Some small-business owners struggling to recover from this year’s series of brutal hurricanes said the federal government needs to beef up its response.
Unlike individuals, businesses aren’t eligible for grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They can receive disaster-recovery loans, but many entrepreneurs aren’t interested in taking on debt after a big storm, and some don’t qualify for a loan.
“It’s a shame they can’t do more for small businesses,” said Dr. R.L. Burdett, a 71-year-old Houston chiropractor who didn’t have flood insurance.
Dr. Burdett incurred nearly $150,000 in damage when 4 feet of water from Hurricane Harvey this summer swamped the office he has occupied for nearly 25 years, soaking chiropractic tables and X-ray and ultrasound machines. He said he is reluctant to take on debt and plans instead to dig into his savings.
The U.S. Small Business Administration’s disaster-loan program is the main source of federal aid for flood-ravaged entrepreneurs. It allows businesses to borrow up to $2 million to repair or replace damaged property and cover other disaster-related losses. But more than half of the loan applications are typically rejected, often because they don’t have the cash flow to support repayments.
The mismatch between federal assistance and small-business needs is one of many challenges such firms face when disaster strikes. Small businesses typically operate with limited cash reserves, leaving little cushion to cover physical damage or lost revenue. Many firms lack flood insurance, and some of those that have federal flood insurance said it is inadequate.
“There isn’t a tool yet in the federal government that is sized to businesses that are actually very, very small,” said Robin Keegan, who headed Louisiana’s economic recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and is now director of a nonprofit working on disaster recovery. Small firms typically need quick infusions of cash and help rethinking their business plans in light of a disaster, Ms. Keegan said.
Sen. Jim Risch, chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, said he intends to conduct an audit on the SBA’s response to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Mr. Risch (R., Idaho) said he was impressed by the number of loans SBA has been able to disperse, but he said it is too early to assess the agency’s performance.
Mr. Risch declined to say whether SBA should offer grants or other types of assistance besides loans to small businesses dealing with a disaster.
“They are executing in the lanes they operate in, and I think they are executing very well,” Mr. Risch said. “Should those lanes be widened or should they be added to? I’m not ready to say that yet.”
Others said more aid is needed. “As far back as Hurricane Katrina, I advocated for grants to supplement existing disaster-loan programs and I’ll continue to make that case,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Small Business Committee.
An SBA spokeswoman said that “grants are always a topic of discussion.”
The SBA had been criticized for delays following Katrina. The agency is now processing loan applications in 10 days, once the application is complete, an agency official said. The agency said it has processed more than 100,000 applications since Hurricane Harvey hit.
But completing the application has proven to be a time-consuming process for some small firms.
“It’s been a lot of back and forth,” said Rudy Hernandez, owner of Iron Rebels Fitness in Houston, who applied for an SBA disaster loan in late August after Harvey caused about $30,000 in damage to the business. “They are asking for your income-tax paperwork, but this is my first year.”
In previous storms, the number of small businesses taking out disaster-relief loans was small. After superstorm Sandy hit the northeast in 2012, 8% of firms affected by the storm borrowed money from the agency’s disaster-lending program, according to a 2016 study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Some businesses can find assistance at the state level. In Florida, the state created a zero-interest loan program in 1992 to help its businesses get fast cash. As of Oct. 4, the $10 million program had received 331 applications related to Hurricane Irma and issued $3.9 million in loans to 149 applicants.
Green Technologies, a maker of fertilizer for the golf and agriculture industries, received a $25,000 bridge loan less than a week after filing its application a few days after Irma hit Florida last month. “The state was amazing,” said Marla Buchanan, the company’s chief operating officer.
The Jacksonville-based company is using the funds to repair leaky roofs, blown-out walls and roll-up doors damaged by winds from Hurricane Irma while it waits for the federal government to complete processing the disaster-loan application it filed Sept. 18.
Other business owners have been scrambling to find stopgap funding.
Rusty Arena, the owner of Arena Design in Houston, a screen printing company, is using $22,000 raised through a GoFundMe campaign, to help cover the cost of hauling out damaged Sheetrock, waterlogged textiles and other debris while he waits for word on his SBA loan application, insurance proceeds and other sources of funding.
“I can’t put any new fabrics in the building until it’s remediated,” said Mr. Arena, who estimates the storm caused $500,000 in damage when 4 feet of water flooded his nearly 20,000-square-foot building, sending 100-foot-long printing tables crashing into each other and ruining a lifetime of work.
The $22,000 “made the difference between us standing with hands by our sides and getting some workers in,” said Mr. Arena, who was working on a big order for Restoration Hardware when Harvey struck.
Janice Jucker, a Houston bakery owner who was approved for SBA loans totaling nearly $1 million in late September, said the government program has been “a godsend.”
Ms. Jucker’s bakery has flooded four times since 2001 and she would like it if there also were loans to help her relocate. “We need a two-phase approach,” Ms. Jucker said. “We need to get up and running. Then we can run from the flood.”