Weathering the Storm

Business owners throughout the Gulf Coast, have not only survived – they have rebuilt and thrived, despite the destruction of recent hurricanes. The question is, how? By Catherine McNaught
Weathering the StormPanhandle business owners bounce back quickly from nature’s worstBy Catherine McNaught

One day, Don Abrams dreams, he will expand Florida’s Gulfarium. Exactly when that will be depends on the weather.

After Hurricane Opal slammed into Santa Rosa Island with winds of 115 miles per hour in October 1995, Abrams had two feet of water inside the entire Gulfarium building. The Fort Walton Beach business closed for more than a year. In 2004, a Hurricane called Ivan tore the roofs off Florida’s Gulfarium and deposited up to two feet of sand throughout the aquarium. The ensuing cleanup closed the business for eight more months.

emerald-hospital2.jpgThat Abrams remains in business at all might strike some as a miracle. Yet he, like other business owners throughout the Gulf Coast, has not only survived – he has rebuilt and thrived, despite the destruction. The question is, how?

“Preparation,” he says. “It all comes down to preparation.”

Before Opal hit, Abrams says Florida’s Gulfarium had funds earmarked for a major expansion.

“That’s what saved it,” he says of the money, which he used to cover operating expenses until the business could re-open a year later. “Having seen that, I started putting money away every month to plan for that.”

When Hurricane Ivan hit, Abrams again tapped the expansion fund during the eight-month closure. But now he has got the formula.

“I estimate that if we’re going to be closed three to five months, I try to have $100,000 to $150,000 per month that is accessible to me,” he says. “I would not want to keep less than half a million in that contingency account, having seen how long it takes to get insurance money back.”

Sound financial and corporate resources also kept West Florida Hospital in Pensacola running after Hurricane Ivan ravaged it in 2004, doing $20 million in damage.

“We were pretty much functional throughout the hurricane and right afterwards,” says Kendrick Doidge, vice president of marketing and public relations for the hospital. “But we had substantial damage on the entire outside of the hospital. Windows were blown out and pieces of the building were torn off.”

As a result, West Florida Hospital underwent a $100 million renovation, using contingency funds set aside by the hospital’s parent company, HCA. In the renovations, the hospital upgraded its exterior and windows to withstand a Category 3 hurricane.

“Now, with our renovations, our hospital and the windows can withstand winds of up to 140 miles per hour,” Doidge says. And that, hospital executives hope, will prevent the kind of damage the facility sustained in Ivan.

But sometimes, surviving the catastrophic damage of a hurricane just comes down to hard work and entrepreneurship.

“Your whole business mode changes,” says Tom Rasinen, director of sales for the Hilton Pensacola Beach Gulf Front, who looked at his damaged and sand-covered facility and saw a glass that was half full. Half of the hotel’s 181-room inventory was out of commission, but he still had 86 rooms left, and when he returned to Pensacola Beach, there were law enforcement and residents waiting to get in.

“It didn’t matter if you had power or not, people just wanted a place to stay,” Rasinen says.

The Hilton was repaired in roughly two months, but in that time, Rasinen says his entire clientele changed.

“Media, insurance evaluators, power company employees, displaced residents,” he says. “You adapt to your guests’ needs and expectations because they are a little bit different. The guys that are working on the power lines – they don’t need a buffet brunch every morning. So we did a bunch of sausage biscuits and coffee to go.” The hotel brought in Ping-Pong tables and dart boards for entertainment. “You try to add a little bit more to the day-to-day experience,” Rasinen says.

Making sure that employees know when to return to work is also crucial to recovery, says state Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City. “Have a plan in place to make sure when your employees know when you’re opening back up,” he advises.

His family’s Panama City Beach restaurant, Capt. Anderson’s, was in the path of a tornado spawned by the outer bands of Hurricane Ivan. Patronis says the restaurant was closed less than a week – largely because his employees reported back to work immediately.

“We operated the restaurant on the concrete floors until we got the new carpets in, but that’s just part of staying open,” he says. “We had too many families needing that restaurant to stay open. We had to look at the bigger picture.”

Ted Corcoran, president of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, concurs, noting that 90 percent of the area’s businesses employ 10 or fewer people.

“Saving for a rainy day, so to speak,” is what can make or break them and their employees while they wait for insurance claims and repairs to be completed. “Businesses need an actual plan, and that plan not being, ‘I hope there won’t be a storm,’” he says.

“It’s not just preparing for a storm,” says Abrams, who is still socking money away in his contingency fund for expansion of Florida’s Gulfarium. “It’s preparing for everything. Like the economy now,” he says.