Dealing with diaster: Consultant helps business owners devastated by Katrina

Images seen on television can't always give an adequate picture of the vastness of a hurricane disaster area. Chris Wendel, a certified consultant with the Michigan Small Business & Technology Development Center (MI-SBTDC) in Traverse City, was able to see in person the magnitude of the damage done on the Gulf Coast by hurricane Katrina. He was in Mississippi as a volunteer to assist applicants applying for the federal Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loans.

"Why did I volunteer to go to Mississippi? I thought it was an interesting opportunity," Wendel answered. "I think curiosity was part of it and also I felt it was a means to help the folks down there. It was one of those things that if I didn't do it, I would regret it. I thought that this was kind of a unique opportunity to use the skills that I use here, but in a different situation. I could help a lot of people in a short period of time."

Wendel volunteered while attending a National Conference in Baltimore, Md. for the Association of Small Business Development Centers. His state director found out about the teams being sent into Mississippi and asked if he was interested. Those volunteering went through a half-day training session during the conference.

"The magnitude of the thing (the damage from Katrina) was so great, they kept changing the rules as we were sitting there," Wendel said of the session. "They (have since) streamlined the process quite a bit."

Wendel was a member of the second team sent into the Mississippi disaster area. As he was flying into Gulfport on Oct. 3 in a small plane, the first thing he noticed was bright blue blotches. At first he thought they were an abundance of above-ground swimming pools. It didn't take long to realize that they were actually roofs of houses and buildings covered with blue tarps, and they were everywhere.

Wendel and Luke Bates, the Comptroller for the MI-SBTDC office in Grand Rapids and another volunteer, were assigned (along with two security people) to Gauthier, near Pascagoula in Jackson County. Staying in a RV in the parking lot of a branch of Southern Mississippi University, they were just a few steps away from where they worked during the day.

"The primary reason I went there was to help process the SBA disaster assistance loans and that was what I thought I would be doing most of the time," Wendel explained. "But you had people coming in that were still trying to figure out their living situation. The business was kind of second, down the line somewhere. They were just trying to figure out if they wanted to even stay in business, a lot of them had severe damage to their buildings. So, I think it became more of a counseling thing."

Due to the confidentiality agreements with the people the team worked with, Wendel was unable to detail stories of the business owners they saw everyday. He couldn't help but notice, though, their kindness, patience, politeness and good humor in the face of their tragedy.

In the two weeks that Wendel was in Mississippi, he talked to approximately 8 to 10 business owners a day, approximately 100 businesses total. According to Wendel, the SBA received about 34,000 disaster loan applications from the states affected by Katrina.

"The business owners had to make a choice, although some decided to cut their loses and get out, they were in the minority. There were a lot of people, and this is important, who felt a real social responsibility to stay open," Wendel emphasized. "They knew the town was going to miss them, and they didn't want to leave. They felt a real close allegiance to the community. There was one gentleman I talked to had five commercial pieces of property. They were all wiped out, but he wanted to rebuild every single one. He didn't have to do it, but he wanted to do it because he knew the business owners wouldn't have a job or a business without his buildings."

Even where they were in Gautier, there was a lot of wind damage. However, west of Gulfport, "Past Christian was beyond description and Bay St Louis was like a lunar landscape," Wendel recounted. "It was surreal, cars turned upside down. I don't think there are any commercial businesses left in that town (Bay St. Louis) and their houses were nothing but cement slabs. They were actually spray painting their house number and name on plywood and putting it up. It was the only way they knew where it was suppose to be."

While Wendel was volunteering in Gautier, the governor of Mississippi, Hailey Barber, passed legislation for a bridge loan, at zero interest and up to a $125,000 loan for each business. The next day, the paperwork was brought in so Wendel and Bates could process those loans also.

"They don't know how long its going to take to get the area back to normal, Wendel pointed out. "They're taking it one day at a time. Some of the people try to keep themselves from being overwhelmed, doing a little bit each day. Long term, they have aspirations of being back to normal."

"I'm still getting calls from people who are down there," Wendel added. "I think they are going to continue this (sending teams into the Mississippi disaster area) at least through November or until things are taken care of." BN