MANATEE -- Forecasters say the 2015 hurricane season will be below normal, but Manatee County officials such as Karen Stewart want businesses and families to stay prepared no matter the forecast.
Stewart manages Manatee County's economic development division in the Department of Neighborhood Services. She also maintains the business recovery directory as a part of the county's emergency support system.
Other organizations involved in emergency support include the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp., Manatee Chamber of Commerce, CareerSource Suncoast and Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance.
Jahna Leinhauser, vice president of community development for the Manatee chamber, said the chamber acts like an "information broker" during times of disaster.
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"Probably first and foremost for us is making sure our internal staff is prepared," Leinhauser said. "Right now over last month we've been updating our plan and making sure staff personally has created family plans. If they aren't ready to come back to work, we can't do anything."
Stewart said having a plan ready is the most important part of disaster preparedness for businesses and residents alike.
"Every business should have a plan," Stewart said. The more businesses prepare before a storm strikes, the easier and faster they can recover.
Quick links | Online Disaster Resources for Businesses
- Manatee County Vendor and Business Registry
- Disaster Recovery for Businesses
- Hurricane Readiness Center
- Disaster Preparedness Guides
- Evacuation zones and route map
- Emergency shelter listing
- CodeRed emergency alert sign-up
- List of supplies and disaster checklists
- Family preparedness plan information
- Special needs registry
- Disaster Preparedness Course
- Disaster plan information for seniors
- Preparing pets for emergencies
According to statistics from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, almost 40 percent of businesses do not reopen after a disaster. Between 2006 and 2010, the average commercial flood claim amounted to little more than $85,000.
Manatee County has a business recovery directory, which offers two services to businesses; they can sign up to be vendors for the county and sign up for the business recovery directory. Stewart recommends businesses sign up for both.
If a business signs up as a vendor, the county will approach those businesses when in need of services after a disaster. Some essential services the county needs after a storm include tires, tarps, tents, haulers, barricades, signs, forklifts, information technology services, water extraction and mold remediation.
"Companies should sign up whether they think their products or services are applicable or not, because we just don't know," Stewart said.
More than 1,000 Manatee County businesses belong to the business recovery directory. According to 2013 figures from the U.S. Census bureau, there are roughly 8,000 non-farm businesses in the county.
Stewart said her division keeps record of all vacant buildings and industrial spaces as well. The places not damaged by the disaster can serve as temporary offices or meeting rooms.
Stewart and the other organizations involved in emergency support keep money in the community even in times of crisis.
"Businesses recover quickly when people have a place to stay and are able to come back," Stewart said. Hotel rooms, restaurants, catering services and companies or gas stations with generators can play important roles in fulfilling basic needs when community members return after a disaster.
Joanne Hibbs, owner of ServPro of Bradenton, agrees planning is essential in disaster readiness.
"You need to have as much info as you can together, so you know where things are," Hibbs said. ServPro provides water cleanup and mold removal services after a storm.
Hibbs also has advice for people prior to and during the storm.
"You have one document you download to your phone and make it accessible to everyone in your organization," Hibbs said. "We tell everyone to have cash on hand because ATMs aren't going to work if power is out. Have food and water ready for employees; you can't order from Pizza Hut."
Water can possibly seep into buildings from the top and the bottom, Hibbs said, so she recommends people and businesses keep all important documents and backup hard drives in a plastic tub elevated off of the floor. One of the pieces of information in the grab-and-go tub should be the name and contact information for insurance agents. Maggie Tharp, an agent at Insurance Time of Bradenton Inc., said the information is vital for businesses and residents.
"Your agent will have access to all of your insurance information and put you in contact with the company and provide you with a policy number," Tharp said.
She also recommends people make sure their coverage is active, take photos and notes about what is in the commercial or residential property before a storm hits and invest in a flood insurance plan. Flood coverage is not typically included in typical homeowners insurance.
Business preparedness and personal preparation plans go hand-in-hand, Stewart said. If families aren't prepared ahead of time, it can cause problems for businesses and for the community as a whole in the critical few days before the storm hits.
"You don't want to be standing in line at the store," Stewart said. "You want to be able to worry about taking care of your family."
Spokesman for Publix, Brian West, said preparing for disasters ahead of time doesn't have to be difficult or time consuming.
"Each week when you go shopping, just add one or two of those items to the basket and check it off of your list," West said. "Then all of a sudden we don't have a run on everything and find bare shelves."
After the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons, Publix made what West called a "major investment" in their ability to support customers during disasters. The Lakeland-based grocery chain now has most Florida locations equipped with standby generators to keep them online during power outages.
Stewart also wants Manatee County residents to remember to prepare for disasters of any type.
"We always talk about hurricanes because that's what we're known for, but it could be a tornado, a flood or even if your power is out for 24 hours, that's an emergency."
Janelle O'Dea, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow her on Twitter @jayohday.