September 1, 2005--Sounding haggard, Jim Brown is still waiting to hear from a shrimp farmer in Bayou La Batre, Ala. When Hurricane Katrina ripped into the Gulf Coast earlier this week, shrimp boats in the Mobile County village were slammed into the shoreline, then tossed around by ocean surges and floodwaters.
"We just want to know this guy's okay," said Brown, a spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business. On Thursday, Brown's Nashville office was at the center of a communications hub with other regional NFIB offices, each trying desperately to check in on thousands of its members and offer help in the rebuilding process. Recent estimates have put damages from the storm as high as $25 billion.
But with phone lines down across much of the region, which President Bush declared a disaster area Wednesday, Brown and others weren't having any luck.
"Communications are out," Brown said. "We've been putting out the word, but so far there's not much," he said, referring to phone calls and posts on the group's website urging members to contact them.
The NFIB, Brown said, can help members access federal disaster aid and get back on their feet. Small businesses are often hardest hit by natural disasters, lacking the emergency resources of larger companies, according to a Small Business Association statement released Wednesday. The SBA has offered loans and other emergency funding to help owners rebuild.
Gauging how its members are coping will also help the NFIB develop and implement relief efforts, both now and for natural disasters in the future, Louisiana State Director Charlie Hodson said earlier this week.
Those members that had made contact included a Louisiana doctor who was helping set up an emergency triage unit at Louisiana State University.
Nancy St. Pierre, of the central region office, said it was proving hard enough reaching NFIB staffers in hard-hit areas, let alone its members. She said Hodson, whose office is in Baton Rouge, was evacuated from his home in nearby Covington when floodwaters began rising Wednesday. The Baton Rouge office has been without electricity or a phone line since Monday.
St. Pierre herself hadn't heard from her boyfriend, a National Guardsman in Louisiana, for several days. He called in safe and sound Thursday afternoon. "I'm a little giddy right now," St. Pierre said after receiving the call.
Brown said they hoped to contact more members soon. At this stage, he added, the priority was making sure everyone is safe.