Learning curve: Hard lessons for businesses in hurricanes

By Joyce M. Rosenberg
AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP) - Harvey, Irma and Maria have taught small business owners that disaster planning is more than just evacuating and trying to mitigate physical damage - it's also about the "what ifs."

Many realized they hadn't done the right kind of preparation, including buying flood insurance. Some say they want to have their own generators. But even those with carefully made plans ran into situations their plans didn't account for.

Michael Mohl, owner of a Senior Helpers home care business in Palm Beach, Florida, thought he had a thorough strategy in place before Hurricane Irma hit. It included plans to meet the specific care needs of each client, a list of hurricane shelters and alternate routes for staffers, reminders to fill their gas tanks, and Mohl having supplies and extra cash on hand.

"But we didn't plan on cellphone towers going down," Mohl says. Without them, he couldn't communicate with employees. He now plans to buy two-way radios like the ones emergency responders use.

Here's what some other owners learned:

Owner: Lexi Montgomery, Darling Web Design, Miami Beach, Florida

Her story: Irma was the first hurricane that Montgomery, who is originally from Missouri, experienced. She and her husband drove out of Miami Beach with their two dogs as the storm approached Florida and headed to Tampa, where she expected to run her business from a hotel. Several staffers were staying in Tampa as well. When the storm changed course and it appeared Tampa would take a direct hit, Montgomery and her husband fled to Atlanta, a drive that took 14 hours instead of the normal six to seven because the roads were packed.

Atlanta isn't usually a hurricane target but turned out to be in Irma's path. Montgomery's hotel was left without power and Wi-Fi. She struggled to stay in touch with U.S. and overseas clients using the internet at cafes, and wasn't able to return home for 11 days. When she did, there was no power or air conditioning and her office had developed mold from the humidity.

What she learned: Montgomery, who lost revenue because her company fell behind, realized she needs a portable generator to be sure she can keep working. And she's going to stock up on supplies like heavy-duty flashlights, canned food, extra dog medication and heavy boots. She also believes she left Miami Beach too late, and didn't seek safety far enough away.

"As soon as I hear there's a storm, I'm leaving. And if it's a sudden thing and I can't leave, I would have a portable generator," she says. She's even considering renting an apartment on the West Coast for the entire hurricane season next year.

Owner: Rachel Charlupski, The Babysitting Co., based in Miami

Her story: Charlupski's company has branches in several cities, but Florida is a key market with many clients being visitors to the state. She had more than 500 cancellations starting the week before Irma hit, and lost thousands of dollars in revenue since clients weren't charged. Moreover, she has paid the baby sitters who committed to appointments that were canceled.

What she learned: Charlupski had accepted appointments through Thursday, Sept. 7, when the storm wasn't expected to hit until the weekend. "Next time what we would do differently is not take on additional reservations when the weather conditions are bad," Charlupski says.

She's also considering instituting a cancellation policy, explaining to clients that they'll be charged if they cancel after a sitter has been lined up. But safety will be her first consideration.

"We would never penalize reservations when it is not safe for a sitter to work," she says.

Owner: Jonathan Marsh, Home Helpers, in Bradenton, Florida

His story: Marsh had a plan to ensure that the company's elderly and sick clients and its employees would be safe. The office windows were boarded up and the electronic and paper business records were secured. Administrative staff members were to meet at the office after the storm to arrange for caregivers to visit clients who had not evacuated.

But Irma was a larger and more violent storm than any Marsh had been through, and took out the power, internet and cellphone service. That made it impossible to contact caregivers and arrange for all the client visits.

What he learned: Like others, Marsh plans to get a backup generator - "That is my biggest concern," he says. But he's also changing post-storm procedures to deal with the possibility that communication will be difficult or impossible. After the next big storm, all staffers including caregivers are to meet at the office to arrange for client care.

Marsh is also thinking about the possibility that caregivers won't be able to travel to the office, or a backup location like his home, in addition to being out of touch. In that case, they'll "be empowered to assist clients in their area after the storm, regardless of any communication problems with the office," he says.

Owner: Michael Motylinski, wedding planner and officiant, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

His story: Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused extensive damage to the Virgin Islands. Dozens of couples, worried that their dream Caribbean beach weddings wouldn't happen, tried to get in touch with Motylinski and his partner, but phone and internet service was down. About 40 couples canceled, including some whose weddings weren't scheduled until next summer. "By all appearances we'll be back on track by then," Motylinski says.

What he learned: Before the next storm, Motylinski and his partner will be in touch with clients to try to quell their anxiety. Then either Motylinski or his partner will leave St. Thomas and go to a location where clients can reach them. He's also planning to include in future contracts a provision that he can move the weddings if necessary to a resort on St. Croix, 40 miles away, as long as St. Croix hasn't been hard hit.

"If an event were to occur in St. Thomas again, we would be set up and ready for business within two to three days at our new location," Motylinski says.

Published: Tue, Oct 10, 2017