Chamber Executive Article Archive

After the Headlines: Chamber Execs Lead Disaster Recovery Work

Katherine House

It's a record year for disasters—84 were declared by the end of September, with three months remaining in 2011. The old record, 81, was set last year, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). We had a blizzard that shut down Chicago, numerous deadly tornadoes, Hurricane Irene, wildfi res, and fl ooding caused by record snow melt and Tropical Storm Lee. Ten of those disasters accounted for damages of at least $10 billion, another record.

(This article features sidebar content: Disaster Relief Success Stories and Tips for Before and After Disaster Strikes)

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It's a record year for disasters—84 were declared by the end of September, with three months remaining in 2011. The old record, 81, was set last year, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). We had a blizzard that shut down Chicago, numerous deadly tornadoes, Hurricane Irene, wildfi res, and fl ooding caused by record snow melt and Tropical Storm Lee. Ten of those disasters accounted for damages of at least $10 billion, another record.

At 1:51 p.m. Aug. 23, when the Washington Monument sustained minor damage from a 5.8 magnitude earthquake centered 90 miles southeast of Washington, D.C., people who thought "it will never happen here" were reminded that it very well could. As their buildings rattled and shook, startled Easterners thoughtlessly rushed outdoors. In the West, particularly California, they know better: Stay inside, under—and holding on to—a desk or table. Or, stand against an interior wall until the shaking stops.

When disasters strike, chamber executives have no playbook to follow. Instead, they scramble to assemble initiatives that will help lead their communities to recovery. Every disaster is different, but many of the challenges are the same, whether it's providing resources in the immediate aftermath, letting the world know your community is open for business, helping businesses get funding, lobbying public officials, or attracting new business to what's been labeled a "disaster area."

Changing Chamber Roles

Disasters can change everything for chambers, including whom they serve, and how and where. Some chambers expand their scope following a disaster. "From the moment [the tornado] hit, it wasn't important if a business was a member or not," says Kirstie Smith, communications director of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce in Joplin, Mo. "What was important was to help the entire business community."

Gina Spagnola, IOM, president of the Galveston Chamber of Commerce, felt the same way after Hurricane Ike hit Galveston, Texas. "That's why so many of those [non-member] businesses are members now," she says.

Helping business owners is not as simple as offering a seminar on disaster prep or response training. For many chambers, it may mean hitting the streets and handing out water to those doing clean-up, or taking photos to document the devastation, as James Chavez, president/CEO of the Clarksville-Montgomery County Economic Development Council and a member of ACCE's Board of Directors, did after flooding hit Clarksville, Tenn., last year. It could mean having a team of employees hand out packets to businesses in the tornado zone about where to get help, as the Joplin chamber did. It might mean walking the streets and recording business owners' needs on a pad of paper, as Spagnola did.

In the immediate aftermath, it means being there, listening and giving out hugs as needed. "You can't forget the human aspect," says Donny Jones, COO of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala. After this spring's tornado, business owners "lost what they worked their whole lives for" and so you must have "genuine care and concern" for their well-being, he says. People are "so overwhelmed by so many decisions [to make]," says Ginger LaMar, IOM, Business Services Director for the Joplin chamber.

"Businesses need someone to talk to," says Christa Tinsley Spaht, project manager for Market Street Services, Atlanta. Market Street Services has worked with several chambers on recovery planning and is currently providing pro bono services to the Joplin chamber. As J. Mac Holladay, CCE, PCED, CEO of Market Street Services, explains, "It's a different role for the chamber. You're going to have to become a listening post for a long time." Chambers also may need to dispel rumors. In the aftermath of flooding in Minot, N.D., last summer, the chamber fielded calls from residents of North Dakota and Canada, says John L. MacMartin, CCE, president of the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce and a member of ACCE's Board of Directors. People in North Dakota called to complain about how Canadians had badly managed water flow over a dam north of the city. Canadians called to ask if they should avoid shopping in Minot because of rumors that tires were being slashed on cars with Canadian license plates in revenge for the perceived mismanagement of the dam. The rumors were unfounded.

