Superstorm Sandy Highlights Six Priorities for Short-Term Economic Recovery

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//Editor's Note: This is cross-posted from IEDC and is written by Carrie Mulcaire, IEDC. In recent years BCLC has partnered with IEDC on multiple economic impact assessment projects in disaster-affected communities.//

Hurricane Sandy had devastating impacts along the East Coast last week, affecting at least 24 states. According to CNN, the "superstorm" claimed the lives of at least 185 people (113 in the U.S.), left millions without power at the height of the storm, and caused billions of dollars of economic damage.

IEDC has conducted extensive post-disaster economic recovery work since 2005. Based on that experience, below are five areas of action that economic development organizations (EDOs) and chambers of commerce in disaster-impacted communities should prioritize in the weeks and months ahead.

1. Establish an Economic Recovery Team (ERT) comprised of your local EDO, chambers of commerce, business district groups, local government, and other entities involved in economic recovery.

Depending on the leadership of local government, this team may be set up as part of a larger effort around other community recovery needs such as housing, infrastructure, health and human services, and the environment. Regardless, the local EDO or chamber should immediately start convening those who will play a lead role in economic recovery.

Central Florida Development Council, the EDO for Polk County, established an ERT immediately following three hurricanes that struck Florida in 2004 and 2005. The ERT comprised the county EDO, the 13 local chambers of commerce and local banks. The team discussed services and identified programs to meet local business needs, communicated with businesses about recovery efforts, conducted disaster assessments and oversaw the community's business recovery center. (Click here for more information.)

While disasters create a chaotic environment that can make communication and partnership difficult, remember that no man – or organization – is an island. Recovery is a team effort and requires cooperation among multiple economic development entities.

2. Consider whether your community should establish a business recovery center to provide financial and business counseling services in one central location.

Communities in which hundreds of businesses have been impacted by a disaster frequently set up business recovery centers. Such centers should co-locate SBA and SBDC staff along with other business counseling services and resources. Locate the center in a central but separate location from FEMA's disaster recovery center; otherwise, business service providers will be inundated with social service requests.

A grassroots advertising campaign may be needed to let businesses know the center is open. If telecommunication lines are down, flyering or a radio campaign may be effective ways to get the word out. Also, put an announcement on your website with other business recovery information. Some communities have established a hotline and advertised both the hotline and the business recovery center through various means.

Small businesses in particular have large capital needs following a disaster. Some state governments have set up loan programs. Florida, for example, set up an emergency bridge loan program to provide working capital to impacted businesses within weeks of a disaster. Following the 2008 flood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the city and chamber established a $6 million forgivable loan program. (Click here to download a recent webinar recording featuring these financial programs on RestoreYourEconomy.org.)

Banks sometimes are reluctant to lend to impacted businesses in a post-disaster economy. Communities can turn to the federal government for post-disaster, low-interest loans – agencies such as SBA, USDA, EDA and HUD (through CDBG) all have applicable programs. In federally declared disaster areas, business owners also can apply for federal tax relief. (Click here for a list of federal resources and here for steps on navigating the federal system.)

3. Seek to re-establish effective communication lines and serve as a conduit of accurate and reliable information between local government and local businesses.

Have someone from your local chamber or EDO serve at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to facilitate communication and dispel rumors and misinformation. In Polk County, a representative of the Central Florida Development Council served on the county's Emergency Management Team (and at the EOC) to facilitate communication with FEMA, the local government and the business community.

Use various communication methods to reach out to local businesses. The Joplin Chamber of Commerce not only conducted one-to-one business outreach but also started communicating with businesses via social media just hours after the tornado. Its website became a credible information source because the chamber was linked in to key communication networks.

A chamber or EDO web page should be designated to provide links to various business recovery resources, and be updated regularly to stay current. (Click here for a sample web portal from the Grand Central Station BID on resources for impacted businesses.)

Federal and state agencies and news organizations are likely to turn to your organization to learn how businesses have been impacted. Communication regarding local business damages and what they need to recover is discussed below. Prioritize these outreach efforts in the days and weeks following the disaster. For more information on critical communications efforts, visit here on RestoreYourEconomy.org.

4. Prioritize business damage assessments – accounting for both direct and indirect impacts – in the weeks following the disaster.

The local EDO should survey local businesses to collect information on ground-level damage and impacts. Survey questions should ask about property and equipment damage, space needs, and what additional assistance is necessary to return to normal operations. (Click here for a copy of a sample survey on RestoreYourEconomy.org – Step 7.)

Don't assume that FEMA will conduct these damage assessments or collect the information you need. Remember that local business groups have the trusting relationships needed for local businesses to share this sensitive information. Federal agency officials will expect your community to report this type of information and will look to your EDO or chamber for the answers.

Communities often face capacity issues in collecting this information. Chambers of commerce sometimes can recruit volunteers for the job, or a National Emergency Grant can be used to hire temporary staff. Surveying should be a partnership effort that engages multiple economic development groups. Prioritizing this task will pay huge dividends in terms of knowing how your local economy has been damaged and in identifying strategies to address key challenges.

Just days following an EF-5 tornado in Joplin, chamber staff personally visited each location of 530 businesses and reached out to owners to better understand their needs and collect damage data. This effort contributed to a 90 percent return rate of businesses. (Click here for more information on Joplin's recovery efforts.

5. Consider your own organizational capacity limit and seek to expand it.

EDOs and chambers of commerce are often overwhelmed with the amount of work that needs to be done after a disaster. In some cases, chambers struggle with membership and cash flow issues because of the inability of impacted businesses to pay chamber dues.

Several sources of emergency grant money, such as the National Emergency Grants (NEG) from the Department of Labor, provide funds to pay for temporary staff. In Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, after Hurricane Katrina, NEG grants were used to pay for staff at its Business Recovery Center. EDA also has funded Disaster Recovery coordinators in the past. HUD's Disaster CDBG programs have helped fund staff for economic recovery functions.

Partnering with all local, regional and state economic development partners can help pool and expand resources. Don't be afraid to ask for help! In Joplin, chambers from neighboring communities helped Joplin staff its office so that Joplin chamber staff could do business outreach. In Galveston, volunteers helped the chamber reach out to local businesses. After Katrina, Louisiana Economic Development opened its offices as a base from which local EDOs could operate.

In the weeks following Hurricane Sandy, people will see stirring images of devastation on the Atlantic coast and be inspired to donate money. Make sure your organization is set up to receive funds through an established 501c3 so that donors can receive a tax deduction. Joplin had an economic development foundation set up before the storm which enabled the chamber to accept donations. Look around your community to see if such a vehicle already exists or plan to create one if necessary.

6. Take care of yourself and your staff, seeking help if necessary.

Many staff of economic development organizations and chamber of commerce themselves have been personally impacted by this storm, in addition to trying to help with the myriad recovery needs of local businesses. Many don't realize that they may be experiencing their own post-stress symptoms, which could include changes in mood, recurring thoughts, strained relationships, erratic behavior, memory loss or trouble concentrating.

Take care of yourself and your staff to cope with the stressors a disaster brings. Don't feel guilty for taking time away to manage your stress when needed. Seek support from people who will listen to you as you talk about your experiences and as you deal with the work of recovery and rebuilding.

For more information

If your organization is interested in learning from peers that already have been through a disaster, please contact IEDC or BCLC.

For more resources on disaster preparedness and economic recovery, visit RestoreYourEconomy.org, which is funded by a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA).

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