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Volume 31, Issue 2

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Four hurricanes within six weeks have wreaked havoc on businesses across the state of Florida. From the panhandle to the southern tip, the state has been battered by four violent storms – leaving thousands of businesses damaged and owners scrambling to recover.
Hurricane Charley hit on Aug. 13 on the western coast; Hurricane Frances came ashore on the eastern side Sept. 5; Ivan hit the panhandle on Sept. 16; and Jeanne smashed the already battered eastern coast on Sept. 26.

Insurance experts are predicting more than $20 billion in losses from the four hurricanes, making this storm season one of the most costly ever. The Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) is expected to distribute more than $8 billion in federal assistance, the largest the organization has ever spent for a natural disaster.

Across the state, the rebuilding process is underway as numerous businesses recover from high winds, flooding, tornadoes and torrential rainfall.

While damage assessments from Ivan and Jeanne are still being tallied, those businesses that were hit by Charley and Frances have had a few weeks to begin the recovery process. Their progress has been slow, but the lessons learned can provide an insight into the ordeal many Florida business owners are experiencing during this record-breaking hurricane season.

 

Hurricane Charley’s Wrath Causes Heavy Damage

When Charley made an unexpected turn from its predicted path, Charlotte County had only a few hours notice that the eye of the hurricane would pass over the thriving area. Retailers in the town of Punta Gorda had already made the basic hurricane preparations, but few thought the storm would unleash its full fury on this growing town of 14,000.

As the storm rolled through, roofs were blown off, windows shattered and power lines snapped. Debris flew through the air like missiles, damaging anything in its path.

“It was very scary,” said Mark Weiser, a business owner based in Punta Gorda. “We made the normal hurricane preparations – taping windows, securing mobile objects, but I must admit that we didn’t have any other plans in place.”
Weiser is owner of Artistic Gourmet, a downtown art gallery and gourmet shop, and Artistic Gourmet Entertaining, a retail shop featuring table linens, exotic lamps and other decorative items.

Both of his businesses suffered damage to either their contents or their structure. Numerous other businesses in the Punta Gorda and Charlotte County area suffered similar fates.

“Businesses were dramatically affected,” said Donna Heidenreich, executive director of the Punta Gorda Business and Community Alliance.

“The downtown was virtually destroyed. It looked like a war zone. It was very, very sad.”

Punta Gorda features a retail area that had been growing at a fast pace for the past few years.

“This area was really revitalized,” said Weiser. “In the past couple of years, there have been about 25 businesses open in the downtown. Of those, 15 or so are in question now as to whether they’ll reopen.”

Assistance Offered To Damaged Businesses

Federal and state assistance programs rushed to help businesses rebuild and re-open. By Sept. 1, the U.S. Small Business Administration had approved more than $6.4 million in low-interest disaster loans to businesses and homeowners damaged by Hurricane Charley.
In addition, state programs such as the Emergency Bridge Loan Program, distributed through the Business

Assistance Center in Charlotte County, provided aid.
Betty Williams, Charlotte County economic development manager for the Business Assistance Center, said thousands of businesses have been damaged and most will need some type of assistance to return to normalcy.
The Emergency Bridge Loan Program provides up to $25,000 in no-interest loans for 90 to 180 days, said Williams. Charlotte County has been allotted $4 million in funds, with some $3.1 million distributed by early September.

 

“It’s a loan to get them on their feet until an insurance check or an SBA loan arrives,” said Williams. Usually applicants are approved within one week.

In addition to distributing the loans, the center houses representatives from several assistance programs, including the SBA. Workers at the center’s community development department compiled statistics regarding county businesses.

As of Sept. 1, some 558 businesses had been contacted. Of those, 64 (11 percent) had no damage; 247 (48 percent) had minor damage; 193 (35 percent) had major damage; and 54 (10 percent) were destroyed.
More assistance has been provided to local businesses through the Punta Gorda Business and Community Alliance. This alliance has some 400 members from in and around Punta Gorda.

The center, under the direction of Heidenreich, acted as a communication point for local business owners.

“If someone had services to offer, such as roofing or pool cleaning, or someone needed supplies, we could get the word out,” said

Heidenreich. “Hopefully we can meet the needs of the businesses.”

Owners Struggle To Overcome Obstacles

Major obstacles facing business owners during the rebuilding process have been lack of power, communication issues, finding available space and securing reliable workers to help with the rebuilding process.

At the height of Hurricane Charley, 874,000 customers were without power, reported the Florida Power and Light Company. Most had power restored within 10 to 14 days.

