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New study shows Charleston businesses' frustrations over yearly hurricane disruptions

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After Hurricane Dorian passed in September, the Jos. A. Bank clothing store on King Street got back to business. File/Matthew Fortner/Staff

If anything came through from a post-Hurricane Dorian survey of area employers — the first of its kind to measure how organizations fare overall when hurricanes threaten but don't directly hit the Lowcountry — it was the frustration.

"The frustration just bleeds through," said Bob Kahle, the director of research and planning at the College of Charleston's Riley Center for Livable Communities.

The center, in partnership with the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Charleston Resilience Network, conducted a "Tri-County Resilience Assessment" to gauge how local businesses and other organizations were feeling after five consecutive years of major disruptions from hurricanes and flooding. 

The center sent out its survey just 11 days after Dorian skirted the South Carolina coastline and two weeks after a mandatory evacuation order took effect for counties in the storm's path, reversing highway lanes and shutting down workplaces.

While it appears the last five years have made local organizations more prepared for a direct hit — about 70 percent said their organization has a written disaster response plan — Kahle also said he has some concerns about people being overconfident about their preparedness. 

The mean response members gave when asked to rate how resilient they think the tri-county area is was 75 out of a possible 100. That was the most surprising figure in the study, Kahle said, and notably higher than he'd anticipated. 

Kahle, along with graduate students Anne Tyler Howell and Chelsea Diedrich, collected and analyzed 545 usable responses. Those responses, which represent about 10 percent of those who received the survey, came from representatives of 395 different organizations in the tri-county area. The majority of them, about 83 percent, are in Charleston County.

All of the employers are members of the Charleston Metro Chamber, which provided the contact list for the survey.

Small employers with 50 or fewer employees made up more than half of the respondents, but larger organizations were represented, too. About a fifth of respondents work at places with more than 250 employees.

Though they would have liked to have had a higher response rate, Kahle said they were especially impressed with the detail given in the answers to the survey's open-ended questions.

One respondent described how the evacuation lane reversals caused a "logistics nightmare" for their firm.

"Freight carriers stop running, commutes to and from work are compromised and as a result the business takes a significant hit," they wrote. 

Another wrote that their organization may "decouple" their decision about whether to close operations from the governor's evacuation orders. A second more boldly stated that their business "will not comply with the governor's mandatory evacuation orders until we have determined the path of the storm..." 

Some respondents noted changes they plan to make in their organizations, with improving communication, protecting IT, protecting physical structures and investing in back-up generators being the most popular strategies considered. 

About 17 percent said they were considering financial assistance for employees who may lose out on wages during evacuations. According to a Charleston Metro Chamber study released in August, about 32 percent of Charleston-area manufacturers and 23 percent of other employers offer pay for lost hours. 

Others said they didn't learn anything new from Dorian. Preparations were similar to those for the three previous hurricanes that threatened to make a direct hit here. As one respondent put it, their company "has a practiced, well-oiled and well-orchestrated disaster preparedness plan that has been improved with every event annually..."

About 13 percent of respondents said they were considering relocating some or all of their operations due to severe weather. Though that portion is small, it's a concerning statistic, Kahle said, since those decisions could have significant economic impacts. 

Some respondents cited specific figures related to losses from recent hurricanes.

One said that, between four hotels in the area, storms over the last five years have caused $1.6 million in revenue losses. Another whose company is in the staffing business said Dorian cost them around $115,000 in revenue. 

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A company that lost four production days this year due to Dorian had to have employees work overtime on the weekends for about a month after the storm to make up for the inventory losses, a respondent wrote. 

Some wrote that they felt storm debris should have been picked up faster and power restored more quickly. 

About 270,000 homes and businesses on the South Carolina coast lost power from the storm, and Dorian left more debris than expected. About 600,000 cubic yards of vegetation, trash and brush were collected in Charleston County. 

The survey didn't show agreement on how severe the negative impacts from Dorian were. Responses were distributed all throughout the 0 to -10 range, with -10 being the most severe.

But responses that indicated a positive impact from Dorian showed a clear trend: the only positive impacts were small, between zero and three out of a possible 10. 

Positive impacts included a stronger sense of community and an opportunity to practice disaster preparedness. Some businesses also reported a boost in sales when competitors closed.

When organizations are trying to decide whether or not to shut down operations leading up to a major storm, the largest share of respondents — nearly 20 percent — turn to the Weather Channel, the survey found. The next-highest response is for local news, which about 13 percent of respondents said they use. 

The survey also asked organizations about their awareness of the Charleston Resilience Network, the public-private partnership formed to increase the region's resilience, particularly when it comes to natural disasters and chronic coastal issues. The majority of respondents had never heard of it, and just 4 percent said they were "aware and familiar with" the network.

Jack Smith, who serves as the Chamber's representative on CRN's board, said he sees an opportunity for the network to become more well-known through collaborations like this study. 

This is the first time Charleston-area chamber members have been surveyed in this way over the last several years of hurricane activity. 

But more has been known in recent years about the region's tourism industry, specifically. Another College of Charleston research group, the hospitality and tourism department's Office of Tourism Analysis, calculates total estimated losses within the local visitor industry after a hurricane.

This year, for example, a projected $58.6 million in visitor spending was lost during Dorian, they reported. That was nearly half of what the office projected the industry lost during Hurricane Florence in 2018. 

Data about tourism losses after hurricanes are gathered on the state level, too. Before Hurricane Dorian, the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism had calculated a combined loss of $321 million over the previous four years from hurricanes and flooding. 

Kahle said he's interested in taking a closer look at how these weather events impact other business sectors in the region, like the manufacturing sector or food and beverage workers. 

The Riley Center, which has researched youth homelessness in the Charleston area, would also be interested in learning more about the impacts of mandatory evacuations on college students, he said, especially those who may not have the means to leave or a safe place to go. 

Reach Emily Williams at 843-937-5553. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

Emily Williams is a business reporter at The Post and Courier, covering tourism and employment. She also writes the Business Headlines newsletter, which is published twice a week. Before moving to Charleston, her byline appeared in The Boston Globe.

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