van de Wetering was faced with 4 acres of destroyed greenhouse, forcing them to move their entire propagation line to the shipping area, Walter was touched by how his staff, his customers and even some competitors reacted. Walter’s inspirational, can-do attitude helped, too—he strived to remain optimistic in front of his team even when he didn’t feel it on the inside.

“Every day was something else, a new challenge. The hardest part was staying positive,” Walter recalled. “I told everyone we’d be fully operational within a week and people thought I was crazy. But by the following Saturday, we were sowing again. You really see everyone’s intestinal fortitude when something like this happens. You just come in and go to work. Everything changed and was upside down for a while and we worked through it.

“Right away, I thought of our customers. I knew we’d be fine.” GT

Nemo Stats
When: Friday, February 8, 2013

Areas it affected:
With small accumulations in Delaware and Maryland (about 4 in.), all the way up
through Eastern and Central Canada, and even over the Atlantic Ocean affecting Iceland, Ireland and the United Kingdom. The “bull’s eye” of the storm covered northern Long Island (25 to 30+ in.) and into Connecticut, with some towns reporting more than 40 in. of snow.

Power Outages:
Utility companies reported about 700,000 customers were without power across nine states, some not getting power back until February 14.

More than 6,300 flights were cancelled and 26 miles of the Long Island Expressway was closed. Local events were cancelled and the United States Postal Service suspended mail delivery for days after the storm.

A State of Emergency was declared by President Obama on February 10.

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