Anatomy of a Disaster: Life Lessons When All is Lost

When I built my showroom in 2002, I thought I had done it right. I had lived in Broward County, FL my entire life and never had been seriously affected by the weather.

So when we first heard the warnings for Hurricane Wilma a few months ago, my reaction, and those of my staff, did not change. Our biggest concern was that voicemails be returned before the storm hit because we were expecting a lot of rain and facing the prospect of losing several days of work due to power outages and transportation obstacles. As luck would have it, the storm was not scheduled to land until Monday. I already scheduled a hurricane make-up day that Sunday to provide a chance for hourly staff to be paid for lost time caused by Hurricane Rita, which had hit weeks earlier. Nearly 75% of my staff took advantage of the day. To prepare, we removed all papers from the desks and computers from the floor.

Upon leaving on Sunday, I noticed almost all of the other tenants in our industrial park covered their windows. I didn’t feel the need to follow their lead. When I built the showroom, I had installed weather-resistant windows. The landlord had spent more than $1 million renovating the building fronts to deter storm damage, so I was confident that the concrete showroom could withstand anything.

Wilma’s Destruction
Wilma arrived early Monday morning with the rains continuing through the afternoon. It was the most frightening experience of my life. From my home, I watched parts of other homes fly through the air, but never once did I think of my showroom, or that it could or would be damaged.

After the rains finally subsided, I checked on my family and called my staff. One staff member lives approximately a mile from the showroom, so I asked if she would mind going there to see if everything was okay.

That three-minute drive took her more than a half an hour, and when she reached the building, the parking lot was flooded. After wading through the water, she was shocked to see the amount of twisted metal everywhere. Though the warehouse seemed okay, it had no power, and when she entered the showroom, the wrath of Mother Nature became a glaring reality. “Debbie, you can see the sky,” she cried. “It looks like we lost the roof, but I want to go home to get a flashlight to get a better idea of what’s happened.”

That was the last communication I had that day because all cellular and ground reception in Broward County ceased to exist for the next 24 hours.

When I arrived the following day, everything in our 5,000-sq.-ft. showroom was wet. Our wood floors were riddled with puddles. Vessel sinks were filled with water. Mirrors were marked by salt water residue. My showroom had been destroyed.

But after my initial shock, my next reaction was that I had a business to run. My staff and I agreed to meet the next day to develop a plan to get us back in operation as quickly as possible. After meeting, we prepared to re-open, using the warehouse as a temporary office and showroom until repairs could be made.

Fortunately, my assistant had the foresight to contact our insurance company prior to the storm to get a claim number. However, her foresight did little good. I found a soggy insurance policy with a fire-engine red sticker on the front that read, “Windstorm damages excluded.”

I soon discovered that when you have an insurance exclusion, it applies to all consequential damages. That meant that our inventory, business interruption and building damage were not covered. In fact, almost everything that was damaged that was normally protected was not. We did have a windstorm policy, but its limits would not begin to cover the damage.

The news from the insurance company and an independent adjustor made it painfully clear that I had a choice to make. I could shut my doors and walk away, or I would have to start over and, once again, build something from nothing.

I soul-searched and crunched a lot of numbers before reaching the conclusion that the decorative plumbing and hardware industry is what I know and love. I decided that not only were we going to bounce back, we would return bigger and better than we were before Wilma.

My faith was reinforced by a remarkable group of peers who confirmed that I’m involved in a truly extraordinary industry. We received countless calls from suppliers, fellow showroom owners and members of the Decorative Plumbing & Hardware Association and the Forte Buying Group. They not only expressed concern for our physical and mental well-being, but also for our business.

The outpouring of support and generosity was staggering. One vendor said, “We’ve cleared your account,” while another said, “You have 365 days for payment.” Many more asked what they could do to assist.

Lessons Learned
The things I learned from this disaster are lessons worth heeding:
1. Don’t fool yourself into believing that you are invincible or that tragedy only affects others. Every business owner should have a plan that enables him or her to be back in operation following a disaster within a short period of time.
2. Be sure you know what is and isn’t covered by your insurance. Understand what options are available. Obtain alternative coverage. Learn your insurance company’s claims process, and have the required documentation to file a claim at the ready.
3. Business owners also need to have a financial contingency plan. My showroom was not damaged structurally, but Broward County was shut down for several weeks, bringing business to a halt.

This disaster showed me that owning a business is about building relationships and leading at a time when leadership counts the most. It’s about making employees comfortable and providing a voice of confidence that the company can withstand anything, even though the daily surroundings indicate otherwise. It’s about maintaining contact with suppliers that are true partners in your past and future success.

Through all of this, one fact became abundantly clear. I could not leave this industry. There is a role and place for the independent channel that must be preserved, promoted and advanced. The decorative plumbing and hardware industry is who I am.