Preparedness to a "Fault"

Most executives believe their chambers play a critical role not only in disaster response, but also in preparedness. Two California CEOs, Diana Donovan of the Encino Chamber of Commerce, and Bob Canter of the Emeryville Chamber of Commerce, realize the experts say it's not a matter of if—but when—a strong earthquake will strike them. "Everyone thinks [the next big quake] will happen at 4 a.m. when they're home safe with their families," Donavan says. "What if it happens at 2 p.m. and you're in your office?"

Disaster preparedness is one of seven main components of the Emeryville chamber's Healthy City Initiative, and its web site includes links to many organizations offering information about earthquake preparation and mitigation.

Donavan says the Encino chamber made disaster preparedness a key priority following Hurricane Katrina, when a board member heard horror stories from relatives who worked as police officers in stricken areas. In Encino, chamber employees have gone door to door to hand out educational information to business owners. The information includes a simple, 10-question preparedness survey, which is also available on the chamber's web site. Questions include "Does everyone know how to turn off the gas?" and "Do you have water and food on hand to keep all employees and customers hydrated and fed if you must shelter in place for three days?" Unfortunately, says Donovan, "you'd be surprised at how many businesses did not want the information."

The Emeryville chamber is an official partner with the local Red Cross to distribute educational materials. A section of its office is devoted to free earthquake information, and Canter mails information to new businesses when they come to town. Both chambers, as well as the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, have been involved in the QuakeSmart initiative, a program of the SafeAmerica Foundation in cooperation with FEMA. All three chambers participate in and promote an annual earthquake drill each October known as the Great California Shakeout.

Canter hopes to establish the Emeryville Preparedness Coalition as an offshoot of an existing organization. It would include chamber representatives and public safety officials. He participates in an intergovernmental organization that is working on a Bay Area Regional Disaster Resilience Action Plan. Currently, he is the only chamber executive participating in the project.

The Encino chamber has a Disaster Preparedness Subcommittee of its Health and Wellness Committee, which meets monthly. One of the chamber's chief preparedness initiatives has been to partner with first responders and other community organizations to plan an information center in a local park. Donovan has talked to restaurants and grocery stores about donating food and water. The chamber has even thought the unthinkable: Donovan has a contact with a business that could supply refrigerated trucks if needed for a temporary morgue.

A Critical Need

Disasters force "chambers into a role as a real change agent in trying to hold the community together," says Holladay of Market Street Services. Gerald McSwiggan, senior manager of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center's Disaster Assistance and Recovery Program, says, "After a disaster, not a lot of people are thinking about business communities, especially small businesses," he says. "And a lot of them [small businesses] don't come back."

Indeed, the statistics about the effect of disasters on small businesses are sobering:

One oft-cited Department of Labor statistic estimates that 40 percent of businesses never reopen after a disaster. Of the ones that do, at least a quarter will close within two years.

Business owners may take on substantial debt in an effort to recover. When a case management team from Cedar Rapids surveyed 1,200 businesses nearly 18 months after the city's flood, they discovered overall revenue was down 20 percent, while debt had increased 50 percent, according to Scott Swenson, senior case manager. They also learned that $31 million in personal wealth had been depleted as business owners sold stocks and other assets and cashed out retirement plans.

But communities should not be worried only about small businesses. Chavez cites the case of a large call center in Clarksville that was damaged by flooding. It employed more than 1,000 workers. "The issue with that sector—the back office services sector—is that they could easily have gone elsewhere," Chavez says. To prevent the company from moving to another city, his economic development team helped get short-term leases for temporary locations at a nominal cost. The Clarksville chamber also worked to get tax incentives in place to help the business, as well as a state grant that will allow the firm to offset the costs of retrofitting a new building.

Even as chambers help businesses recover, they may face their own recovery process. Chamber executives may find they need to file insurance claims, replace office equipment and supplies, or find temporary digs. In Galveston, the chamber offices "looked like the spin cycle of a washing machine" following Hurricane Ike, says Spagnola. Employees may be grieving the loss of fellow citizens or dealing with their own tragedies. In Joplin, LaMar feels grateful that her family was in another part of town during the tornado. However, her house and vehicles were demolished.

In Minot this summer, the chamber offices were untouched by water, but the chamber operates a local Department of Motor Vehicles office for the state. After that office was flooded, it was reopened to the public within the chamber's main offices, not only because it provides an important revenue stream to the chamber, but also because it's a place where citizens go to replace lost or damaged documents.