“We had 10,000 line crews, tree trimmers and support personnel working,” said a FPL representative in a news briefing. Strong pre-storm planning and a yearly drill of a mock storm were credited with helping in the quick rebuilding of the electrical infrastructure.
With Hurricane Frances, more than half of FPL’s 4.2 million customers lost power at some point, said spokesman Tom Veenstra. Within one day, nearly 100,000 had power restored.

Many forms of communication were also unavailable during both hurricanes, including Internet and email capabilities. Cell phone signals were often overloaded, causing downtime

“There is such a sense of isolation when a disaster strikes,” said Heidenreich. “Communication is vital during a recovery effort.”
For many, it was two weeks or more following Charley’s strike before Internet service became available. As of early September, cable service in the hardest hit areas near Punta Gorda had not been restored.

As business owners waited for power and communication services to return, they also struggled with finding reputable contractors and inspectors.

“As with any disaster, the people who do the rebuilding are on overload. It’s very difficult to find roofers, contractors and the like and have them available,” said Heidenreich.

Weiser said several downtown merchants in Punta Gorda would have liked to reopen in September, but are waiting on contractors and engineers to check the structural integrity of the buildings before they can move forward.

“It’s hard to get immediate help. The reputable companies have long lists,” said Weiser.

With the impact of a second hurricane in the state, finding reliable workers for repairs will continue to be difficult.

Because many buildings are in a “holding pattern” while they wait to be inspected, business owners are struggling to find alternate sites or storage space for contents. Many never considered the need to secure sites ahead of time, and others, like Weiser, had done some pre-planning, but the hurricane also destroyed the alternate site.

He explained that a second business he owns needed to have the contents removed because of damage to the building. The original storage building he had secured was damaged by the storm too, so a search ensued for an alternate space.

“It was very hard to find,” he said.

Those searching for alternate retail space are finding the task just as arduous.

“There is an extreme shortage of usable retail space,” said Weiser.

Charley and Frances Impact the Economy

While the total economic impact from the four hurricanes, including Charley and Frances, has not been totaled, many business owners are struggling to reduce losses.

“There is a desire to get back to business as usual,” said Heidenreich. “It has been very challenging.”
Weiser said he opened his business within one week of Hurricane Charley. Even without power, he wanted to show his customers that he was “knocked down, but not out”.

Many retailers, like Weiser, offered merchandise at big discounts to lure customers in to the shops.

“The way I look at it, any sale is better than no sale,” said Weiser. He added that he also marked prices lower in order to help hurricane victims restock items they may have lost.

The summer months are typically “off-season” for merchants in Florida – which may reduce losses for many business owners. A quick return of tourists throughout the winter months will help to offset the losses from Charley, said Weiser.

“We are a seasonal business and this is our slow time of the year, so it is hard to judge the economic impact. We will have to see how many tourists return this year. I’m hoping they will come back,” he said. “But, Charley will definitely have an impact – I’m just waiting to see how much.”

When Charley’s losses are combined with those from Frances, the economic impact becomes staggering for the state of Florida.

“It’s a one-two punch,” said J. Antonio Villamil, the chairman of Gov. Jeb Bush’s economic council in a published report. “There is no question, this will have a significant impact on the state.”

Florida’s $9.1 billion citrus industry suffered major losses after Hurricane Charley left Charlotte County and moved through three of the state’s largest citrus-producing areas. Groves, barns and equipment were destroyed by the storm. The Department of Agriculture estimated losses of about $2 billion for Florida’s citrus crop after the first two hurricanes. Damage from the more recent storms is still being tallied. The federal government has announced it will provide $500 million in agricultural relief aid.

The $50 billion a year tourism industry also suffered economic losses. The impact from Charley and Frances is still being assessed, but officials say Frances’ strike on Labor Day Weekend caused substantial losses for restaurants and hotels, which normally see a rise in business during the holiday weekend. Officials are also wondering how to persuade groups to continue to book conventions and business meetings during the six-month long hurricane season.

Lessons Learned

Business owners in the paths of Charley and Frances have learned a few lessons of preparedness and recovery and hope that their situations will serve as a lesson for others in similar situations.

“A lot of businesses seemed to be pretty prepared,” said Williams about those who came through the Business Assistance Center, “but there were some that saved nothing.”

Business recovery is slow throughout Florida, but progress is being made. In fact, Heidenreich said one of the best phrases she’s hearing lately in Punta Gorda is “We’re so glad to be back in business.”


Janette Ballman has served as an editor with Disaster Recovery journal since 1991. She has reported on numerous disasters and business continuity issues during that time. Ballman received a journalism degree from Mississippi University for Women in 1989.