Tornados, fire, hurricanes, floods - natural disasters happen everywhere. Even if your community has been fortunate enough not to face anything in recent memory is no guarantee. Theoretically, no one is exempt. How can economic developers help their communities face the wrath of Mother Nature?
I recently interviewed James Chavez, President & CEO of South Carolina Power Team, who remembers what it was like when the flood happened in Clarksville, TN during what came to be called the Nashville Flood. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that James also happens to be my wonderful husband.)
Back on May 1-2nd, 2010, I was a new transplant from from California, and I had never experienced a torrential downpour quite like that. At the time, James was president & CEO of the Clarksville-Montgomery County Economic Development Council. He watched with anxiety as nearly a foot of rain flooded the Cumberland River and spilled into downtown Clarksville. Many of the downtown businesses found themselves under water and thick brown mud, as you can see in these images.
In economic development, we spend a lot of time thinking about and planning for business attraction and retention, but what about in case of natural disaster? What can we do? How best to help your community? The following exchange offers insight into the particular perspective economic developers have on these kinds of crises.
SC: James, tell me a little about what you found helped your existing industries during this terrible ordeal?
JC: Of course, the #1 concern is protecting residents and families. But focusing on our mission in economic development, I found in Clarksville that we had to take care of our existing industries first. We needed to find out if or how they were impacted and what their immediate and then future needs were for their business and their employees. This is yet another example of why having a good relationship with your existing industries is so important. Our small business community was hit the hardest. As many will attest, they are the lifeblood of any community. Making sure they had the resources they needed was a priority for our team.
SC: What kind of resources were needed and did you provide?
JC: We initiated a program based on the 3 C’s: Convener, Communicator and Connector. Convening our business with the resources they needed, communicating important details of information and connecting them to the resources that were needed.
We started by providing a “one-stop shop” for businesses to meet with FEMA, insurance companies and other organizations that provide assistance and funding. We took hundreds of pictures and created an online folder so businesses had a place to find the photos we took and use them for their insurance claims. This was very helpful.
We worked with our military community, who enlisted the help of local soldiers to help with the clean-up. They were amazing. What would take days or weeks to do, a group of soldiers would do in a day.
We dropped off food/water to businesses during the clean-up phase, rolled up our own sleeves and put on gloves to help in the clean-up process.
SC: What advice could you give communities who may be going through something like this?
JC: There were a few things we found incredibly helpful:
- Be Present! Lead the effort by putting together a community-based plan for your businesses and relief organizations.
- Learn from experience. When the flood happened, we called a community that had previously gone through a natural disaster. Their input helped us formulate a plan using the best practices of an organization that had been there.
- Work with your community leaders and businesses to put together a plan. Develop a disaster recovery & preparedness tool kit so there is no question on what needs to be done and/or who is to do it.
- If you have CDBG or Community Revolving Loan funds available, use them. Make them available to businesses in times of disaster. Insurance companies and federal programs can take a long time as well as be very frustrating to navigate through. Having funds available to help with the clean-up and rebuilding process is invaluable.
SC: Can you recommend a few good sites for economic development leaders to check out that can help them formulate a plan for their community?
James's experience in Clarksville in 2010 offers plenty of interesting insight, but I need to add that in 2016, social media plays a powerful role. Economic developers and other officials can use Twitter, Facebook and other networks to share information, weather updates, shutdowns, aid initiatives and more. It's also a great way to communicate directly with the businesses affected, and keep on top of their experiences with damage and reconstruction. Social media offers a kind of immediacy and spontaneity that enable powerful communication within a community.
With Hurricane Matthew bearing down on the southeastern U.S., we wish safety to all our clients, colleagues, friends and readers.We'd love to hear your experiences, practical advice and preparation plans. Please add them in the comments section below.