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Hurricane Sandy: a personal experience

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The day after Superstorm Sandy hit, Mike Catalano opened his truck door and let the seawater out of the cab. The engine started, but nothing electrical worked. CEO of Capitol Awning Co. of Jamaica, N.Y., Catalano recalls driving through his neighborhood.

“The devastation was incredible. We turned a corner and 300 feet in front of us a quarter-mile of boardwalk had come loose and knocked down about 20 homes. Off to the right about 100 feet from this was a 22-by-55-foot patio awning that we had installed three months before, and it was undamaged. The client had us enclose [the patio] so he could use it as his restaurant while he rebuilt the interior that had 6 feet of water in it.”

At home, Catalano was without electricity for 11 days.

“Capitol was closed for eight days due to the power outages, but the trucks were on the road within two days, servicing our clients, working everything through our cell phones. We have a policy of making sure our clients have our cell phone numbers, and it really paid off. We only lost a few awnings in the storm, but all our clients who needed us could find us. Traffic to our website increased by 42 percent in November.” (Sandy hit in late October.)

Some clients needed awnings repaired or replaced but didn’t have insurance payouts yet.

Some owed us money and needed it to get their businesses back up and running or, in the worst cases, to keep their families comfortable while they rebuilt their homes,” Catalano says. “We did whatever we could to help them.”

With firsthand experience and hindsight, Catalano has recommendations for operating a business during a disaster:

“You need some way to have phone calls and access email no matter what happens,” he says. “Along with that, make sure your website is up and running. I had the people that hosted our website post on the home page, ‘We are still open. Here’s our cell number.”

For years, Capitol has maintained a “telephone chain” by which employees and managers can communicate, but after Sandy it modified its systems to be able to access email remotely. In the immediate aftermath, when gas was in short supply, the company purchased a 100-gallon gas tank to sit in the back of one of its diesel trucks.

“We had sales guys that had to be on the road and employees that had to get to work,” Catalano says. “Our diesel trucks were a lifesaver because finding diesel was not as difficult as finding gas. We sent one of the trucks north every day to bring back gas.”

“We’re still in a financial crunch, but before next hurricane season we will have a natural-gas-powered generator that would be at least enough to operate our offices so our phone lines and email could be up,” Catalano says.

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer and editor based in San Diego, Calif.

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