Editor’s Note: Last year, hurricane Irene caused significant flooding in several states along the East Coast well after it made landfall. Since last week was Small Business Administration week and this week is National Hurricane Preparedness Week, we wanted to share this perspective from a small business owner in Vermont. Mr. Crowl experienced first-hand how natural disasters can impact business owners, and has some lessons to share…
The views expressed by Patrick Crowl do not necessarily represent the official views of the United States, the Department of Homeland Security, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA does not endorse any non-government organizations, entities, or services.
You can plan for a disaster all you want, but when it hits, you have to put your emotions aside and deal with it like you’re an ER doc. Each decision takes on critical importance.
Few of us in the town of Woodstock would have predicted that Hurricane Irene, which came up the East Coast at the end of last August, would have devastated much of Vermont like it did. But my partners and I, at our popular year round fresh market, the Woodstock Farmers Market, did take some precautions when we knew it was heading our way – we had our employees stay late the night before to move food into freezers and we closed the store down the day the storm was expected.
The next day I saw our entire store decimated, covered with mud. I was lucky to have a dedicated staff who did not abandon ship. I had about five staffers who “came to work” and even regular patrons who came by to clean up. People were making lunch, shoveling and mucking. It was surreal and it was very humbling.
Woodstock, Vt., May 23, 2012 -- Damages sustained by Hurricane Irene to Woodstock's Farmers Market.
We were determined to reopen. We had vendors to pay and a mortgage on the property. The market is the main livelihood for most of the store’s employees. We’re a significant part of the community. We needed to rebuild and get ourselves going again.
But how? I was very familiar with the statistic that only 25 percent of small businesses are able to survive after a disaster. But somehow we managed to reopen in time for Thanksgiving. It wasn’t easy. Over the course of the last year, I have thought about how we did it and have broken down the various stages of business recovery.
Woodstock, Vt., May 23, 2012 -- Damages sustained to the Woodstock Farmers Market following Hurricane Irene.
Phase 1 – Days 1 and 2 – Clean-up
Don’t delay what you have to do, take advantage of the momentum of the community right afterwards because things slow down after the adrenaline of the incident wears off, and people have to return to their own lives. If you can, work 12 to 14 hour days. Eight hours won’t cut it. There will be time later to rest. Your reputation is at stake. Your money is at stake.
Set up a command post and gather the right people together. Break down who does what. Don’t be afraid to delegate. Keep lists of who is doing what, and reward community volunteers.
Phase 2 – Days 2 and 3 – Continue the Momentum on the Money Trail
Register with FEMA and the SBA immediately and leave no stone unturned when it comes to other sources of funding. It was a challenge, but I knew I had to stay focused and positive. I would spend full days on the phone navigating the various bureaucracies. We had no manual. We read and reread all the flood insurance literature to make sure we knew the steps to take. We huddled early on with a group of close advisors and came up with a financial game plan.
Phase 3 – Days 3 through 7 – Fine-Tune Your Plan
Take care of your co-workers and staff. Make sure they apply for unemployment and they have access to any needed counseling. Property can be rebuilt, income can be brought back, but foremost make sure people are taken care of. Without them, you won’t be able to come back.
Then do a budget outline of what it will cost to rebuild. Flood expenses can include the cost of the cleanup, construction, new equipment, cost of the insurance adjustor, outstanding payables and any other miscellaneous costs. On the income side, we had to tally our savings, flood insurance proceeds, state economic loan, customer loans and gifts.
My Smartphone was my lifeline. It buzzed and it rang, constantly. Whenever I got an idea, I texted, called or emailed.
We lost all our computer files and many records. Luckily our main computer back up was saved as were many of the computers because before the floodwaters got too high, we carried them to a top floor. But next time, we’re going to make sure we keep a backup data “in the cloud.”
Be prepared to change your game plan. Things are moving a hundred miles an hour and everything changes in a day. We met every day, twice a day for information updates.
We followed the following matrix and updated it every week.
- Physical plant issues: cleanup; equipment tear out; rebuilding.
- Financial issues: insurance, sources of funding
- Human Resources: staff communications; unemployment; grief counseling
- Marketing/PR: getting the word out; website communication; social media
It was from those meetings that we came up with the idea for our Irene Card program, which was essentially a prepaid shopping card. We offered a discount for cards over $1,000. This idea was a great way to generate money up front. We raised over $375,000 in a matter of weeks.
Phase 4 – After first week – Facing Reality
Your business is gone. Staff is gone. As many people return to their normal lives, you are alone. Keep going. Gather people for weekly meetings and check the matrix.
While we are now open, we still have a gap between what it actually cost to get ourselves back to where we were, versus the cost of the disaster. We were indeed underinsured for our contents, but our building flood insurance was a correct amount. I guess while you can’t plan for a flood, you can be better prepared.
Woodstock, Vt., May 24, 2012 -- Woodstock Farmers Market reopening following the temporarily closing due to needed renovations caused by Hurricane Irene.
Knowing what I know now, we have re-examined our flood policy and corrected. A relatively small price to pay for the peace of mind needed when you know Mother Nature could strike at any time.