Katrina comeback offers strategies for Staten Island businesses

By Jillian Jorgensen Staten Island Advance

New York and New Orleans have decidedly different economies — but small businesses walloped by Hurricane Sandy might be able to find lessons in what worked, and what didn’t, for their southern counterparts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“There are some things that just kind of hold true for all small businesses in terms of how they’re impacted and how they are able to recover,” said Robin A. Barnes, executive vice president of Greater New Orleans, Inc.

Ms. Barnes, a native New Yorker whose previous work with Seedco Financial Services included disaster recovery for businesses in Lower Manhattan in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks came to New Orleans with Seedco in 2006 after Katrina. Since 2010, she’s worked for Greater New Orleans, Inc., an economic development organization in the city.

“Small businesses are major employers in all communities, and so there’s a huge need to focus on the small businesses and get them up and running,” Ms. Barnes said.


“They’re often not connected to financial institutions and other resources, so they often don’t have the resources that other businesses have.”

Ms. Barnes said her organization is offering input to city and state officials in New York about how best to help businesses, and also shared some of her insights with the Advance.

What did government and other organizations do that best helped businesses after Katrina?

Ms. Barnes said it was when governments partnered with community-based organizations in their recovery efforts. The resources — the money — comes from the government, flowing from Washington, D.C., through the state.

“The state then worked through and with community-based organizations,” Ms. Barnes said. “Programs were then very targeted to the specific needs of the businesses in that community and/or the needs of specific industries.”

Ms. Barnes said difficulties can sometimes arise when, in order to make them available quickly, programs are too general — so it works well if there’s flexibility that allows government programs to be modified as new issues arise.

“We have some experience here where programs were sort of continuously modified to see the need of small business,” she said.

“There are some things that just kind of hold true for all small businesses in terms of how they’™re impacted and how they are able to recover,” said Robin A. Barnes, executive vice president of Greater New Orleans, Inc.


She understood the reluctance of some businesses to rely on Small Business Association loans while they also had to pay a mortgage or other costs.

“We had a lot of experience with business that didn’t quickly take a loan, because they weren’t going to assume debt if they weren’t 100 percent sure that their neighborhood is going to come back,” Ms. Barnes said.

Some businesses attempted to come back too quickly — at Seedco, they worked with a po’boy sandwich shop in the Upper Ninth Ward that re-opened too soon.

“The neighborhood didn’t come back as quickly as we thought it would, and the business didn’t succeed as a result,” she said.

For that reason, there can be benefits to waiting and aligning the reopening of a business with planning efforts in the neighborhood. But businesses that can take part in the recovery — whether it’s feeding workers to providing clean-up services — might do well to open quickly.

Many restaurants in New Orleans adjusted, she said, serving breakfast and lunch for hungry workers instead of serving dinner, since regular customers were no longer living in the area. It can also help to make ends meet if restaurants or other businesses cut back on their hours or their payroll by only having some people return to work.

“We heard a lot from restaurants who said, ‘We have to be open our regular hours in case our customers, our regular customers show up,” Ms. Barnes said. “They quickly realized that’s probably not feasible, so they would have very limited hours.” 


She recalled a store that sold homemade pralines — and lost its customer base after Katrina. So the owner took out a loan to buy an oven, and started offering full meals to feed workers after the storm.

That kept her in business until she was able to switch back to selling mainly pralines again. After 9/11, many Lower Manhattan restaurants switched to catering after the area’s workforce was dispersed, she said.

“When you have a market shock, boom — a disaster or a recession or something — and it’s dramatic, the tough thing is to kind of rethink,” Ms. Barnes said.

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