Every so often, there comes a time when a business is tested not only as an organization, but as a group of human beings. Debbie Pell, who operates Lindley’s Nursery & Garden Center in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., with her daughter, Jennifer, was one of many retailers who underwent such a test when Hurricane Irma swept along the Florida coast in mid-September.
“We did as much as we could,” she says. “We didn’t have as much time with [Hurricane] Matthew [in 2016] to prepare as we did for Irma. Irma was out there for a long time. As soon as it’s hurricane season, we start watching. We watch the frost in the winter and the hurricanes in the summer. The weather is a daily part of our lives. You have to be prepared.”
The 2017 hurricane season has been particularly trying for affected regions in Texas and Florida, with record-setting tropical storms pushing residential and business communities to their limits.
When Hurricane Harvey struck the Houston area in August, it became the first major hurricane (category 3 or above) to make landfall in the United States since Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Barely a month later, Hurricane Irma became the most powerful Atlantic-formed hurricane ever recorded and swept along the Florida coastline.
Significant and damaging flooding was reported in several Houston neighborhoods, as well as several cities in Florida, including Naples, Fort Myers and Jacksonville.
Harvey set a record for highest recorded rainfall of all hurricanes in the U.S. since 1950, with more than 64 inches dropped throughout its duration, according to the National Weather Service Office in Shreveport, La. Florida residents were spared a Category 5 deluge from Irma thanks in large part to the storm losing power when it passed over Cuba on its way to the mainland, according to a Time Magazine report.
In the weeks following both historic storms, experts have tallied the damage and implications. According to the Los Angeles Times, Harvey caused an estimated $81 billion to $108 billion in damage, mostly to homes and commercial property. Roughly 1.5 million homes and businesses in Florida and Georgia were left without power immediately after Irma’s dissipation, according to Reuters. An estimate from Corelogic put property damage from Irma at $42.5 billion to $65 billion.
Among the many affected, garden center owners and managers in both states were left to pick up the pieces of their businesses and neighborhoods.
Garden Center magazine attempted to contact several other retailers in hard-hit areas, including the Florida Keys, but received no response.
In the aftermath
Hurricane Irma brought with it gale-force winds and rivers of rainfall that devastated multiple communities, and local garden retailers were not spared. In the West Kendall area of Miami, Lighthouse Garden Center was struck with flooding and high winds when Irma passed through the Straits of Florida as a Category 4 tropical cyclone before making landfall on the other side of the state on Sept. 10.
“We definitely had some damage. Everything was pretty much knocked down, all of our plants — our fence was pretty damaged as well,” says co-owner Stephanie Alexis. “We got our power back [Thursday, Sept. 14], so everything has been pretty okay now that everything’s up and running, but there’s a lot of cleaning up to do.”
Plant inventory at Lighthouse Garden Center took a hit from Hurricane Irma, but hard goods were mostly unharmed, Alexis says.
“Luckily, our pottery and statues and stuff, none of that was damaged, we protected it pretty well,” she says. “We have damage pretty much just to our plants. They were sitting in the water for about three days on the floor, with the wind knocking them down. So, we had to re-pot most of the plants. A lot of trees have uprooted, so we have to take them out and re-plant them all over again.”
Green Thumb Nursery in Tampa fared comparatively better, as Irma had shrunk to a Category 1 storm prior to reaching Florida’s northwestern coast. Co-owner Steve Rey said losses and damages were minimal, considering what he and his team were expecting.
“We lost some panels on some greenhouses. We had some tin roof [sheds] where we keep equipment and stuff, we got a little bit of damage on that. Lots of branches and leaves and twigs, but I’m not complaining,” Rey says. “Very little [product loss]. I’d almost have to say none. A lot of stuff was laid on the ground for a few days, and it didn’t appreciate being on the ground, but we’ve watered and stood everything up and it’s looking pretty good. We fared much better than Naples or Fort Myers — we just got lucky.”
