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Past disasters hold lessons for Katrina victims

Small businesses can recover from major disasters like Hurricane Katrina, but it helps to have friends, good planning and a lot of patience.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The video and photos of inundated businesses in New Orleans look painfully familiar to Thom Sehnert.

Twelve years ago, his St. Louis-area restaurant and specialty food store were flooded by 13 feet of water that had breached a nearby levee following massive spring rains.

“We were totally out of business,” Sehnert recalled. “There was nothing left except the four brick walls.”

But Sehnert rebuilt Annie Gunn’s Restaurant and The Smokehouse market, proving that a small business wiped out in a disaster can make a comeback. It was an ordeal, but Sehnert found that planning ahead and help from friends and business associates made the process easier.

The flood waters rushed into Sehnert’s business on July 31, 1993, but it was five weeks before he was able to enter the premises and assess the damage. Because he had no access to the business, insurance adjusters didn’t, either, and so his financial future was in limbo.

Family, friends, customers and suppliers came through and helped.

“One of our best customers was a contractor, and with his help we started the drawings for rebuilding,” Sehnert recalled. One of his suppliers, The Hussmann Corp., which makes refrigerator cases, told Sehnert to place orders for new equipment even before he knew how he’d be paying for them.

Sehnert also credits business interruption insurance for helping the company survive. With it, he was able to pay his staff if they didn’t have other interim jobs. Property and casualty insurance helped pay for the losses, but he also needed to take out loans.

The rebuilding started at the end of October, and the business reopened March 1, 1994. Sehnert felt in many ways the business had finally recovered that day, but he is still dealing with lingering aftereffects, including about 17 years of repayments left on his loans.

It isn’t always a natural disaster that wipes out a company.

In 2000 an arson fire swept through the Charlotte, N.C., building that housed Collins, Haynes & Lully Advertising, destroying just about everything. Most of the firm’s computers were melted by the fire, and the premises were completely unusable.

Co-owner Nancy Haynes said the recovery was helped enormously by the fact that she and her partner were in habit of sending their accounting program, complete with all their financial records and client lists, to their home e-mail each night. That bit of planning preserved the crucial information they needed to keep working.

Haynes’ company began operating out of her partner’s dining room; they bought new computers and were working within a week. Haynes said they rented temporary space “from a friend of a friend” and had a new office operating four weeks after the fire.

But the speed with which they were working again disguises the fact that it was a painful, uncertain time. The first people the company had to deal with were police officers; this was, after all, an arson fire, and “they’re going to focus on the owners,” Haynes said.

Once the company was cleared of blame, Haynes said she called the Red Cross, seeking counseling for everyone at the company. Everyone was traumatized and worried about the future. Was the arsonist targeting their company? Would clients stay with them?

Haynes’ advice for other business owners recovering from a catastrophic loss is not to do anything rash; think things through carefully, no matter how anxious you might be to get back to normal. For example, don’t sign a five-year lease on a new office unless you’re sure it’s what you’re going to need long-term.

“Don’t look at any decision you’re making as being permanent. You’ve definitely got to do it one day at a time,” Haynes said.

It took a year before Haynes said the company felt fully recovered — “when we moved into the permanent space and got all of our furniture delivered. ... It was an affirmation that we had made it.”