September 20, 2005--Even before Florida Governor Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency, Desmond Falla had already made the decision to shut the doors of his business until hurricane Rita blew through.
"It's always better to be safe than sorry," said Falla, owner and CEO of DRT International, a freight and logistics company based just outside of Miami. "We're getting pretty good at preparing for the worst around here."
Though not yet officially a hurricane as of Monday evening, Rita is expected to gain strength into at least a category one by the time it hits Southern Florida Tuesday morning, experts at the National Hurricane Center said. Some models show it reaching category two status, which means 100 mph winds and storm surges between six to eight feet.
"We've learned from past experiences. No matter how weak or strong the storm is predicted to be, let you people take care of their business," said Falla, who has lived in South Florida for more than 20 years. He estimates his company has lost between 15 and 20 days of business in the past two hurricane seasons. "It just doesn't make sense to keep them here when their minds are elsewhere."
The U.S. Small Business Administration recommends similar procedures, including distributing a list of emergency contacts to employees and storing crucial documents in a different location -- up to 50 miles away. "It can make a huge difference in how quickly a business can recover," said Carol Chastang of the SBA's Office of Disaster Assistance.
Hurricane season starts June 1 and ends November 30, and so far this season there have been 17 named storms -- already the fourth busiest season since records were first kept back in 1851. The busiest season on record was 1933, where 21 storms formed -- meaning this season still has more than two full months left in the season to produce storms -- poising experts to predict the 2005 season to be the worst hurricane season ever.
Traditionally, according to the National Hurricane Center's website, the hurricanes progressively get worse as the season nears the end of November.
With the ruin brought by hurricane Katrina still fresh on the minds and heavy on the hearts of the entire country, some computer models show Rita continuing into the Northwest Gulf of Mexico, meaning the areas pummeled by Katrina stand the chance of getting hit with another hurricane.
"This is something everyone should be paying attention to," Daniel Brown, a meteorologist with the hurricane center said.
Right behind Rita is yet another hurricane, Philippe, already a category one and moving slowly west about 300 miles east of the Lesser Antilles.
"You can't predict what these storms are going to do, but you can take steps to keep your people, and your business, safe," Falla adds.
In the wake of Katrina, the SBA is re-emphasizing emergency preparedness, Chastang said.
Each year the agency puts out a list of precautions for small business owners in mid-May, a few weeks before the start of the Atlantic hurricane season.
The steps include establishing escape plans and routes beforehand, and making a list of emergency contacts and copies of important documents.
Chastang said among the hard lessons learned from Katrina were to make extra copies of critical business and tax records and "store them somewhere else, at least 50 miles away." She said missing paperwork is stalling emergency loan applications from some New Orleans businesses.
She also urges to business owners to make sure their insurance coverage is comprehensive. "You have to ask beforehand what's covered and what isn't," Chastang said.
A communications plan is also essential, she said, both to check in on employees during a severe storm and to tell costumers you're still in business afterwards: "What kills a lot of business is rumors that you're shut down. People think if a whole area was hit, your business must have been hit, too," she said.
Of the 831,994 loan applications the SBA has received after last month's storm, some 132,450 are from business owners. "With Katrina, and now this other storm coming down the pike, it's been a pretty busy year," Chastang said. Last year the agency approved 64,000 emergency loans for a total of $2.1 billion after four storms slammed into the Florida coast.