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PLUS: SBA loans can help
Scraping, scrubbing and scrounging:
The shopkeepers of Tarboro clean up

Third in a four-part series: Dealing with disaster

Rebuilding a business after disasterTARBORO, N.C. -- When you walk up Main Street in this charming town on the Tar River, past the plaque that commemorates George Washington's visit in 1791, past the "We accept Red Cross vouchers" signs in store windows, and past the office of the insurance agent who didn't have flood insurance, you detect the odor of mildew and chlorine bleach -- the legacy of the flood six weeks earlier.

This town had never recorded a cataclysm before or since Washington's visit at the dawn of the republic. At least, not until September, when hurricanes Dennis and Floyd dealt a one-two punch to eastern North Carolina, sending the Tar River far over its banks after Floyd and pouring 20 inches of rain onto saturated ground.

Most business owners in the area did not carry flood insurance, forcing them to seek loans.

Even the Barnhart Insurance Agency on Main Street in Tarboro didn't have flood coverage, Robert Barnhart says sheepishly as he surveys his just-installed carpet.

Making the business heart of Tarboro beat again
A month after the water receded, the town's commercial district has begun to recover.

Shop owners scrub walls with bleach to kill mildew. Rolls of soiled carpet lie slumped on the curb. In shop doors, fans the size of train wheels propel musty air into the street. Appliance stores sell washers, dryers and refrigerators in exchange for vouchers given by the Red Cross.

Some of these businesses will die.

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Despite the cleanup effort, and despite the availability of insurance and government aid, some businesses won't recover. Communities that go through calamities this severe typically lose 20 to 30 percent of their small businesses, according to James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Rex Browning expresses determination that his jewelry store three blocks from the river will not join the ranks of business failures. But the 66-year-old owner of Rex Jeweler's faces a task akin to repairing a Rolex with rusty tools.

In fact, he confronts exactly that problem. Browning reaches into a drawer in his workbench and pulls out what looks like a lump of rusted pig iron, something you would pick up in a railroad yard. It consists of -- or consisted of -- an assortment of steel watch-repair tools.

No one can repair the tools, and Browning will have difficulty replacing them. The same goes for his watch timer and other implements of his trade, many of them quite expensive.

The flood destroyed much of the store's inventory, too. Clocks and watches that people left for repair -- gone. He had placed some items in Zippo display cases atop 4-foot-high counters. The water got them.

"They just all tumbled over," he says. "I had watches and rings and envelopes floating all over the place."

'My paycheck quit'
After borrowing all that the bank would lend, Browning needed more money. He approached the Small Business Administration, which extends two kinds of business loans after disasters. One kind pays for damage to buildings, tools, inventory, furniture and the like. The other kind compensates for economic injury so businesses can continue to pay leases, wages and certain other expenses.

Browning asked the Small Business Administration to assess the damage to his shop and estimate how much the agency could lend him. He still awaits a reply. Browning feels his livelihood slipping away.

"I can't wait," he says, fixing his gaze on me. "My paycheck quit and you're still getting one. Look at the people from the SBA. They're still getting one."

Across the river, just outside the village of Princeville, Charles R. Dew expresses similar frustrations. His auto-repair shop, Dew's Garage, which his father founded in 1945 and which Dew has operated since 1978, suffered devastation. The floodwater destroyed 15 vehicles belonging to customers. The two-week immersion coated his tools in rust. A white line of mildew far above his head marks where the water crested.

When the Small Business Administration offered a loan at 4 percent interest, Dew declined.

"I can't afford a loan," he says. "I'm going to clean my tools, hope I can get my lights cut back on, and do what I can do. If I can't make it, I'll get a job down the road there." He gestures down the highway toward Tarboro's main street.

The road back is long, and longer for some
A little farther up the highway, Hilda Pierce's beauty shop is under renovation, thanks to an SBA loan. Just a couple of weeks after she applied, she got the $50,000 check to pay for repairs. Without the SBA loan, Pierce could not afford to restore her business.

The 15-year-old cinder block building and its contents practically washed away in water six feet deep. The inundation wrecked the hair dryers, chairs, shelves -- everything. Pierce's adjacent house suffered a similar fate, but her first priority is to reopen the business. While renovation goes on, she makes ends meet by cutting hair three days a week at someone else's beauty shop in Tarboro.

While Pierce works in town, a Methodist church volunteer from Asheville, N.C., hammers at wall studs in her house. A few yards away, repairmen have taken a break from their work on the beauty shop, where they have stripped the walls and floors to bare concrete and scrubbed the surfaces with bleach.

Pierce hopes to reopen by mid-December, three months after the flood.

Three miles away and across the river, Browning says he doesn't know when he will reopen his jewelry store. He can't let the business die, for a couple of reasons. First, he wants to leave the store to his daughter. Second, at age 66 he has not saved for retirement, so he needs the income that the shop provides.

"It took me 42 years to get this far," he says without a trace of a smile, "so if it takes me another 42 years, I won't be nothing but 108 years old."

Related information:
Protecting yourself before and after disaster

-- Posted: Nov. 18, 1999


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