After Ida, small businesses face uncertainty on many fronts

A week or more after Ida, business owners from Louisiana to Connecticut are still adding up the financial losses and assessing the physical and emotional toll, grappling to find a way forward.

Many say it’s difficult to figure out the future when they’re unsure of the answers to some immediate questions: When will the power come back on? How long before I get new supplies? When can my business be rebuilt?

"There’s no more anxious situation to a business owner than a complete lack of clarity in how to plan," said Pike Howard, director of finance and development for New Orleans-based Felipe’s Mexican Taqueria restaurants. Many businesses have already dealt with a long stretch of uncertainty due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"The amount that we’ve been tested the past 18 to 24 months it’s hard to imagine the roller coaster," Howard said. "If you didn’t have a cash reserve going into this situation, I don’t know what you would do."

Some help is being made available. On Monday, President Joe Biden approved major disaster declarations for six New Jersey counties and five New York counties. That follows similar announcements for Mississippi and Louisiana, the initial targets of the hurricane.

Disaster declarations are key for small businesses because that opens the door for federal disaster assistance loans.

By Wednesday evening, crews in Louisiana had restored power to nearly 90% of New Orleans and all of Baton Rouge. But hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in Louisiana, most of them outside New Orleans, still don’t have power. And about half of the gas stations in two major cities were without fuel as of Wednesday.

Rebuilding from storm damage will be a challenge. Building contractors were already facing worker shortages and supply constraints. Ida made those challenges even worse and will lead to higher prices and longer building delays.

Michael Gulotta, who owns two restaurants in New Orleans, said there is little they can do when facing the extensive power outages that Ida wrought.

"We were preparing for the storm, down here, we get them so often, you try to pack coolers with ice and hope the power is out for 20 minutes," he said. "Once it is, ‘Oh, the power is out indefinitely,’ there’s not a whole lot you can do, at that point, the planning is out the window."

He organized food giveaways at his restaurants, Mopho and Maypop, to help get food to those who need it. Power has been restored and he planned on opening Mopho Thursday, but Maypop will remain closed for a few weeks. He said it’s harder to get loans and insurance when the problem is business interruption rather than physical damage.

"The hard part is I just took a huge loss and no one is getting me money," he said. "At this point I’m out thousands and thousands of dollars and there’s nothing I can do about it."

Some who aren’t counting on insurance have started fundraising. In the Northeast, a tornado spawned in Ida’s wake left Wellacrest Farms, a New Jersey dairy farm owned by Marianne and Wally Eachus, nearly demolished. They have counted about 14 dead cows, and 100 are still missing as of Wednesday. A GoFundMe started by fellow farmer Hillary Stecher reached nearly $90,000 by Thursday. The goal is $1 million. The farm has insurance, but Marianne Eachus says she has no idea if it will cover what's been lost.

Howard, who runs three Felipe’s Mexican restaurants in New Orleans, said his lights were back on and he reopened his three restaurants about noon on Wednesday. But supply disruptions remain. His biggest supplier, Performance Food Group, is in the heavily-damaged city of Houma, and told him it would be at least three weeks before they’re out delivering key limes, chicken, and other items again.

"I’m concerned about ability to capitalize on when the power comes back on because of supply chain issues and team members still scattered about," he said. He estimates that with food spoilage and at least two weeks of lost operations he could lose as much as $250,000.

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Nicole Dorignac, co-owner of Dorignac’s Food Center, said the 70-year old grocery store had minor roof and fencing damage. The bigger problem was making sure her staff of about 175 were okay.

"Many evacuated," she said. "Many are coming home to a lot of destruction to their houses. A lot of water damage and roof damage."

About 55 employees have come back for limited hours since the store reopened last Wednesday. Many employees are still dealing with storm damage and power outages and stuck at home waiting for insurance adjustors or tarps for their roofs. The store is only open limited hours until more employees can return.

"We had a disaster crew skeleton crew," she said. "We have some that live nearby that come literally hell or high water."

Krista Pouncy-Dyson, owner of digital media marketing company Performance 1st Digital Media, said her five staffers were already working from home before the storm so they knew how to communicate remotely. But multiple crises take a toll.

"There’s an emotional component to all of this, we are in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and we have to navigate that on top of a category 4 hurricane," she said. "It’s immensely difficult."

Dyson is also the chairwoman of New Orleans Regional Black Chamber of Commerce. "Surveying minority and black owned businesses, there’s a distinct need for working capital micro loans, access to fuel, just the basics," she said.

There’s also the fear that people, or potential customers, will leave the area. After Katrina, "a lot of people just didn’t come back," she said. The city’s population shrank from half a million to less than half of that. Now, it is around 390,000.

"What is this going to look like a month from now, are people going to start canceling contracts because people relocated?" she asked. "Those are concerns business owners are thinking about."