Back in late June 2006, after a lifetime of erroneously thinking that living in the Northeast meant I was immune from natural disaster, I learned that I was wrong when the Susquehanna River flooded its banks and chased me and my family to a mat in the middle school gym.
Looking back, I could nod and agree with all the standard advice about natural disasters but I think it might be more helpful for me to tell you a few things that can help your small business in similar circumstances but that nobody is likely to tell you.
Be prepared. Most of the time, major weather events (such as storms and floods) and certain other natural events (like wildfires) will let you know they’re coming. Others, like tornadoes and earthquakes, won’t.
Preparation for disaster, when it comes to your small business, involves three fundamental things: backup your computer data and all important documents, get a portable generator for your premises and store it in a safe place, and make sure your insurance coverage is sufficient to handle replacing everything.
Don’t be a hero. No matter how many stupid but lucky people you see in the movies, don’t gamble with anybody’s life. There is nothing in your home or office (or home office) that is worth risking your life for. If the authorities tell you to leave, then leave.
Be cooperative and considerate and hang onto your sense of humor. Everybody around you will be under a tremendous amount of strain; this is the moment for you to live up to your role as a leader in your community. Your good humored courage will not only make your own ordeal easier to bear, it will earn you kudos from your neighbors and a warm and fuzzy spot in their memories.
Give yourself some breathing room. It doesn’t really matter whether the event you’re dealing with it is as titanic as Hurricane Katrina or barely a blip on anybody’s radar except your. Living through a natural disaster is a traumatic experience; don’t imagine you’ll get through it as if it were just another supply chain glitch or missed voicemail message.
Milling around in an emergency shelter, cut off from your usual sources of information, and experiencing a level of powerlessness that is very foreign to most small business owners can be crazy-making. When you are allowed to return to your space to survey the damage and start cleaning up, just looking at what has happened to your house or your business or your neighborhood can be devastating.
Give yourself the space to cry, rage, and feel as overwhelmed as you feel. Go ahead and grieve. Take care of yourself and you’ll be able to function better as you begin the really hard work of cleaning it up and piecing it all back together again.
Notify your customers as soon as possible. This sounds like a real no-brainer but, if your community has been hit with a natural disaster, it may not be as easy or simple as it sounds. You may have any number of ways to get in touch with customers; most efficient are probably email and maybe your company’s blog.
Unfortunately, if your community has been hit with a natural disaster, the odds are that you don’t have power. If the disaster was wide-spread, nobody else in the community will have power, either. Under those circumstances, the best you’ll be able to do is perhaps to contact a colleague whose number is already in your cell phone and ask them to spread the word for you. (You’ll be wishing for that portable generator along about now … .)
Watch your spending. This might seem like an odd thing to say but it is a much needed warning. With power out, you probably can’t store food or wash clothes or any of a dozen other things your normally do. Under the circumstances, you might be tempted to buy things to get you through until the stuff you normally use is available again.
In addition to considering the unusual expenses you might incur, bear in mind that you probably won’t be making much money until you get your physical space situated. The length of time it takes to do that will depend on the nature of your losses. If you are lucky, you may have to replace a washer and dryer and maybe your furnace. If you are not so lucky, you may have to rebuild your entire house.
Whatever your personal situation, you are almost guaranteed to have unforeseen expenses and little to no revenue for an unknowable period of time. Don’t spend your money unless you absolutely have to.
A final word: in all things, cut yourself some slack. It’s been three years since the Susquehanna River took up residence in my back yard and our village has not yet recovered. Don’t expect miracles but don’t give up. You can get your business back up and running, no matter what Mother Nature throws at you.
About The Guest Author: Dawn Rivers Baker, an award-winning small business journalist, regularly reports and analyzes small business policy and research as the Publisher of the MicroEnterprise Journal, where the nation’s business meets microbusiness. She also publishes the Journal Blog.