It’s only been a few days since Hurricane Irma passed through Florida and residents and businesses are only beginning the process of sorting through the aftermath and contemplating what’s next. It may take years to rebuild and rebound.
Twenty-five years ago, I had an opportunity to see firsthand the devastation a hurricane can wreak on an area. I spent more than a month in South Florida trying to help the drug store company I worked for rebuild after Hurricane Andrew swept through the state. Our company had several locations in the Miami/Homestead area that were battered or destroyed by the storm surge, rain and 165 mph winds.
At the time, Hurricane Andrew was the most expensive hurricane in US history. The storm did more than $25 billion in damage and caused forty-four deaths. Some 730,000 houses or buildings were damaged or destroyed and more than a million people were left without power.
In addition, 80,000 businesses were damaged. We were one of those businesses. In anticipation of the storm, we set out for Florida before the storm made landfall with a goal of being at our locations just as soon as the storm had passed and we were safe.
We aimed to secure whatever inventory might be left and to immediately begin the rebuilding process. Because of the type of inventory contained in a drug store, we didn’t feel it was safe to leave that inventory to the looters that had found their way to damaged and destroyed stores. Crime rates in that area spiked after the hurricane mostly due to looting.
I was unprepared for the devastation and the chaos that would follow. The images on the television news don’t really do it justice. People lost everything and the days ahead would create desperation as they were left wondering where basic things like food, water, clothing, and shelter might come from. Close to a quarter of a million people were left homeless by the storm. And most of them were also left un-employed, at least temporarily.
Once we secured our locations, we began the process of drying them out, repairing damage, and even re-stocking our inventory. We were back open only days after the storm trying to fill people’s basic needs like water, medicine, film, batteries, and charcoal. Our process was one like many other businesses and the first steps of a recovery that would take as many as twenty years. Some businesses would not survive and instead closed for good.
Most employers were left with a dilemma. Many didn’t know what the days ahead would reveal. Many wanted to take care of their employees and get them back to work as soon as possible, but most didn’t know even where they were going to live or where revenue might come from to pay employees the money they desperately needed to help get their own lives back in order.
Couple that with employees whose principal concern was the safety and security of their own families and were not thinking yet about getting back to work and it became hard even to staff those businesses that were able to reopen.
I’m confident that Florida will recover from Irma’s wrath much as they did after Andrew. It can be a slow process though, and will require residents, businesses, and the local, state and federal governments working together to rebuild. Businesses play a critical role in this process and it will be business owners taking risks that help put people back to work and help establish or
re-establish key businesses that will help drive the Florida economy.