Many small business owners whose companies were hit by Hurricane Florence are embarking on an uncertain path to recovery.
While these owners are still trying to assess the damage to their companies, and what they'll get from their insurers, they also need to reach out to customers, vendors and employees to maintain those relationships. They need to see whether they're capable of getting the business running again, even on a limited basis. If they need loans, the sooner they apply, the better.
Here are five things owners need to know about recovering from a disaster:
THERE MAY BE NO FAST OR EASY ANSWERS
Small business owners may find themselves waiting and wondering how bad the damage is. Storms like Florence and last year's Hurricane Harvey can linger for days and cause severe flooding, making a quick assessment very difficult.
But even when owners are in limbo, they can take steps to help the business survive. Many owners with insurance make their first calls to their agents or carriers. Equally important is to let customers and vendors know that the plan is to reopen. If possible, a sign on a store saying, "We'll be back" can help. Employees should be reassured that the boss intends to get them back to work — but an owner also needs to be honest if a recovery will be prolonged or uncertain.
Owners also should think about how their business may change in response to the disaster. While Matt Stephens, who evacuated to Atlanta before the storm began Thursday, waited to hear how his Wilmington, North Carolina, financial planning business fared, he prepared himself and colleagues at The Wealth Plan Co. for clients' post-storm needs. Instead of investments, he expected them to be asking about recovery help.
"I'm doing some research now about (Federal Emergency Management Agency) grants, disaster loans, and claiming flood insurance so I'll be prepared to advise clients in the aftermath," he said. His company was able to keep operating because its evacuated staffers have laptops in hand and all their data stored online.
THE COMPANY MAY BE READY TO WORK, BUT CUSTOMERS AREN'T
Toby Cahoon's pest control company in Holly Ridge, North Carolina, was ready to return to work despite some damage to its building, but flooding and downed trees and power lines prevented staffers from getting to many customers. And B&T Pest Control's services were in demand because rain and flood waters bring out bugs and pests.
Cahoon contacted customers — those who had working phones or email — and assured them they'd get service as soon as streets were safe. In the meantime, he said, "we will start servicing some customers in the areas we can get to and increase that service area as we are able."
Getting back to work as soon as possible, even in limited circumstances, can save a company following a disaster. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many companies in parts of New Orleans that were spared from flooding discovered their customers weren't so lucky and had fled. Some companies were able to recover; like Cahoon they did what work they could.
COMPANIES MAY HAVE TO WAIT IN LINE
Owners that didn't line up contractors and building supplies retailers before Florence struck could be scrambling for help to rebuild. They may be tempted to sign up the first contractor they can reach.
Don't do that, suggests Jack Plaxe, owner of Security Consulting Alliance, a company that advises business on disaster preparation and recovery.
"Talk to them, vet them," he says. "The last thing you want to do is hire a contractor who can't do the job."
Recovery can be more complicated than owners expect, Plaxe says. For example, getting a generator can be more complex than simply driving up to a hardware store. Some companies first need an electrician to come in and assess what their needs are, Plaxe says.
Ultimately, those who plan ahead make out better in a disaster. Even after an unexpected disaster like a tornado, companies that have forged relationships with people who can help will be in the best position to rebuild, Plaxe says.
APPLYING FOR A DISASTER LOAN
Owners who believe they'll need a disaster loan from the Small Business Administration should begin the application process as soon as possible. Companies will need to supply financial and other records; if they've been destroyed, it will take time to replace them.
The SBA sets up web pages for specific disasters; for Florence, the link is www.sba.gov/disaster-assistance/hurricane-florence . It's possible to apply for disaster loans online, and the SBA may also have a disaster recovery center business owners and homeowners can visit. One has been set up in Greenville, North Carolina. The address is SBTDC Regional Service Center at East Carolina University, 300 East First Street, Willis Building.
WHERE TO GET INFORMATION
Before or after a disaster, business owners can get information about how to recover (and if it's beforehand, how to mitigate their physical and economic damage). Federal government resources include:
—The Federal Emergency Management Agency, www.fema.gov .
—The government's disaster aid website, www.disasterassistance.gov .
—Small Business Administration general website, www.sba.gov .
—SCORE, the organization that provides free advice to small businesses, www.score.org .
—United States Chamber of Commerce, https://bit.ly/2xtAc63 .
State and local governments and chambers of commerce may also have information and resources to help businesses recover.