How small business can power Sandy recovery
- Nov 04, 2012
Entrepreneurs are fiercely independent, passionate, relentlessly dedicated, single-mindlessly focused, stubborn, rarely wrong, and they like to figure things out without handouts. I know because our boss is one of them. These qualities make them successful and inspire many people to join them in their pursuit of their vision. In the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, I spent my days in a devastated Red Hook, a neighborhood in Brooklyn built on the back of small business. The hard work of recovery ahead for these maverick entrepreneurs made me wonder: If Richard lived and worked on his houseboat and ran Virgin Records during a natural disaster like superstorm Sandy, what would he have had to do - and what would he have needed - to press on? In such a crisis, do we owe small business anything? The incredible and incredibly resilient business community of Red Hook offered some insight.
When Superstorm Sandy made land fall on Monday night, the surge destroyed tens of thousands of homes and businesses and more than one million of them are still without power. Many business owners of Red Hook, Brooklyn, a mixed-use working class waterfront neighborhood, live and work in the same building or nearby and so they received a double whammy that, if they cannot recover from quickly, will cost them their livelihoods.
The day after Sandy, 300 beleaguered business owners packed into an art gallery on Van Brunt, Red Hook’s main business artery, for a small business recovery meeting hosted by the local chamber of commerce. While there is no such thing as an ordinary entrepreneur, it takes a unique kind of personality to build and live in and commit to Red Hook. For starters, 20 years ago LIFE Magazine named Red Hook, the setting for On the Waterfront (starring Marlon Brando), one of America's worst neighborhoods. Most residents live in housing projects, and the working class waterfront homes sit side by side with industrial warehouses and distribution centers. And there is little public transportation, making Red Hook inaccessible to non-residents.
But in the last 10 years, Red Hook has become a promising if remote destination for food, drink, retail, music and residence. The growth has resulted in broader and unprecedented economic value: property values have increased an astonishing rate and big consumer brands like Fairway and IKEA have moved in.
Who is behind the growth? Highly independent, industrious entrepreneurs who probably think of themselves first as artists, welders, bartenders, carpenters, bakers and community developers than as entrepreneurs. They each made a hand-to-mouth choice to live and work in Red Hook, a choice now made even costlier by a super storm worsened by climate change.
Back at the small business meeting, the audience politely listened to city officials talk about “lessons we have learned from Katrina” and details of grants and low interest loans. During Q&A time, pressing questions immediately poured out that reflected the skin of our teeth living entrepreneurs who are accustomed to even pre-disaster: we need temporary storage or we’ll go out of business in a few days, if the Department of Sanitation doesn’t help us haul out our destroyed inventory we’re going to have a rat problem like right now, we need power to clean up, we have run out of fuel for generators, can you ask the city to not ticket my commercial trash during clean up as I just can’t afford another ticket right now.
They didn't have time or patience for meetings, and their sense of urgency was palpable. Many of them didn't have the time and extra hands - let alone the power and wifi - to get online and apply for loans. They just wanted to do what they do best: get their businesses up and running now.
A member of the Red Hook Initiative, which provides aid to the housing projects and in the absence of federal assistance has found itself coordinating neighborhood relief, offered volunteers and cleaning supplies. As the audience scribbled down the center’s phone number, someone asked, “What’s your name again?” The volunteer coordinator hesitated and said, “Well, it’s Sandy.”
Genuine laughter rippled through the gallery - and then it was back to the pressing concern on everyone's minds: recovery.
In the difficult days and weeks ahead, local, state and federal government agencies must be more active, sometimes by getting out of the way and other times by stepping in where they can make an immediate difference - such as waiving tickets and other penalties that slow down essentials like clean-up, getting FEMA and other agencies additional people for quicker response and participation on the ground, prompt and thorough assistance with grant applications, cash, extending grant and loan application eligibility and flexible credit reviews, and more.
Long-term vision that incorporates global warming and city planning sensitivity can also protect communities like Red Hook with natural fortification from surges; a 100-year-old waterfront bar for example had never had such devastating flooding until Sandy, not just because of the superstorm itself but also due to the parking lot across the street built on land that had in the past soaked up rainwater.
Small business is the backbone of communities everywhere, a backbone turned fragile by superstorms like Sandy. For a small business, being shut for a week – with a lack of immediate cash and gas for a generator and make repairs, employees who are unable to get to work, power/refrigeration to protect their inventory – can mean being shut for good.
These entrepreneurs have the heart and drive to rebuild: our part is to make sure the system works for and not against them, actively support them, and let them get on with it. Turning the lights back on in their businesses will help us all recover.