When Disaster Calls, Keep Calm and Carry On

The skills and personality type required to be a successful small-business owner come in handy when floodwaters rise and power goes out.
November 13, 2012

After Hurricane Sandy blew through New York I received phone calls and e-mails about the damage and the power outages from friends and colleagues who live and work there.

One of the e-mails I received was from my friend Nora Nealis, who’s head of the National Cleaner’s Association. She described a harrowing drive from her office in Manhattan to her apartment in Queens. It was several days after Sandy had hit and chaos still ruled. Traffic wasn't moving and the car's gas needle wilted toward "E". At one point Nora got out of her car to direct traffic through a jammed intersection. It was all for nothing—she didn’t have enough gas to make it out of Manhattan and besides, the Tunnel wasn’t open although she’d heard it was. But Nora is persistent and resourceful. She made arrangements to stay in the city with a member of her association and asked an employee to bring her a few gallons of gas in the morning.

It was humorous in her telling. But it made me stop and think. There she was in the middle of all that chaos, but she hadn’t lost her sense of humor, and more importantly, she hadn’t lost the ability to lead her team.

Taking Care of Business

We didn’t get hit by Sandy, but when we moved our company down here to South Florida, we were pummeled by two hurricanes in a row. The meteorologist on TV, Max Mayfield, started warning us days in advance. We saw the red cone and the yellow bands coming right toward us.

I got a notice under my door that said we are in an “evacuation zone” and that we’d better get to higher ground. At the time, we headed to my mom’s apartment and checked that the office was secure. There were no hurricane shutters as the previous owners spent most of their time in Brazil.

All electricity was out, of course, and my mom was an invalid at the time. I got a candle and warmed up her soup in a small dish over the flame.

I brought my cats to her house, and mom's caregiver brought her nephews over. A friend walked up 11 flights of stairs to bring us water. It was frightening and uncomfortable, but we laughed and tripped over ourselves and enjoyed the quiet time without television or phones ringing.

When I got back to my apartment, there were trees down everywhere and as I drove up to the building, I could see my draperies waving out the window, brass rod and all. But at times like that, you have to think of the people who’ve suffered worse than you have.

Expecting the Unexpected 

I know how to handle a crisis. I had put all my insurance papers in a plastic bag, my important phone numbers in there, too. So, when cell service was restored, I contacted everyone who needed to be contacted, and we were all back at work the next day. Things don’t matter, people do.

People like us are crafty, tough, and resilient. We have to be.

When you own your own business, all kinds of “unexpected” things happen and somehow we get used to adjusting to them, or better yet, fixing them. We have to.

My dad used to say, “prepare for the worst and then try to make it better”. That’s what happens when we get hit by a big storm, or lose a client or a key employee decides to quit and work for a competitor.

We’re small-business owners. We’re a proud group of survivors, and we’re creative too:

  • We’re naturally positive, and know that the employee that left for our competitor wasn’t loyal. We’ll replace him with someone much more capable.

  • We’re often on the edge, whether losing an account or coping with late payers. Somehow we pull through, right?

  • If a nasty storm hits our city, we have a survival plan, and we have our papers together and our flashlights and water bottles ready. We’ll figure out where our employees will stay the night, if we have to, and where to get a couple of gallons of gas in the morning.

Most of all, we know that eventually another disaster will come, and when it does, we'll be ready.

Read more disaster-related posts.  

Lois Geller is President and Owner of Lois Geller Marketing Group and headed agencies in New York and Toronto. She is the author of Response: The Complete Guide to Profitable Direct Marketing. Follow @loisgeller on Twitter and visit her blog Joy of Direct Marketing for more marketing tips.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images