Challenges to Recovery

Unless you've experienced a disaster, you may not know what some chamber executives have learned the hard way: "There is no federal disaster recovery program for businesses," says Sara Mentzer, vice president of public affairs for the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce in Iowa. Everyone hears about the Federal Emergency Management Agency after a disaster, but many don't know that FEMA is designed to assist individual citizens, not small businesses.

"You hear 'FEMA's on the way, help is on the way,'" says Shannon Meyer, IOM, president and CEO of the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Neenah, Wis. "The reality is … it's not," Meyer says, clearly frustrated from the two years she spent heading the Cedar Rapids chamber in the wake of citywide flooding there. Certainly, the National Guard and FEMA converged on the city to help after the floods. But, says Meyer, "From a business perspective, we as a country do a terrible job" in helping the business community recover from disaster.

SBA loans exist, but not everyone can qualify, says Spaht of Market Street Services. Or, adds Holladay, business owners are reluctant to share the financial data required during the application process. Those with experience say it can take a while to receive funds from private insurance or the national flood insurance program. Even those qualifying for flood insurance may decide they don't want it or can't afford it. Others purchase the minimum amount and are underinsured.

On top of that, "Most individual states do not have any business assistance programs designed to help after disasters," says James Lee Witt, CEO of Witt Associates, a public safety and crisis management consulting firm in Washington, D.C. Witt also headed FEMA under President Bill Clinton.

Some communities qualify for disaster recovery grants through the federal Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) program (see box on page 14). But, says Meyer, that process can be painfully slow and inefficient. When the federal government does release funds, it works through the state, which allocates money to affected areas. The Cedar Rapids chamber found itself lobbying city and state officials for funding.

Beyond that, entities receiving these grants must develop their own financial assistance programs; there is no federal template, explains Meyer. "We lost businesses while we were putting together programs," she says. The chamber organized a Small Business Flood Recovery Task Force of affected business owners, landlords, representatives from city and state government and people from the local Small Business Development Center. "Every program we needed was developed by our board members with volunteers," says Mentzer.

The task force developed eight separate programs, which then had to be approved by state and federal regulators. Programs included an Equipment Reimbursement Assistance Program, a Flood Insurance Reimbursement Program and a Commercial Rental Revenue Gap Program. The chamber also got involved in seeking waivers to existing regulations when they seemed too burdensome; for example, many business owners' original receipts of equipment purchases were washed downriver.

What Else Can Chambers Do?

A deadly tornado can cut a wide path of destruction with little warning. A major hurricane can shut down cities, causing chamber employees and other residents to evacuate. Floods are different. Even if no one can anticipate the scope of flooding, there may be days of warning about rising river levels. In two Midwestern cities, chamber executives worked to aid their communities--even as the disaster was unfolding.

Three years ago, when Cedar Rapids flooded, the chamber didn't wait for waters to recede before helping the business community. Chamber officials and the Downtown District banded together to launch "Operation Skywalk." Representatives of the chamber, the National Guard and the fire department met business owners in a parking garage with skywalk access. With flashlights in hand, they escorted business owners into darkened buildings as flood waters rose, giving them 10 minutes to retrieve vital documents and equipment.

In Bismarck, N.D., earlier this summer, people watched the Missouri River warily. When it became obvious that flooding would occur, the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber stepped in to help organize sandbagging. The goal, says Kelvin Hullett, president of the chamber, was to turn something that isn't much fun into "an event."

An all-night sandbagging session resulted in the filling of 125,000 sandbags, and a "Sunday Sandbag Throwdown" drew enough participants to fill a whopping 320,000 sandbags. The chamber promoted the events on Facebook and through local media. After the chamber e-mailed members about the event, businesses donated drinks, ice and food. The chamber staff asked radio stations to broadcast live during the sandbagging—and they did. "We utilized these events to build community consensus and support around fighting the fight," says Hullett.

Establish a Business Recovery Center

For some chambers, establishing an SBA Business Recovery Center immediately after a disaster is a top priority. Business recovery centers aim to bring all the resources under one roof that allow businesses to get initial questions answered and begin the recovery process. They are often separate from FEMA Disaster Centers, which focus on social services and immediate human needs. In addition to volunteers who can help with the recovery process, the centers provide office supplies and computers to allow business owners to perform vital work.

