As floodwater rushes in,
so does the chamber
In August 2016, three days of nonstop torrential rain struck Southern Louisiana, submerging houses and businesses and causing billions of dollars in property damage. FEMA, which stepped in to provide support for the thousands of beleaguered homeowners without flood insurance, declared 20 parishes to be in an official state of emergency. Among those was Livingston Parish, a small but fast-growing area just east of Baton Rouge.
It was Friday, August 12, 2016, the last day of ACCE’s convention in Savannah. April Wehrs, CEO of the Livingston Parish Chamber of Commerce, was heading home when she received a frantic text message from a board member.
“My initial reaction was dread, as I feared what was going to happen as the flood waters continued to break records,” recalled Wehrs. “My concern was for my friends, neighbors and house, as the waters were so broad.”
Rainwater was rapidly rising back home in Livingston Parish, as the Comite and Amite rivers reached capacity and began overflowing. Wehrs phoned an engineer and made plans to arrive at the building early the next morning. By the time they showed up, it was too late.
“The waters caught everyone off guard and by early Saturday morning, the water was so high and coming in so fast that it had created a significant current,” Wehrs said.
When the rain finally stopped, the full extent of the storm’s destruction became evident. Three-fourths of the 635-square-mile parish were completely flooded, including 90 percent of Denham Springs, the parish seat and home of the Livingston Parish Chamber. The economic toll was devastating on the community, which is home to about 140,000 people. Out of 544 chamber members, 250 businesses experienced flooding, 40 percent of which had damages totaling more than $25,000. Of the damaged businesses, 35 percent had to rely on personal funds to rebuild.
The scene unfolding in Livingston Parish was a crisis unlike any that Wehrs, a lifelong Louisianan, had ever experienced. “People were being rescued in military vehicles. Others were wading through knee-deep waters with their children on their backs,” recounted Wehrs. “The interstate was shut down and thousands were stranded on high ground between the two rivers for over 30 hours.”
Just like many other businesses in town, the chamber office was heavily damaged. The chamber’s building, which was brand new, had 42 inches of water on the lower level and 15 inches on its upper floor. Because its business interruption insurance excluded flood damage, the chamber was on its own for property recovery. To date, it has doled out more than $60,000 for building reconstruction.
Wehrs’ husband, a project manager in commercial construction, was able to secure a crew to “gut” the building of its sheetrock, flooring, doors, trim, insulation, cabinets and basically everything not nailed to the ground.
Progress on reconstruction was slow-moving, due to high-demand for materials and sub-contractors. In the meantime, Wehrs had no choice but to operate from the remnants of the gutted building. “The focus was on serving our members and the business community. No one thought anything of being in a place with studs showing. It was the norm in the area at the time.”
The chamber’s most pressing priority was to help disseminate resources and information to the community. Within a few days, Wehrs was receiving requests to connect doctors and nurses with shelters, food and communities. The chamber even set up a makeshift restaurant in the parking lot to cook, serve and deliver food to residents in need.
By early Monday, August 15, Wehrs had transformed the chamber’s website into an information hub for assisting the community, both businesses and residents alike. The site posted resources about contractors, materials, building permits, insurance requirements and other important reconstruction items in high demand. Wehrs used social media to quickly share pertinent information about the recovery effort with the community.
The Livingston Parish Chamber launched its “Back 2 Biz” campaign, using #LPBack2Biz, to provide information about which area businesses were up and running. “It brought positive energy and hope to an entire community that was feeling pretty beat up and knocked down for a moment,” Wehrs said.
The campaign featured photos of businesspeople posing with a cardboard sign that read, “We’re Open!” The idea was for photos to show people looking excited, proud and resilient. Wehrs still has the original cardboard sign, although she has a newer one, too, which is complete with a revamped campaign logo.
In addition to using social media for the campaign, the chamber used email marketing to communicate with members. The chamber also partnered with a local newspaper, which offered to display “Back 2 Biz” ads at no charge.
The Back 2 Biz campaign has been a big overall success, increasing the numbers of likes on the chamber’s Facebook Page to about 5,000 from 3,000 before the campaign — an impressive leap of 66 percent.
Now approaching a year later, repairs are still ongoing in the community. At the Livingston Parish Chamber of Commerce, repairs are nearing completion, but evidence of the damage is still front-and-center.
“We operate with plastic tables and chairs in our board room,” said Wehrs. “We were able to find a few used desks that actually look nice, so we have been very resourceful. I still have white plastic tables in my office.”
The ordeal has taught the tireless executive a few valuable lessons about the chamber of commerce profession and the important role it plays in the community. “This event made me realize what we are really here for and who we serve,” Wehrs said. “Our communities need us to develop our leaders and to provide factual, relevant information that cuts through the clutter when time is of the essence.”
For Wehrs, the experience has also instilled a conviction that chambers can achieve more when they work together than they can alone. “The chamber of commerce profession has to find a way to be a collective voice for our industry and the members we represent,” said Wehrs. “It’s time to find a way to join forces, yet still maintain our independence.”
A variety of resources for disaster preparedness and recovery can be found by visiting www.ACCE.org/disaster.
ACCE’s board-level Urgent Response Task Force is a collection of chamber executives tasked with providing support and assistance for chambers when disaster strikes their communities. In addition to evaluating individual needs for each major disaster case, task force members connect chamber executives experiencing disaster with peers who have experienced similar situations.
If your community experiences disaster, contact Senior Vice President Chris Mead at email@example.com for urgent assistance.
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