How to Make a Post-Disaster Business Comeback

When a tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo., in May 2011, Dan Harrison said he felt lucky because his business was still standing. The same, however, couldn’t be said for his customers. found the homes and businesses he relied on for his own income were ravaged.

“The path of the storm took out a huge business and residential area,” said Harrison, the owner of Cartridge World. “Our business was only impacted by the loss of our customers. But I think this terrible disaster created a great opportunity.”

Instead of waiting for the town to come back on its own, Harrison said he got to work. Cartridge World, which opened in 2006 and had seven employees total in its two locations, reached out to its existing customers. He also began discounting his products to draw in clients.

“We sell a very unique product, so we started making contacts with our customers,” he said. “Insurance offices had more claims, restaurants had more business, real estate offices were pumping out more contracts—we ended up on a positive scale post-disaster.”

Businesses can plan and prepare for disasters until they actually occur, but what happens once the shock and devastation is over?

Tom McGuire, executive director of Large Loss and Catastrophe Operations for PuroClean, said businesses are what keep communities going post-disaster. Even if a business is only partially open, the morale boost it provides is key to recovery. Step one in re-building a business after such an event is to get moving, McGuire said.

“Don’t wait too long for the insurance company to get rebuilding,” he said. “Sometimes you have to go through the mitigation process on your own.”

Also, be sure the contractors you hire to help with the clean up are legitimate, and ask for proof. McGuire said scams often run rampant in these environments, when so much is at stake.

“Don’t panic and just hire anyone,” he said. “Be patient, even though it is sometimes difficult.”

He also suggests designating one of your own team members, or yourself, as a team leader who will make decisions for the business. Trying to do so in a committee manner is more complicated, especially when emotions are running high.

Francine Siegel, owner of three Haagen Dazs in New Orleans, lost two of her stores during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. One was destroyed by the storm itself, and another from vandals and looters in the aftermath.

After eight months, Siegel said she knew helping her employees had to be a priority. She and her husband, Jerry, decided to bring all seven of their workers into their one remaining store in Riverwalk. They placed signs in their old stores directing customers to their new location.

Focusing on rebuilding their one store helped, but Siegel said it was a lengthy process, and it took years for business to come back. The couple received $1,500 in total from their insurance company because the damage was man-made and didn’t occur as a direct result of the storm. Haagen Dazs’ CEO, Dawn Uremovich, also waived the franchise fee for the Siegels that year as well, saving them $2,500.

“If you lose several stores, figure out which one would be best to keep for the future,” she said. “We knew it would come back—everyone wanted to come back home, and now business is stronger than ever.”

Siegel also said they made their e-mail list work overtime, contacting customers and offering them deals and incentives to trek to the Riverwalk store. Having this contact list up-to-date was a lifeline for the business.

“It’s important to keep that e-mail base up,” she said. “We had a giveaway to get them there, and a lot of people did come for that.”

Harrison said his biggest lesson was that there’s only so much you can do prior to being hit by a disaster. Insurance and planning can only cover so much, it’s what you do in the days and weeks after an incident that define how you will come out of the situation.

“Two thousand businesses [and homes]—40% of our businesses—were in that corridor. It was a bit of a struggle, but we tried to be ready for when our product was needed,” he said