- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2005

The video and photos of inundated businesses in New Orleans look painfully familiar to Thom Sehnert.

Twelve years ago, his St. Louis-area restaurant and specialty-food store were flooded by 13 feet of water that had breached a nearby levee after an extraordinary amount of spring rain.

“We were totally out of business,” Mr. Sehnert said. “There was nothing left except the four brick walls.”

But Mr. Sehnert rebuilt Annie Gunn’s Restaurant and the Smokehouse Market, proving that a small business wiped out in a disaster can make a comeback. It was an ordeal, but Mr. Sehnert, like other owners in similar predicaments, found that planning ahead and help from friends and business associates made the process easier.

The floodwaters rushed into Mr. Sehnert’s business on July 31, 1993, but it was five weeks before he was able to go onto the premises and assess the damage. Because he had no access to the business, insurance adjusters didn’t, either, and so his financial future was in limbo.

Family, friends, customers and suppliers came through and helped.

“One of our best customers was a contractor, and with his help, we started the drawings for rebuilding,” Mr. Sehnert said. And one of his suppliers, the Hussmann Corp., which makes refrigerator cases, told Mr. Sehnert to go ahead and place orders for new equipment even before he knew how he’d be paying for them.

Mr. Sehnert also credits business-interruption insurance for helping the company survive. With it, he was able to pay his staff if they didn’t have other interim jobs. Property and casualty insurance helped pay for the losses, but he also needed to take out loans.

The rebuilding started at the end of October, and on March 1, 1994, the business reopened. Mr. Sehnert felt in many ways it had finally recovered that day, but he’s still dealing with lingering effects. He still has about 17 years of repayments left on his loans.

It isn’t always a natural disaster that wipes out a company, but the process of recovery can be similar.

In 2000, an arson fire swept through the Charlotte, N.C., building that housed Collins, Haynes & Lully Advertising, destroying just about everything — most of the firm’s computers were melted by the fire, and the premises were completely unusable.

Co-owner Nancy Haynes said the recovery was helped enormously by the fact that she and her partner were in the habit of sending their accounting program, complete with all their financial records and client lists, to their home e-mail accounts each night. That bit of planning preserved the crucial information they needed to keep working.

Miss Haynes’ company began operating out of her partner’s dining room. They had a new office operating four weeks after the fire.

But the speed at which they were working again disguises the fact that it was a painful, uncertain time. The first people the company had to deal with were police officers. This was an arson fire, and “they’re going to focus on the owners,” Miss Haynes said.

Once the company was cleared of blame, Miss Haynes said she called the Red Cross, seeking counseling for everyone at the company. Everyone was traumatized and worried about the future. Was the arsonist targeting their company?

Miss Haynes’ advice for other business owners recovering from a catastrophic loss is not to do anything rash. Think things through carefully, no matter how eager you might be to get back to normal. For example, don’t sign a five-year lease on a new office unless you’re sure it’s what you’re going to need in the long-term.

It took a year before the company felt fully recovered, Miss Haynes said.

For Don Bosko, recovery from disaster is coming this month. He’s opening a new Beef O’Brady’s restaurant to replace one that collapsed Sept. 26, when Hurricane Jeanne tore through Lakeland, Fla.

When Mr. Bosko saw the ruin of his restaurant, “it was difficult to compose myself.” The restaurant, one of six he owns, was his first.

He found the recovery process complicated by the fact that there was so much damage over a large area. It was very difficult to reach insurance companies, so Mr. Bosko drove to Bradenton, more than an hour away, to meet with his insurer.

“You have to be persistent,” he said. “It was my livelihood, so I kept on top of it.”

Rebuilding meant a process that included getting the property condemned, talking to lawyers and ultimately relocating to a location about half a mile away. Because everyone around him was rebuilding, everything took time. He signed a lease in February, but building didn’t start until May.

In the meantime, like Mr. Sehnert, he used business-interruption insurance to cover his salary and that of his managers. Other employees were placed at his other restaurants.

That insurance, Mr. Bosko said, is one of the most important parts of his recovery — it kept him going during the past year. So, he recommends it to other businesses: “It’s one of the things that most people look past.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

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