After passing over Naples and heading north, Irma gradually lost steam, which may have softened the blow for businesses like Bayshore Garden Center in Fort Myers.
“We lost a couple of tin roofs, but nothing that we can’t replace and repair. Just cleanup — a lot of debris, a lot of trees down,” says manager Stephanie Hayek. “I think I lost maybe a total of 15 plants, just from being laid down for two days. They didn’t get any air circulation, and fungus developed. It was too far gone to treat properly.”
At Kerby’s Nursery in Seffner, Fla., husband-and-wife owners Joey and Kim Bokor experienced less severe weather than anticipated. On a 1-to-10 scale of how badly they were hit, Joey described their situation as “maybe a five.” “We got very lucky,” he says.
“We anticipated much worse, and it was changing every hour leading up to it,” Kim adds.
“We had very little structural damage,” Joey says. “We had a tree down, lots of branches all over the place. Surprisingly, our inventory was in really good shape. We had lain a lot of stuff down, we packed our entire store into a box truck. We unloaded all of our pottery off of its shelves … and we took all the flowers off the tables and packed them together. We had hurricane-force winds through the night, but they all came out intact.”
LIGHTHOUSE GARDEN CENTER | photos courtesy of Lighthouse Garden Center
Beyond the immediate effects of Hurricane Harvey, many people in and around Houston were displaced by persistent flooding for weeks afterwards. Several garden center businesses in the area were spared and are relatively intact, but there were many close calls. Sherri Harrah of the family-owned Plants for All Seasons says the flooding in her area stopped just shy of her business.
“[The flooding] was about a fourth of a mile south of us on the same road. It just stopped,” Harrah says.
Buchanan’s Native Plants also experienced little in the way of wind, rain or flood damage, says general manager Kevin Barry. Unfortunately, several of the company’s employees and customers weren’t quite as lucky.
“The company itself, we did well. We had about a half a million [dollars] in inventory sitting on the lot and lost about $3,000, so it was nothing for us,” Barry says. “Our employees, on the other hand, had a much worse problem. We had two who lost their houses — completely gone. We had one who lost her car, we had one who was renting; he lost everything he had in the rental property. So, we had a lot of employees who were affected, as well as some of our customers.”
Barry added that although sales at Buchanan’s dropped after the storm, he expects activity to recover as the clean-up in Houston continues.
“We probably lost $100,000 in retail sales, but with the way we’re based in Houston, [we’re in] what I like to call the ‘Money Belt.’ We’ve already seen our sales surge again,” he says. “Within the last week, we’ve already picked up $30,000 back. I don’t expect us to take a huge hit in revenue for it.”
Major flooding mostly bypassed Nelson Water Gardens & Nursery in nearby Katy, Texas, but severely impacted the surrounding neighborhoods, says President Rolf Nelson.
“[There was] minor damage that was more from a bit of wind and rain that got through a portion of the roof,” Nelson says. “It really could have happened in a thunderstorm. We didn’t get the tremendous winds, just never-ending rain. Now, we couldn’t get to our business for a number of days because all the roads were flooded where I live. We were shut down for a week, basically.”
Battening down the hatches
One positive trait of hurricanes is the advanced warning they tend to come with, thanks to modern meteorological technology. Large tropical storms can be tracked relatively easily, giving people in their path days or even weeks to prepare.
In the days leading up to Irma’s arrival, many retailers across Florida took steps to minimize inventory loss and property damage, most commonly by laying down trees to prevent wind damage, re-locating outdoor products into structures and removing pottery and other ceramics from shelves so they wouldn’t get blown off and shatter.
“I have a small interior space that I used [to store inventory], and then, my neighbor next door who has a ceramics business, we used part of hers too,” says Walton Mathews, owner of Earl’s Garden Shop in Tampa. “We basically moved almost everything inside except for some bigger palms and stuff, which we just knocked over. If we had been hit as hard as possible, it may not have made a lot of difference, but everything I’d laid down was still laying in place when I got back to work.”
