Several years ago, my wife and I were driving to Washington DC and saw scores of bucket trucks heading south on I-95. A category 4 hurricane was ravaging the Florida coast at that very moment, and thousands of contractors with their drain cleaning tools and machines were heading south towards the affected areas, ready to participate in the clean-up and recovery. Over the past several decades, that same scenario has played out in a similar fashion, more times than we wish to remember, and if the weather channel is correct in its predictions, it will not be slowing down anytime soon.
Disaster cleanup and recovery has become a specialty within the trades. Contractors trained in the use of bucket trucks (often referred to as cherry pickers), chainsaws, backhoes, pressure washers, and drain cleaning machines have begun arriving at disaster sites even before the local population emerges from their shelters. The reason for this, of course, is money. It is not unusual for insurance companies, along with local state and federal governments, to pour billions of dollars into recovery efforts after a disaster. Just this year, there have already been a total of eight weather events in the US that created over a Billion dollars in damage. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the federal government alone spent more than 120 billion in emergency relief. With money like that making its way to the ground, contractors all over the country have taken notice.
Most of the activity around disaster cleanup and recovery is straightforward and predictable. After a hurricane, tornado, or flood, there is major damage to buildings and infrastructure that must first be demolished and then rebuilt. Roofs, utility wires, and poles must be repaired and replaced. Downed trees must be cut up and removed. And perhaps most importantly, potable water service and sewage lines must be brought back into operation.
Restoring normal plumbing after a flood, hurricane, or tornado can be more difficult than expected because of the large amount of mud and debris that finds its way into the sanitary sewer system. We’ve all seen contractors and property owners pressure washing mud and debris off affected areas after a disaster, but we seldom think about where all that muddy water is going. Most of it goes down an existing drain. When sewer and drain systems are built, plumbers make assumptions about the volume of liquid the pipes will be required to transport. The most popular rule of thumb that I’ve heard is that the main drain emptying wastewater from a building should be able to accommodate all the possible water that could exit the building at one time. In other words, if you turned on all the water faucets and flushed all the toilets at once, the main drain should only fill up to two thirds of its diameter. Fortunately, plumbers routinely over engineer sewage systems to avoid wastewater spillage. Since this logic applies to all drains, from the smallest to the largest, there usually isn’t much danger that workers with pressure washers will overwhelm the sewage system capacity to handle liquid. However, flood waters are another story, and it is not uncommon for sewage systems to suffer considerable damage during a natural disaster. This damage can open the door for debris clogs and root incursions that can render the system inoperable.
Another huge problem is the enormous quantity of mud that enters the waste removal system immediately after a flood. Some of the mud enters the system during the flood, and almost as much is washed down the nearest drain by the cleanup crew. If all the soil that is suspended in the mud reached the sewage treatment plant, that would be a problem in itself…but of course, it doesn’t. As the muddy water travels down the drainpipe, the soil slowly falls out of suspension and begins to fill up all the available space. Eventually, it can choke the drain completely so that liquids cannot pass, or at the very least give invading roots all the food and water they need to thrive. In either case, the drainpipe will be out of commission.
At that point, the services of a plumber or professional drain cleaner will be needed. Local drain cleaning activity skyrockets after a natural disaster, as does the need for our drain cleaning machines. Not just snake style machines, but high-pressure water jetters, inspection and location equipment, and flexible shaft devices. All these machines, from brands like General Pipe Cleaners, have slightly different functions and benefits, and all will be crucial tools in the affected area’s recovery. In fact, plumbers would argue that repairing the drain system is the most important piece of the disaster cleanup process.
As our ancestors discovered thousands of years ago, human beings cannot live in close proximity without fresh water and waste disposal. Both are necessary, and to a large extent, a plumber’s most important job is to keep fresh water and waste separated from each other. After a natural disaster, one of FEMAs main concerns is the possibility of cholera, because of the presence of human waste in flood waters and debris. Until the drains are open and functional, people cannot move back into their homes, and the area cannot be considered safe. Life as we know it cannot return to normal without a functional sewage system, and this system is maintained by drain cleaning equipment from reputable manufacturers. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, we notice increased demand for all types of drain cleaning machines. Cable or snake style machines are used to cut through hard blockages like debris, roots, and hardened mud. High-pressure water jetters can initially be used to dissolve and remove mud blockages, and then to clean the inside of the pipes to facilitate inspection by pipe inspection camera systems. These same pipe inspection and location systems can pinpoint damage to the pipes, where they’re crushed or displaced, so that repair work can commence. Flexible shaft machines are a new and versatile addition to the plumber’s toolbox and will likely be very useful in many disaster recovery operations.
Several machines, like those provided by General Pipe Cleaners, can be used in the same drain cleaning job. A cable machine or snake style machine is often employed first to create an initial opening in a drain clog caused by mud or debris. Following this, high-pressure jetters and flexible shaft devices come into play to comprehensively clear the obstruction. Camera systems, another vital drain cleaning tool, are often introduced into the drain line in conjunction with jetters or flexible shaft machines. This allows professionals to perform ‘surgical strikes’ on blockages that lie deep within the pipe. Given the wide variety of damage that can be inflicted upon sanitary sewage systems during a natural disaster, contractors must have every available tool and piece of equipment at their disposal to complete this critical job. The right machine can make all the difference when dealing with tough clogs and obstructions in a drain line.
The best way to prepare for a disaster is to have the right tools on hand before the storm hits. In the aftermath of a disaster, demand will be very high and supply will be limited. As we’ve seen over the past several years, it’s not a question of if there will be another disaster, but when. Given the scope and impact of recent weather events, this latest storm season has contractors, insurance adjusters, and emergency services workers on high alert.
After all, life as we know it cannot return to normal without a functional drain system, and we are proud to know that our equipment is instrumental in performing this ‘most important piece’ of the disaster recovery process.