Charlie Davis, the co-founder of MasteryPrep, an education startup, spent six hours rescuing an employee from a flood on Saturday. Oliver Pope and his family had been trapped under several feet of water in their rented house in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
"It took three trips to get five kids, a dog, two adults, and only a small number of possessions from the house," says Davis. He rushed to the neighborhood on a defunct motorboat, which a volunteer had to push forward with a pole.
The Popes aren't the only residents who have lost their property to flood damage. Some 40,000 homes and businesses have been flooded since last Thursday, when torrential rain began pouring down over Louisiana. Overall, 7,364 businesses employing 73,907 people are located in areas identified as flood-affected, according to the Baton Rouge chamber of commerce.
In terms of businesses, there are 7,364 local businesses located in the flood-affected area, which employ 73,000+ individuals.-- BRAC (@BRAC_BatonRouge) August 19, 2016
"This is historic, it's unprecedented," Louisiana Governor Bel Edwards told reporters. The flooding, which the Red Cross described as "the worst natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy," has left at least 13 dead and forced 8,000 into shelters. So far, more than 60,000 people have registered for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The financial losses have been an immense concern for residents--damages are likely to climb to more than $1 billion--but a number of small businesses are determined to help their displaced employees, peers, and customers.
Davis says the award was hard to stomach. "The honor on this week, and in this state, and especially in this city, is bittersweet," he wrote in a blog post that day. Founded in 2012, MasteryPrep brought in $4.4 million in revenue last year, and has helped thousands of students make significant progress on the ACT in over 600 schools and school districts across the nation.
"Many of our families, our friends, and our customers are currently under siege," the 40-year-old entrepreneur continued.
Davis later confirmed to Inc. that three employees, including Pope, have lost their homes to flood damages so far, but most are still showing up to work. On Sunday, one affected worker even flew out to North Carolina to teach a high school test prep course.
"We're not a large corporation, so instead of having a policy we have to stick to, we're trying to encourage employees to band together and help one another," he says. MasteryPrep is working to organize shelters and collect needed items. Davis also encourages workers to donate to charities that support displaced teachers.
One such organization, the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana (APEL), which bills itself as an "alternative" to teachers unions, has already raised $21,000 for disaster relief since opening its fund a few days ago.
Keith Courville, APEL's executive director, was previously a science teacher in a rural parish deeply affected by the floods. "Thankfully, none of our direct employees have lost houses because of this," he said, "but friends and family members did."
Amid the tragedy, many other startups candidly shared with Inc. the business challenges that lie ahead as Louisiana faces a broken infrastructure.
Darren James, the founder of Darren James Real Estate Experts, nearly drowned trying to save his family in Denham Springs last weekend. He was on a boat with his daughter and neighbors, rushing to save his father from a flooded house, when the boat hit a light pole and capsized.
"My daughter was screaming 'Dad, help me, help me!' and the current was pushing her away," James recalls. After helping her to grab hold of a tree, James reached out to grab a separate limb, which snapped. He floated down the current for 45 minutes, before volunteers came to the rescue.
Launched in 2011, Darren James Real Estate Experts helps clients buy, sell, and finance homes. The company brought in $2.2 million in sales last year, making the Inc. 5000 list at No. 4983. James is now working to confront the damages to properties he works with. One client had recently remodeled her home, which was destroyed during the storm. "It very well may not be easy to sell," says James.
The founder has set up a fundraising campaign through GoFundMe to assist seven employees (independent contractors) who were directly affected by the flooding. So far, it's raised $3,000. He's also creating an online database to showcase undamaged properties for sale, rent, or lease, which he hopes will be useful to families rendered homeless by the storm.
Brian Rodriguez is the president Gatorworks, a Baton Rouge-based digital marketing agency. Since most of his clients are local, "we expect cash flow to slow down significantly over the next 60 to 90 days," he said over email. "For business owners, the uncertainty of potential cash expenditures will likely cause them to hold onto their cash."
MESH, an integrated advertising firm that made the Inc. 5000 at No. 2152, echoed the difficulties in winning over clients. "There's not a whole lot of [business] activity locally, but we still have our clients out of state," says Taylor Bennett, founder and CEO of the Baton Rouge company.
Back in 2005, MESH saw a boost in sales when Hurricane Katrina drove residents out of New Orleans and into Baton Rouge. The same cannot be said for Thursday's storm, since many residents are now leaving the Baton Rouge area to find shelter elsewhere. Another challenge has been locating current and potential customers. "We represent clients like banks and restaurants," Bennett continues, "and with people not having an address, you have to try and figure out how to track people down."
To give back to the community, he's taking advantage of Section 139, a special tax code, to donate $2,000 to employees.
Darren James, the real estate entrepreneur, helped his father to salvage old photographs and other possessions from his flooded home earlier this week. One item in particular stands out: a portrait of James's mother, commissioned after she died last year.
"It's total devastation throughout the community," James reflects. "But I believe that if the man upstairs sends you to it, he'll also send you through it."