Small-Business Owners Look to Return to Work After Sandy

Small-Business Owners Look to Return to Work After Sandy

Source: The Wall Street Journal

By: Angus Loten and Emily Maltby

As Hurricane Sandy worked its way inland Tuesday, small-business owners along the East Coast spent most of the day sizing up the damages left in the storm's wake—if they could get to their businesses at all.

Michele Paladino, the owner of Gowanus Nursery, a plant-and-garden store across from a trans-Atlantic port in Brooklyn, N.Y., says she had hoped to ride out the storm at the nursery Monday night. But Ms. Paladino fled around 9 p.m. after seawater flooded the basement and shorted out an electrical box. Hours earlier, high winds had blown down a 12-foot fence in front of the store.

"The water came up pretty fast," says Ms. Paladino, 43 years old, who opened the business two years ago and has five employees. The basement remained flooded Tuesday morning, though most of her inventory of plants, shrubs and trees was laid out in the yard. "There will be lots of cleaning up to do," she says, rummaging through overturned pots and plants. It was too soon to estimate the total amount of damage.

Many owners in the region stayed home Tuesday, unable to access their businesses with roads cut off, bridges and tunnels closed, and many areas without power, according to small-business trade and groups.

"At this stage, they're touching base with employees and making sure everyone is OK," says Molly Brogan, a spokesperson for the National Small Business Association, a small-business advocacy group in Washington.

She says most owners started preparing for the storm late last week, checking insurance policies and backing up key business data. "We're hearing from owners who say they might not see their businesses for days," she says.

"What we tell businesses is to contact their insurance companies immediately and document all the damages," says Gerald McSwiggan, the senior manager of the Business Civic Leadership Center's disaster-assistance service, an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that operates a small-business disaster helpline. Set up five years ago, the help line has heard from small-business owners all along the East Coast who are looking for help with everything from fallen trees to getting back up and running.

"A lot of what we do is counseling owners, who need some reassurance that everything is going to be all right after something like this," he says of the 200 or so calls the service expects to field in the next few days.

Further back from the port on Brooklyn's Columbia Street, just a block from the mandatory-evacuation zone, most of the small storefronts remained closed as of Tuesday morning. But at Margaret Palca Bakes, a coffee shop and bakery, co-owner Paul Kalin was serving a long line of customers seeking breakfast and shelter from the wind. He and many of his eight employees live in the area, he says, so the shop was able to remain open on Monday and Tuesday. Business has been "a little more than normal," he says, "because we're one of the few places open."

From speaking with customers, Mr. Kalin found that most of those who ventured from their homes "are out for a walk because they are tired of being inside and they want to see the devastation," he says. "They're nosy. Typical New Yorkers."

Other small businesses were pitching in with relief efforts. Next door to Margaret's, at Jake's Bar-B-Que Restaurant, owner Robert Shu was busy fielding phone calls from the city and organizing his three employees to cook and deliver chicken, brisket, rice, sandwiches and drinks to several hundred emergency workers. It is a "public service," he says, and one that he has provided in years past, during blizzards and hurricanes.

"I got the call at 10:59," he says. "Three hundred people want lunch. We're emptying the fridge to serve those people. "

Normally, Mr. Shu would have six staff to fulfill such an order, he says, but two employees were unable to make it in. "We're working triple hard," he says. "It is a real challenge because [the emergency personnel] need to eat on time and get back to work."

The restaurant would likely run at a loss for the day, Mr. Shu predicted, because the cost to the city would be "very low, very minimal." And even though Mr. Shu stocked up at his food depot on Sunday morning, he realized that such a large order could wipe out a number of supplies, preventing him from serving patrons planning to eat at the restaurant later.

Still, he was glad to be a part of the recovery effort. "I've got chills down my back that they'll have good food to eat," he says.

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