The leaky ceiling in Doug Fowler's office serves as a daily reminder of the destruction brought by last year's hurricane season. But like the state of Florida, Fowler's Vero Beach-based software development company, Spectorsoft, has bounced back and is on a roll.
"They hit, one after the other," Fowler says, referring to hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, which touched down in September 2004. "When I think of what this place looked like right after those hurricanes, I'm grateful we're even in business."
Four hurricanes (Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne) and one tropical storm (Bonnie) pummeled the state last year leaving behind more than $50 billion in damages and 85 people dead. An initial influx of insurance money and construction gave a helpful boost to the local economy, but the strength of the economy since then is real -- and growing at a record clip.
According to Enterprise Florida, a public/private partnership working to diversify Florida's economy, 225,000 new, non-agricultural jobs were created in the Sunshine State between May 2004 and May 2005, making it first in the nation for job growth. Not all of those jobs were in the roofing or construction fields as expected in a disaster-torn state: 110,000 were in professional, education, and health service fields. This swell of economic activity also lined the state's coffers with $2 billion in unexpected tax revenues.
More good news came from the state's bread and butter industries, tourism and citrus. These staples of Florida's economy have dusted themselves off and are setting milestones. A record 76 million tourists visited Florida in 2004 and spent nearly $57 billion. The $9 billion dollar citrus industry absorbed $2 billion in hurricane-related damages -- only to come back and see its first jump in sales (4.2%) in almost a decade.
"This is the best place to start a business," says Darin Engelhardt, chief financial officer of MDVIP, a healthcare solutions provider based in Boca Raton that launched in 2000. "The weather is almost perfect, so employees love living here and because of the friendly tax climate, it is also very appealing to businesses."
That's exactly how Fowler felt after opening his business in 1998; he was looking forward to a booming business. Last year, Spectorsoft clinched that success with a spot on Inc. magazine's Inc. 500 list. Fowler had his company poised for a great year when the hurricanes struck.
"The winds were around 100 mph and our parking lot had three feet of water in it -- flooding our main floor," he remembers. "We had no power, water or A/C and had to rely on generators to keep our network, the most vital part of our business, up and running for more than two weeks."
He moved his entire team to the second floor, cramming 35 people into a space designed for 15. And despite a strict 6 p.m. curfew, water shortages, and stressed out employees, the business quickly got back on the fast track and has recovered nicely. Fowler lost very little business after the hurricane and has since gained more business.
"We had people wondering why we hadn't gotten back to them in a couple of days," he remembers. "Then, when we called them back, they all apologized because they saw on the news what happened. They were amazed we even called back at all."
The experience of earlier storms has helped business leaders better prepare for the impact of hurricanes.
"Since Andrew, the whole philosophy toward hurricanes has changed," Engelhardt adds. "People always thought of hurricanes like earthquakes, they happen -- just not here. Not anymore, they take them very seriously and it's been evident by how quickly we've recovered."
"We lost virtually no business and now we're doing fantastic and expect to keep on growing," Fowler says. "We're confident in the economy -- but the hurricanes keep us on out toes."
With the National Weather Service predicting 12 to 15 storms to form this season -- with half of them becoming full-blown hurricanes -- the Sunshine State's economic future looks bright, even if the weather forecast isn't.
"It'll take more than hurricanes to scare us away," Engelhardt says. "This is just the best place around -- to live and work."