Timing is also important when preparing for a hurricane. Laying down plants too early can cause unnecessary damage.
“A couple days before [expected storm impact], you start preparing with the pots and things that could fly away, things that are lightweight, secure those to another location,” Hayek of Bayshore Garden Center says. “I wanted to put the plants down as close to the deadline as possible, same thing with the trees, because the less time they spend down on their side, the better.”
“We were preparing for the worst and hoping for the best, and that’s pretty much the way it went. We secured all our windows and put sandbags up and tried to stop as much of the potential flood [as possible],” says Rey. “We laid down all of our big material; our trees and our larger shrubs, we turned off all of our water and turned off the electricity and kind of secured it the best we could.”
Jim Dezell of Flamingo Road Nursery in Davie, Fla., executed a company-wide preparation strategy that was meticulously drawn up ahead of time. His company’s hurricane plan involves roughly 500 man-hours of prep work.
“We went through Labor Day Weekend and on Tuesday, we immediately began preparing for the hurricane. Everybody was on deck. We loaded up all of our perennials and put those on these nursery trailers. We went to our gift shop, which is 6,000 square feet, and we spread out the merchandise to the sides, and we were able to roll these big carts into our gift shop. We boarded up everything.”
Conventional wisdom dictates that anyone residing in an area prone to extreme weather should always be alert and prepared for disastrous conditions. With hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes and other catastrophes occurring with increasing regularity and intensity, readiness is becoming more crucial than ever before.
Unfortunately, for a business or homeowner in Florida, preparation for hurricane season isn’t always as simple as stockpiling supplies during the calmer months and formulating plans of action. While Joey and Kim Bokor were preparing Kerby’s Nursery for the storm, they had plans and provisions in place, but uncertainty over how strong Irma would be when it arrived led to questions of which preparations to the store would really be necessary.
“At some point, with all the preparations, it started to feel futile, because if it was going to be a Category 4, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway,” Kim says. “At that point, we went to our homes and had our employees go to their homes so everybody could do what they needed to do, be with their family and prepare for that.”
“The last time we had to do this was 2004, when we had a threatening storm,” Joey adds. “It’s so infrequent and it’s variable — if you’re going to get 40 mile-an-hour winds, you’ll do this, but for hurricane-force, maybe you do something different.”
At Green Thumb Nursery, readiness at every possible level is built into company policy, Rey says.“[Preparation] is pretty regimented,” Rey says. “We have emergency policies and protocols that we follow. Everybody has a place where we know they’re going to be, and we check in on each other. That’s the number one priority — people. Nowadays, it’s easy with texting. We have a group text, [we ask] ‘Everybody okay?’ and everybody answers and you know at least [employees] are okay.”
Rey recommends any business in flood or storm-prone areas to have action plans ready for distribution to employees to prevent confusion and mitigate chaos.
“Depending on the severity of the situation, we pull [the hurricane plan] out and it makes it easy because there’s a lot of work involved, but we just go down the list and do it,” he says. “It’s not only helpful to us as the management team to implement, but also helpful for our employees, because it gives them structure and you don’t get as worked up because you don’t have that added stress of, ‘What do I do next?’”
Businesses in Houston benefited from similar preparations. One key to reducing the damage from Harvey was making sure all staff at Buchanan’s were aware of the emergency procedures ahead of time, Barry says.
“The other thing is to make sure your employees have their strategy beforehand, as far as communication, who’s doing what, how are we doing this,” he says. “We had all those systems in place — the only thing we didn’t account for was cell phones going down, which happened.”
Jennifer Pell says Irma is a learning experience for the Lindley’s Nursery & Garden Center team, as the company is refining its plan of action and extreme weather policies following the recent storm.
“[Irma is] helping us refine our [readiness] system,” she says. “This year, we made a list, and we’re going to type it up, so now we’ll have something to refer back to each time, if there is an each time.”
Even when some hurricanes are less severe than others, a business can’t take any chances when it comes time to prepare.
