Disaster Relief: 3 Ways Businesses Help Other Businesses After a Catastrophe

Some businesses never open after a natural disaster. If you want to do your part to help out other businesses who've been affected, these business owners share their experiences and tips.
September 18, 2017

Businesses are hit hard by catastrophic weather events. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), nearly 40 percent of small businesses never reopen following a natural disaster, which can have a costly impact their physical space, employees, customer base and more.

Fortunately, other businesses are often willing to lend a helping hand. Across the country, CEOs and business leaders have reached out to their fellow entrepreneurs in recent years to offer assistance in devising a business strategy, marketing, storage, fundraising and other areas. They share some ways they've helped, and advice on how others can, too.

1. They lend their expertise.

After Hurricane Katrina, Pamela Harper, founding partner and CEO of Business Advancement Inc., a strategic growth firm based in Glen Rock, New Jersey, immediately donated money, but she wanted to do more. So she watched and waited. “I'm terrible with a hammer," she says. “The one thing that I'm very, very good at is helping people with coming back—resilience is something that I've helped a number of people and companies with." About 18 months after the storm, she saw her opportunity. She had a vacation booked in New Orleans, so she contacted the Small Business Development Center Program, which is administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and volunteered for a day as a guest counselor. She shared professional advice with two small businesses that helped them map out next steps at a critical point in their companies' recoveries. Looking back, she says it was incredibly rewarding to work with such resilient business owners. “These were people who were serious, they needed the help, they were dedicated to not just bouncing back, but to bound to a whole new level of innovation and growth," she says.

Following Superstorm Sandy, Patrick MacKrell, president and CEO at New York Business Development Corporation (NYBDC), was able to help businesses obtain what they needed most: cash. Throughout its 62-year history, NYBDC has provided thousands of small businesses, including startups, mature businesses, and minority- and women-owned businesses with access to loans when they do not meet the requirements for traditional financing. Prior to the disaster, the business had identified resource partners, potential funding partners and developed policies and procedures to administer a small business emergency loan program. “As a result, we were able to immediately assist businesses affected by the storm. Less than three weeks after Sandy devastated small business in New York City neighborhoods like Red Hook and Coney Island and in communities all along the Long Island coast, we had disbursed our first loan. Over the course of the next year we lent $18.29 million in disaster recovery loans to almost 800 small businesses through our nonprofit affiliate, which is today called Excelsior Growth Fund," says MacKrell. “Our staff worked around the clock to get these loans done at a time when their own communities were recovering. It was an all-hands-on-deck effort."

Now more than ever, consumers expect and want businesses to play a role in creating better communities, including helping them to recover during times of natural disasters.

—James Citron, CEO, Pledgeling

Harper and MacKrell agree that communication and collaboration are key to helping out other businesses. “Check with the Chamber of Commerce in the affected areas. They have their finger on the pulse of the community," says Harper. "They would know what's going on." Adds MacKrell: “Where to start will depend on the scope of the disaster and the dynamics of the community, so just ask your small business neighbors if they are first safe, and then have what they need in order to start the recovery process."

2. They identify needs and offer resources.

As Hurricane Harvey's floodwaters rose in Texas, Chuck Gordon wanted to do something to help. The CEO and co-founder of SpareFoot.com, a business headquartered in Austin that helps people to identify, compare and rent storage facilities, knew that those impacted by the flooding were looking at a long recovery. And he knew his business could help. “If the physical space where a business is operating is flooded, they need to salvage what they can and put it somewhere safe and dry while they rebuild," he says. “We saw a huge increase in Texas self-storage searches last week in the aftermath of the storm—160 percent higher than usual."

He offered a free month of storage (booked on SpareFoot by September 9) to any business or person who had been impacted by Harvey. “We were glad to be able to offer something that people clearly needed during this difficult time," he says.

Mike Catania knows all too well the impact a hurricane can make on a business. The founder and chief technology officer of PromotionCode.org, a site that saves consumers money through online and print coupons, says the business's Tallahassee, Florida office was “walloped" by Hurricane Hermine in 2016. The office lost power for days and was inaccessible because of fallen trees and downed utility poles. When other business owners heard about it, offers came pouring in for free temporary office space. That generosity fueled a sense of urgency to give back after Hurricane Irma, and PromotionCode.org is offering free local coupon distribution through the end of 2017 to any business in Florida affected by the storm. Catania says that 30,000 to 80,000 people usually see each coupon. “Getting communities back to normal involves the repopulation of local businesses, and that doesn't happen until residents understand that you're open for business again, and residents don't understand that you're open for business again without advertising, which is what we provide," he says.

Having been both the helped and the helper after a storm, Catania shares this advice with other business owners: Be persistent and check in with affected clients, partners and neighbors daily. “Small business owners are notoriously self-reliant and effective problem solvers, so it's easy for us to turn away requests to help several times first," he says. “It can be hard to get over the proud I-can-fix-this-all-myself mentality, but small business owners can relate to other small business owners in a way that others might not, so your communication and assistance is valued, even if it's not immediately articulated to you."

3. They enable other businesses to give back.

After Hurricane Katrina hit, James Citron wanted to do something that would make a difference. So he threw an impromptu fundraiser with friends and managed to raise a few thousand dollars for charity. The experience stuck with him over the next 10 years, as he built and sold two mobile companies, where he watched technology's power to activate people. “I felt it was time to combine my love for building technology companies with a passion for giving back to create an innovative social enterprise that partners with businesses of all sizes to make a meaningful and scalable impact on the world," he says. That's just what he does as CEO of Pledgeling, a Venice, California-based company that enables businesses of all sizes to support causes around the world, including the ability to quickly set up a donation page and raise money after an emergency (businesses can ask customers, for example, to text IRMA to a specific phone number to make a donation). To date, Pledgeling has raised more than $5 million for more 7,000-plus nonprofits. Right now, the business is powering more than 800 fundraising efforts for hurricane relief.

Citron says that today, giving back isn't just a kind gesture. It's a business imperative. “Businesses have always been a driving force at the epicenter of local communities everywhere. Now more than ever, consumers expect and want businesses to play a role in creating better communities, including helping them to recover during times of natural disasters."

For businesses looking to help out, Citron advises them to start small. “Do something quick and easy. From requesting donations at checkout to promoting a text-to-donate call to action on social media, pick a way to involve your business that is simple to execute and go for it." And, he adds, let people know you're doing it. Generosity can be good for the bottom line. “Make sure to communicate the good that you are facilitating in the world and you will achieve the best ROI of all: higher sales, increased customer and employee satisfaction and positive social impact. What could be better than that?"

Photo: Getty Images