Tish Williams, executive director of the Hancock County Chamber of Commerce in Bay St. Louis, Miss., and the Hancock Community Development Foundation, is proud that she opened the first Business Recovery Center on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Williams arranged to use space in a conference center owned by the Coast Electric Power Association. She then lined up volunteers from the Mississippi Small Business Development Center at the University of Mississippi, SBA Disaster team, and workforce development officials, who could help people file for unemployment. She also borrowed computers from the Mississippi Bar Association, so area lawyers would have a place to work. Also at that time, ACCE, through the Community Growth Educational Foundation (CGEF), raised and distributed more than $120,000 to help chambers remain effective after Hurricane Katrina.

Several other chambers have assisted communities by opening Business Recovery Centers. Seminars, workshops and community forums can be planned to help educate business owners about potential resources long before they are needed.

This summer, the Bismarck-Mandan Chamber of Commerce held a Community Flood Recovery Conference for business owners, public officials and municipal managers. Breakout sessions included "Financial Survival After a Disaster," and "Communication to the Public in Times of Recovery." Representatives of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Grand Forks, N.D., spoke about best practices based on their experiences.

Chambers as Information Brokers

"Everyone says we're conveners …," says Meyer. "In a time of disaster, more than ever [chambers] are." Rob O'Brian, CEcD, president of the Joplin chamber agrees. After a disaster, "You do a lot of brokering, too. It's not something you really anticipate, but we're in the business of making connections so it's OK." He describes those connections as "fast-paced" and "emotionally intense," such as matching up businesses with new landlords. O'Brian even played a key role in finding a new home for the town's middle school.

As part of its economic development role, the Joplin chamber oversaw a shell building in an industrial park that was ready for occupancy. Before the tornado, two parties were interested. When O'Brian learned that school officials thought the building would be suitable for relocating the destroyed middle school, he contacted the two prospects. Both understood the long-term importance of getting schools re-established and agreed to revise their plans. Now, the school system leases the building for a nominal amount from the chamber. O'Brian also helped school officials connect with the owner of an empty department store. As a result, a high school took over the vacant space.

In the wake of disasters, chambers also have conducted on-line fundraising, imparted information to the local community and launched public relations campaigns. For example, the home page of the Joplin chamber's web site includes a graphic resembling a note thumb-tacked to a bulletin board. The headline on the note says, "Yes! We are open for business!" Anyone clicking on the note gets an alphabetical list of businesses and their current status, including temporary locations.

In Tuscaloosa, the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama performed vital IT services for the city following the spring tornado, says Jones. The chamber's IT staff worked nearly around the clock, along with graduate students from the University of Alabama, to develop a software system that could be used to register and document volunteers at the Volunteer Reception Center. The chamber's economic development team, along with the city's economic development commission, looked at potential sites and picked a community center gym for the intake center. Chamber officials also launched the web site, which allowed people to donate via PayPal.

A disaster often necessitates special advertising or PR campaigns to let everyone know that your area is open for business. In 2010, a tornado touched down in one section of Billings, Montana, affecting businesses and closing the city's events arena for about a year. Shortly after the storm, John Brewer, CAE, president and CEO of the Billings Chamber/CVB, recorded a public service announcement reminding the public to patronize businesses in the area. Even those not damaged by the storm were concerned about a potential loss of revenue since the event center was closed, he says.

He also applied for and received a $20,000 Crisis Communication Grant from the Montana Department of Commerce. The grant allowed him to develop print advertising and an on-line campaign to let meeting planners know about other venues in the city. Some major high school sports events were moved to other cities while the events venue was being repaired. During that time, the chamber took ads out in the event programs, noting that Billings would welcome the tournaments back the following year. The chamber/CVB celebrated the venue's reopening with an Elton John concert, and invited event planners to attend.

Of course, disasters often do not end on such upbeat notes. But a community's emergence from devastation can be made faster and easier when chamber leaders are nimble and responsive. The ACCE Board of Directors recently created a special task force to help develop disaster information resources for members. Expect to see more from ACCE on disaster response and recovery in the coming months. In the meantime, you can advance that effort: If your work history includes disaster experience and you're willing to counsel a chamber exec coping with a disaster, please add your name to ACCE's online Disaster Help Directory at Also, see the annotated list of disaster information links online at Chamber Executive's web exclusives page at


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