Mother Nature is no match for Rhode Island’s resilient business community

Forming as Tropical Storm Irene on August 20, 2011 over the Leeward Islands in the West Indies, what would arrive along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States in the coming days was the region’s first hurricane of that season.

Hurricane Irene pummeled New York and the New Jersey shore with damaging 75 mile-per-hour winds and driving rains.  She then delivered a strike to Rhode Island late Saturday, August 27, battering the area for the next 24 hours. 

Half of Rhode Island’s 1 million residents were left without power.  Homes and businesses were flooded and the storm surge into Narragansett Bay caused severe coastal damage, including significant erosion.  Washington County was hit especially hard.

Mother Nature can be cruel. Just 14 months later, Superstorm Sandy would deliver another costly blow, but Rhode Island’s business community is a resilient one.

Financial recovery has been a painstaking process for some businesses owners, but a process nonetheless. James M. Hagerty, a long-time member of the Rhode Island Society of Certified Public Accountants, is the Executive Vice President and Chief Lending Officer at the Westerly-based Washington Trust.  He witnessed first-hand the damage Hurricane Irene caused the small business community and its long road to recovery.  Over its 214 years in business, Washington Trust has encountered many disasters that it’s helped homeowners and businesses work through.  Hagerty understands that recovery involved more than drying a basement floor, installing new carpets, or replacing lost inventory.

“In the aftermath of the storm, many of the small businesses had to deal with FEMA and insurance claims,” he said. “The rebuilding process was challenging for those who had to deal with regulations from CRMC, DEM, or the town.  The costs for rebuilding septic systems were daunting.”

They were daunting, but not entirely discouraging.  Hurricane Irene and later, Superstorm Sandy, delivered powerful punches, but neither came close to landing a knockout.  Hagerty witnessed a resiliency that spoke to the inner strength of the business community and the community at large.

“Some small businesses re-invented themselves so they could re-open,” he said.  “In Westerly, there was strong community support for the recovery of Misquamicut Beach.  The Chamber of Commerce raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through various benefit events to help local businesses.”

Lisa Konicki, Executive Director of the Greater Westerly-Pawcatuck Area Chamber of Commerce, remembers Hurricane Irene and the waning days that followed.

“Our downtown business community was paralyzed for several days,” she said.  “Businesses were without electricity and our two-state downtown was cut off at the border with the closing of the bridge over the Pawcatuck River.  Some businesses lost their entire inventory and were closed for more than a week.”

Konicki saw the same thing Hagerty saw.

“The entire community responded generously and we were able to provide businesses with grants that helped cover the costs that insurance did not cover,” said Konicki.  “Most of the small businesses received checks for $3,200 or more.  Town leaders in Rhode Island and Connecticut worked together to address the infrastructure issues.”

Hagerty believes businesses now understand the importance of planning for a worst case scenario and will be prepared for the next time a natural disaster occurs.

“Having appropriate levels of insurance, especially special flood hazard insurance is important,” he said.  “Having inadequate levels of insurance may be a barrier to recovery.”

Konicki has also seen many lessons learned.

“We learned the importance of reminding business owners to take photos of their property just before a major storm,” she said.  “We also learned that not all businesses have a sufficient understanding of their insurance policies and the power that social media has during a crisis as Facebook became the primary source of information from hour to hour.”

The flooding caused by Hurricane Irene gave the business community a trial run of the larger disaster faced when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012.

The Chamber of Commerce raised $426,000 in grant money and worked around the clock with volunteers to help the beachfront business community recover.  Konicki is now hoping the law of averages will play in the area’s favor.

“Westerly has had more than its fair share of natural disasters in recent years and we are hoping that Mother Nature is done with us for a long time to come,” she said.     

Hagerty also hopes Mother Nature has completed her assault on the area, but knows that should she return with a vengeance, the community will be ready for her.

“Westerly is a business community that has proven it can take a punch.”