“You must prepare for the worst. We prepare for a hit and it takes a lot of effort,” says Lindley’s manager Jennifer Knight. “No matter what we do, we’re in a flood zone, so this nursery goes under about two feet of water. So, the preparation and everybody working together is a tremendous effort to make sure everything makes it.”
The recovery process
In post-hurricane situation, assessing damage and losses is the first order of business. Once that’s done, it’s time to start getting back to normal.
For Lindley’s Nursery & Garden Center, removing floodwater with a sump pump was an early priority — one made easier by the fact that the store had not lost power.
“After the hurricane, my mom and I went in on Monday [Sept. 11], because the winds died down enough for us to get out around noon,” says Jennifer Pell. “We came out, and we were so lucky that we had power. My home didn’t have it until Wednesday. Last year [after Hurricane Matthew], we didn’t have power. It was scary because we have no way to get the water out of our nursery, and we flood so easily. It was frightening last year, so we bought a generator as insurance and didn’t have to use it.”
Throughout the previous week, when the Lindley’s team was preparing for the incoming storm and the store was closed early, the store’s 10 full-time employees, including the landscaping team, had their hours cut as a result. After the worst had passed, the staff threw themselves into cleanup mode, making up for lost hours on the clock and helping to get the store back into shape.
“I calculated the hours,” Jennifer says. “We put in about 126 hours in two days [on cleanup]. It took us about 12 hours to pump the water out.”
At Lighthouse Garden Center, much of the store’s inventory was able to be salvaged. Although several of her plants were damaged in the flood, Alexis plans to nurse most of them back to health and into a sellable condition over the coming months.
“We will probably still be able to sell the damaged ones, but it’s probably going to take us three more months for them to get back to looking healthy again,” she says. “Since we have space to keep some of the damaged plants and wait for them to come back, we’d rather just nurse them back to health rather than throw them away.”
Even though Houston garden retailers had plenty on their plates while recovering from Hurricane Harvey, they took it upon themselves to lend a hand to their markets in their own ways.
In the aftermath of the Harvey, Plants for All Seasons has been offering soil and mold remediation classes and demonstrations on Facebook Live, in an effort to equip Houston citizens with the knowledge to help their lawns, gardens and homes recover from the flood.
“[Harvey] opened the door to other ways to help ... and get our name out there, too,” Harrah says. “Houston is huge, and [customers] might Google something about mold remediation or what to do with your landscape after floods, and they’re going to be directed to us, so it was a way to open peoples’ eyes to us, too.”
The leadership at Buchanan’s took it upon themselves to help remedy the disruption by fundraising for home repairs.
“When we opened [Sept. 2], we threw together a fundraising event, and we donated 100 percent of the proceeds to charity. We were able to give about $10,000 in cash to a local charity,” Barry says. “In addition to that, we took each of one of our employees’ needs one by one, turned around and went out to Home Depot and spent three or four grand out there. We kept that confidential with each one of those employees, but we’ve given out about $20,000 so far, and we’re still giving.”
Nelson took a hands-on approach, taking family and employees out into flooded neighborhoods in small, personal watercraft to help stranded people.
“We checked on the [store Aug. 30], but then we went out and had some folks we were able to get out of their neighborhoods,” Nelson says. “My son and I, on that Tuesday, went in to help get an elderly couple and their neighbors out of their neighborhood with our canoe. The next day, two more guys who work with us [brought their] jon boats and joined us. People need the help, we have guys who are used to hard labor, so we’re keeping that group of people busy and doing some good at the same time.”
A robust plan of action requires follow-through from managers and staff in order to have an effect. Whether it’s employees putting in extra time to restore their place of work or owners reaching out to neighbors with a helping hand, readiness must be combined with action if businesses want to weather the storm.
“When something like this happens, you find out where the rubber hits the road, and a lot of people pull together to help each other out. It gives you a sense that you’re not alone,” Rey says.