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Disaster Master 


Published March 29, 2006 at 5:00 p.m.

Even the most avid spring cleaners have nothing on Hinesburg's Darrel Depot. He and his crew of five employees -- on call 24/7, 365 -- clean up the messes wrought by fire, water and other elements. Equipped with four vans, one truck, $3000 Shop-Vacs and special soot sponges, Purofirst gets down with dirt.

It's a fairly new endeavor for Depot, 37. The Vermont native spent a decade and a half traveling around the country, consulting with paper and steel mills, before he founded Purofirst in June 2005. "I wind up on my knees, ripping out wet carpet, cleaning sewage, sometimes just doing nasty stuff," he observes.

On a recent spring morning, Seven Days asked Depot to come clean.

SD: What attracted you to disaster response?

DD: You're catching people, unfortunately, at their worst, when the ceilings are falling down and the roof is caving in or someone's had a fire and they don't know what to do. The ability to make a bad situation a little bit better was really appealing to me.

SD: What is a typical day like?

DD: There's no predictability. We may get four or five calls a day. Someone will say, "I've got 4 inches of water in my basement," or "My washing machine has leaked on the second floor," and then we dispatch a crew immediately to assess what's going on, stop any further damage, and then begin to remove debris and dry the structure. We really do some hand holding, too.

SD: Do you feel like a psychologist sometimes, then?

DD: We just had a woman who was really crying her eyes out. She hadn't filled the oil tank on her new home in Stowe, and all the pipes froze. She showed up from New Jersey with the moving company and didn't have the oil tank refilled, so all the pipes froze and the home was ruined. Probably looking at $80,000 to $100,000 in repairs, and she wasn't insured. That'll make anybody cry.

SD: What is some the worst damage you've seen?

DD: We just had one where we were called by the Essex Police Department; there were ice pillars coming out of a home and the people had gone away to Florida . . .

SD: Wait, coming out of a home?

DD: Yeah, coming out of the eaves; they had water flowing out of the house and freezing into a little ice wall outside. The heating oil company hadn't come on its scheduled delivery.

SD: So it was like an ice castle?

DD: More like an ice catastrophe. We've also gone into basements where washers and dryers were floating, all their possessions in 4 feet of water -- power tools and furniture, just floating along. You've got to pump out all the water, save what you can, throw out the rest, and then dry out the structure. Standing water is what we call dumb water: You can see it, but people don't know that water can go up sheetrock, and go underneath carpet, and get behind walls, and go under hardwood floors, which can mold. In some cases that's a bigger problem than the water itself. So we bring in testing equipment, like this probe, to take psychrometric readings.

SD: Is that like in Ghostbusters?

DD: Uh, no. We take humidity readings, temperature readings. We'll take the size of a room, the class and category of water damage. That determines how much dehumidification is needed, the number of fans needed in a room and how we dry the structure. That's psychrometry.

SD: Do you have to be good at chemistry for this job?

DD: No, but you have to be a detective for this job. It's like the CSI of . . . Waterworld.

SD: What sort of mindless things have you seen cause disasters?

DD: A guy bought a brand-new condo and he went upstairs to check out the new hot tub. He wanted to fill it, and then he left to go have lunch with his buddies. When he came back, there was probably a good $30,000 to $40,000 worth of damage to his new condo.

SD: What about fire?

DD: Cigarette fires, kids playing with matches. We went to a house twice last summer where a kid set fire to his room.

SD: On purpose?

DD: Uh, yeah. He had a little bit of a problem, I think, mentally. We had another one where someone left a candle burning. It acted as a chimney and just kept pouring smoke into the home -- two floors, soot everywhere.

SD: I'm always freaked about leaving the coffee pot or the stove on. Have you had fires from those?

DD: Coffee pots, no. Stoves yes -- people who have left bacon on. We get so many crazy different things. Frying chicken and they burn it. Damn chickens, they're getting their revenge.

SD: What other disasters do you handle besides fire and water?

DD: Sewage. Skunks. Rodents. Dead-animal calls. It's a dirty job. The sewage ones are not fun.

SD: Did you feel any impact from Katrina?

DD: A lot of the feeling was helplessness; we have the tools to help, but were advised not to go. The devastation was to a point that we would only get in peoples' way. They're in a very different area down there, a floodplain. But if a lesson can be learned, it's to be aware of your surroundings and to keep an inventory of what's on your insurance policy.

SD: Do you do any crime-scene clean-ups?

DD: We have, but my philosophy is, if I wouldn't do it, I wouldn't want my guys doing it, and emotionally it really takes a toll on somebody.

SD: Do you have any helpful hints for cleaning?

DD: There's no magic to what we do, it's a lot of elbow grease. It's cleaning to the nth degree. There's a difference between bringing in a maid service and bringing in a company that can professionally clean a house from, say, soot. We've had people wake up from a puffback, which is when a furnace will spew soot into the home. They've been covered in soot, they look in the mirror and they go, 'Baaah!' That's pretty funny.

SD: What is the hardest thing to clean?

DD: A heavy soot or a grease fire, it's hard to get off the walls; it makes life difficult for everybody.

SD: What do you do for mold?

DD: We cut it out, sand things down and use appropriate air filtration. But mold's everywhere, mold's in your shoe right now, mold's on us. Mold is a fact of life. If Daddy doesn't get all macho and think he can do everything with his little Shop-Vac, give us a call, we'll dry out the structure, and mold won't be an issue.

SD: I guess people don't want to be repeat customers?

DD: Yeah, people say, "You guys are great, but don't ever come back!"

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About The Author

Sarah Tuff Dunn

Sarah Tuff Dunn

Sarah Tuff Dunn was a frequent contributor to Seven Days and its monthly parenting publication, Kids VT. She is the co-author of 101 Best Outdoor Towns.


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