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Hurricane Sandy Heroes: N.J. store owner's endless work, and faith, unite community
He has done business in town since 1977, when it was mostly farmland, and Bill MacDonald can point out when and where each development sprang up on the green hills and Watchung ridges that look down on his hardware store at the epicenter of Warren Township.
But of course he could, you figure: He personally nurtured it. Bill was the go-to guy for all those contractors who passed through here during the building boom — in the ’80s, and then again in the 2000s — and nowadays much of his business caters to the folks in the million-dollar McMansions on those hills who need interior design advice or a new generator.
"Honestly, you feel blessed to be a part of a place like this," MacDonald says. "It’s such a vibrant and close-knit community, where everyone knows everyone else’s first name, and everyone tries to help each other."
Maybe that sounds like the kind of platitude you dig out to drum up business, but this is not necessary for the 62-year-old owner of Warrenville Paint and Hardware and his 22 employees. When Hurricane Sandy snapped the lights out in Warren at 8 p.m. Oct. 29 (roughly half the town was still powerless as of Wednesday afternoon), it roiled a corner of Bill MacDonald’s heart and triggered a series of bold business maneuvers they don’t teach you at Wharton.
Think about it: How many "Cash Only" signs did you see posted in your blacked-out town over the first week of the crisis? That didn’t happen at Warrenville, but by Days 2 and 3, it mattered less. The store, which opened without power, had little in the way of inventory to fit the circumstance (gas cans, batteries, generators, oil, etc.), and nobody had cash because the ATMs weren’t working in northern Somerset County.
MacDonald’s home in Bridgewater was powered by a generator, so he was up all night Tuesday and Wednesday after the storm trying to replenish his inventory online, where he could reserve equipment from the True Value warehouse in Allentown, Pa.
"For two nights, Bill did this around the clock," says his store manager, Karla Krukowski. "On the night before the storm, he had sent trucks to Allentown, and they both came back empty. So by Wednesday, people here were getting very desperate."
By Thursday, Warren was turning into a dystopian nightmare, and MacDonald had enough: "I saw online that the warehouse in Manchester (New Hampshire) had things we needed," he says. "So I thought we could get someone on a flight to Boston, rent a 16-foot box truck, fill it with everything we can get our hands on, and get back down here. I mean, if we could get back down here, given road conditions."
For this job, MacDonald chose Richard Seale, an East Hanover resident who had some experience driving a truck, and as Bill sees it, "the kind of guy you send on a mission like this."
So on the Friday after the storm, a few minutes before 11 a.m., Seale boarded United 1163 from Newark to Logan, took a cab to Medford, picked up an 880-cubic-foot Penske truck, drove north to New Hampshire, and filled the truck with a few thousand items MacDonald had enumerated on 10 pages — 200 gas cans, innumerable battery packs, 100 cube taps, hundreds of cans of oil, "and anything that would fit in the truck," Bill says.
Once packed, Seale topped off the gas tank, grabbed a coffee and a few cans of Mountain Dew, and hit the road for the 7½-hour journey back to Warren.
"That was an adventure," Seale recalls. "There were trees down and road closures everywhere you turned, and I ended up on a two-lane road in Connecticut (the Merritt Parkway) that doesn’t even allow commercial traffic. This truck had a clearance of 10-6, but the overpasses on this road were as low as 9-2. I was lucky they didn’t pave recently, or I would have scraped the roof off."
How many laws did Seale break exactly?
"Probably in the 15 to 20 range," he deadpans. "One cop read me the riot act, but no ticket."
"Those are things I don’t need to know," MacDonald says.
Seale pulled in at 1 a.m. Saturday. About 20 employees — most of them without power themselves — showed up at 8 to restock the shelves with "an amazing amount of stuff," Krukowski says. By 10:30, Warrenville Paint and Hardware was open again for business.
Only two problems: People still didn’t have cash, and there was still no power, so the credit cards couldn’t be validated.
So MacDonald took a leap of faith that would make George Bailey blanch: The 1,000 customers who passed through the doors Saturday all jotted down their credit card numbers, took their items and went home to restore some order to their chaotic lives.
"We just decided to treat everyone honestly," MacDonald says. "And then when the power goes back on, we’d just turn it into sales. Basically, we did about a hundred-thousand (dollars) or so on faith."
"I was not very confident this was a good idea," Krukowski admits. "But what can I say? Bill is remarkable. And he is a leader. When things get crazy, he kicks into high gear. And this week, he was a man on a mission."
The reaction from Mark Krane, the township administrator since 1986, was typical: "It was extraordinary what he did," Krane says. "And I’m not surprised, because Mr. MacDonald has had a presence in this township for many years, and he is known for his very strong sense of community."
Indeed, this profile was not contrived for the present circumstances. Bill has always been this way. When the vocational school nearby needed a mini-store to show autistic kids how retail works, he built it. When the volunteer firehouse had a fire, Bill donated the supplies and tools needed for the cleanup and restoration.
This is a fellow who you can count on during a crisis. It’s in the genes, perhaps: His dad, the venerable Lt. Col. Nelson MacDonald, flew Air Force jets for 30 years. Bill aspired to do the same, but his eyesight wasn’t good enough. The youngest of his three kids graduated from the Air Force Academy in May, and Bill has a photo of Kyle receiving his diploma from President Obama in the middle of his desk.
"So I went to the Citadel instead," Bill says, adding with some regret, "and the pilot training had to skip a generation."
For now, he helps his town heal. As of Wednesday, there were 2,700 Warren residences without power, though Krane believed it was as high as 3,300 in a town of 15,000 people. The streets were mostly passable, but business was hardly normal, and three of the township’s five schools were still closed.
Business at the store, where power returned Tuesday, was brisk. It’s lunchtime when Bill’s wife, Michele, presents a plastic tray of those hand-written invoices they had collected over six powerless days. There are about 1,000 of them.
That means Karla and Michele must input every number into the credit card machine to charge the earlier customers — yes, four days after handing over the merchandise — and keep their fingers crossed that each number is valid.
How many miscreants are in this first batch?
"One," Michele reports.
Did he or she make off with an $899 generator?
With a giggle: "It was for a $2.99 plug extension," Michele says. "But this is only two days — about $60,000 worth — so we have two more days to do."
Without turning her head, Michele adds, "That’s a few more sleepless nights there, Bill."
Her husband shrugs. It’s exactly how you expect Bill MacDonald to react.
"Yeah, we knew it would come down to about six digits on faith," he says. "And on doing the right thing."