Getting back to business after Sandy: Lessons from the Westerly Chamber of Commerce

Lisa Konicki spoke at the free lecture, “Staying Afloat: Adapting Waterfront Businesses to Rising Seas and Extreme Storms” supported by the Rhode Island Sea Grant Baird Science Symposium on December 9 in Newport. 

Delivering pizza to hungry crews of volunteers cleaning up debris from flooded shop floors. Helping businesses decipher the fine print of their insurance policies and fill out grant applications. Such tasks could never have been foreseen by Lisa Konicki, executive director of the Westerly Chamber of Commerce, as part of her job when she first came on board almost two decades ago. But she found herself doing those tasks in 2010, when April storms deluged the state, including Westerly’s downtown commercial district and coastal businesses.

“Absolutely disastrous,” says Konicki, recalling how flood waters destroyed or damaged the structures and contents of dozens of businesses. “We couldn’t believe how bad it was. But we had to do something about it.”

The Chamber added a litany of support actions – development of an emergency contacts database and distribution of business cleanup care packages, for instance — to its traditional menu of business education and networking services. “People just banded together because we had to get these businesses that had suffered such damage back on their feet,” says Konicki.

Town businesses eventually bounced back from the floods of 2010, but were put to the test once more when Superstorm Sandy pummeled Rhode Island in October 2012. Westerly, especially the shoreline area of Misquamicut, saw staggering loss of residential and commercial property as the storm swept buildings from foundations and piled sand drifts in roads.

The Chamber swung into emergency relief action once more, working alongside public safety entities to ensure those worst hit by the storm had food, shelter and the care they needed. “We couldn’t even address the rebuilding right away – we were just making sure people were eating and had a place to sleep, and that their properties were secure from potential looting. That way of living went on for some time,” she says.

The Chamber launched a fundraising campaign, managed the town’s re-entry pass program for property owners, businesses and contractors, and provided its conference facilities to state officials as a central meeting location. Then came the property cleanups and finally, the rebuilding effort.

Misquamicut

Temporary structures in Misquamicut, post-Sandy.

While the Chamber was widely recognized for the agility it had developed in helping businesses recover from natural disaster, the Westerly community felt that outside of the local support provided by the municipality, the state, the Chamber, and an array of community-based organizations, they received little recovery support on a national level. “While national groups are highly effective at fundraising after a community disaster, the physical, financial and emotional support provided for businesses is all happening at the local level,” Konicki says.

Today, some businesses are back to normal functioning, others are planning rebuilds, and still others are taking an adaptive approach to selling at the seashore. “We have two businesses that have chosen to operate out of a custom trailer and they can move to dry ground when the storm hits,” she says. “We have a business working on reopening only as a restaurant, and leaving the hotel piece out of the equation. We have two businesses that have redesigned using portable food stations, furniture groupings and removable awnings and beams rather than permanent structures. Again, their goal is to pack up quickly and protect their inventory and livelihood. ”

Lessons Learned

Konicki says she and her Westerly Chamber of Commerce colleagues have learned that it’s critical to learn about climate change, flooding and erosion: “If you don’t know about it, ask someone who does – you need to understand the problem before you can think about solutions.”

Further, Konicki says, the business community should network with as many people or organizations as possible locally – including volunteer agencies, the Salvation Army, emergency food and supply providers and the Chamber of Commerce. “You don’t realize how strong your community is as a whole until something like Sandy happens. Get to know your neighbors and your businesses before disaster happens.”

Finally, Konicki says, besides physical rebuilding, emotional support is needed as well. “I would love to see more supports put in place in terms of providing mental and emotional health services for people enduring these disasters – it’s not talked about, but it’s needed.”