Local organizations assist Upper Valley post-hurricane
By Sasha Dudding, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, May 25, 2012
Small businesses in the Upper Valley are still struggling after the destruction wrought by Hurricane Irene in August, but many have begun to receive help from the Small Business Support Team, a project organized by the disaster relief group Upper Valley Strong and the regional organization Vital Communities.
Although the main focus after a major disaster is on individuals who have lost homes or have immediate needs, the impact on small businesses is so strong that an average of 40 percent do not reopen within a year, according to Vital Communities Executive Director Mary Margaret Sloan.
Upper Valley Strong — the region’s Federal Emergency Management Administration-certified relief group — formed immediately after the storm when a group of concerned organizations began working together to help those impacted by the extensive flooding. After recognizing that businesses were still in need of assistance, they began finding additional groups who would be interested in starting the Small Business Support Team.
“Some businesses were already hurt by the slow economy of the recession, so to have that plus the flooding was really difficult to navigate,” Sloan said. “The small businesses are not just important to the people who live here, but to the character of this region. It makes it really special.”
Most businesses’ needs were financial, so one of the team’s first actions was to offer low-interest loans. These were provided through the Vermont Small Business Development Center and the Small Business Association, according to Sloan.
The businesses the team plans to reach out to all have fewer than five employees. The team also hopes to provide these businesses with volunteer repairs, business strategies from Tuck School of Business professors and a network through which they can reach out to other businesses, according to Sloan.
“Small businesses feel like they’ve been overlooked a little bit,” Sloan said. “We’re going to be working with them on a very individualized basis.”
Although many business needs are mainly financial, existing grant programs are small, and asking for additional loans may not be feasible, according to Sam Harvey, the long-term disaster relief coordinator at Southeastern Vermont Community Action.
“A lot of [small businesses] took on loans just to get started in the first place, so while it’s presented as an option, for a lot of them the answer is, ‘No. We can’t take on many more loans,’” he said. “The next question is, ‘How do we get creative with our solutions?’”
There are fewer solutions and resources available for businesses than there are for individuals because FEMA only provides help for damaged homes and not businesses, though many small local businesses focusing on services such as landscaping or carpentry are run from families’ homes or garages and may still need structural repairs, according to Harvey.
“The businesses get lost in that shuffle,” he said. “You don’t have to look very far to see which ones have been impacted.”
The closure rates in the Upper Valley post-Hurricane Irene seem to be low, however, according to business owners interviewed by The Dartmouth.
“I did not have any damage, but business slowed down a lot,” Janice Hubbard, owner of My Stained Glass Store in White River Junction, said. “I’m sure it hurt everybody as far as people weren’t coming out to shop, but no one around me was hurt so much that they had to close their business.”
Other owners of specialty stores also found that people were not interested in buying their goods after the storm, according to White River Junction business owner Mark Estes, president of Junction Frame Shop.
“Picture framing wasn’t on the top of the minds of people in the area at the time,” Estes said. “Last year was a down year even prior to Irene’s arrival, though I can say that this year has picked up.”
For business owners in Queechee, Vt., the closing of the Queechee Bridge and the lack of tourists during the fall foliage season created additional obstacles to recovery, according to Tony Baptagalia, owner of the Route 4 Country Store and Vermont Chocolatiers. While he spoke with the Small Business Support Team, Baptagalia did not use its resources.
“Ours was primarily an economic impact with a loss of customers,” he said. “The people who had physical damages were more involved [with the team].”
There was flooding in Queechee’s downtown area, and some “mom and pop” stores have gone out of business, according to Sharon Hamberger, owner of the Queechee Country Store.
“It’s difficult to pay the bills without business,” she said. “We were greatly impacted because the fall is our number one season. We’re still feeling it.”