Isabel's battle-tested

Maryland businesses hit hard by storm learn tough lessons about preparing for natural disasters

January 12, 2004|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,Special to SunSpot

Jeff Andrews is trying to make something good out of Hurricane Isabel.

His business, Tidewater Marina in Havre de Grace, has an independent store that sells clothing and marine supplies. It is located within the marina. But wind damage from Isabel destroyed some of the store's walls - and Andrews lost a good part of his inventory.

Still, he is planning for a new store on the street, one that's farther from the Susquehanna River and with better access for customers. It also will be more than twice the size of the original store.

"We plan to turn adversity into opportunity,'' Andrews said.

Tidewater Marina is among a number of businesses in the Baltimore region - including the New White Swan Tavern and Restaurant on Miller's Island, ATC Logistics Inc. near the Patapsco River and Tradewinds Marina in Little River - whose owners, nearly four months after Isabel, are not only looking to make things right but are moving to ensure that such devastation doesn't happen again.

Isabel slammed Maryland on Sept. 18 and 19, causing an estimated $410 million in damage statewide, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. The state was declared a disaster area, and residents since have received more than $87 million in recovery assistance while trying to rebuild their lives.

Most of the money came from the U.S. Small Business Administration, which gave out $48.9 million after approximately 14,000 loan applications were submitted. The Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development (DBED) met with more than 1,800 business people on disaster-related matters.

Water, wind damage

While many companies experienced heavy water damage from Isabel, a number are recovering from extensive wind damage. According to the Hurricane Center, wind gusts topped out at 55 mph at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and sustained winds, those lasting at least one minute, were measured at 44 mph.

In Hagerstown, wind gusts reached 52 miles an hour, while sustained winds topped 39 mph, the Hurricane Center reported. At the Pawtuxet River, wind gusts were significantly higher - at 69 mph - as were sustained winds - at 55 miles an hour.

When Isabel touched down at Drum Inlet, N.C., on Sept. 19 at 1:30 p.m., its eye was about 70 miles wide, said Jack Beven, a hurricane specialist at the center. Drum Inlet is on the southern end of the Outer Banks.

"The strongest winds from the eye were well west of the Baltimore area," Beven said, stretching into portions of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

"Baltimore didn't experience the worst winds that Isabel had to offer. Baltimore got quite a bit, but it was worse in other places."

Overall, Isabel was directly responsible for 16 deaths, including 10 in Virginia and one each in Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Florida. The hurricane, which later was downgraded to a tropical storm, was indirectly responsible for 34 deaths, including 22 in Virginia, six in Maryland, two in North Carolina and Pennsylvania - and one each in New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

Devastating effects

Jim McLean, director of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s Office on Business Advocacy and Small Business Assistance, said that 40 percent of the firms hit by such a disaster usually don't reopen - for a variety of reasons.

McLean said they might have been smaller operations that lacked capital, were operating marginally or just were not managed effectively.

"They weren't successful before the storm, and these things just pushed them over the edge,'' McLean said. "[For example], the last couple of years have not been the best of times. The market and the business climate have been terrible.''

Businesses located near or at water have been forced to seriously consider either getting or increasing flood insurance. Many did not have it or were under-insured when Isabel struck.

But there's another problem now: McLean said that there were 10 major companies writing flood insurance in the area and that some have said they'd discontinue doing it.

That could drive rates up, which makes it harder for small- and medium-sized businesses to buy such insurance. The state has some control over rates and who writes policies, but only a certain amount, McLean said, adding, "that's a new question."

Bracing for the next one

Government officials have been urging business owners they meet with to learn from Isabel: Take a proactive stance and be ready for the next major weather disaster.

Richard Hitchens, senior forecaster for the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va., said this message makes good sense because another powerful storm will come in the future.

"It could be next year or it could be another 70 years,'' Hitchens said. "It's a certainty. We just can't say exactly when it could come.''

Businesses hit hard by this storm are determined to be ready for that eventuality.

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