CA Thomas Fire Triggers New Solutions for Business Recovery Following Disasters

Northridge, CA.  Marking the 25th anniversary of the Northridge Earthquake and almost exactly one year to the day of the end of the devastating Thomas Fire and mudslides that disrupted Ventura and Santa Barbara, the Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD) -- in partnership with Wells Fargo -- today released a report designed to help small businesses prepare for and recover from future disasters more swiftly.

Highlights of the report, “Lifting small businesses from the ashes: Lessons Learned About Long-Term Recovery Challenges Facing Small Businesses in Southern California After the 2017 Thomas Fire” were presented in a keynote speech by the Institute’s CEO Stephen Jordan at the “Are You Prepared? Shift Happens!” conference of the Valley Economic Alliance. The event was held at California State University, Northridge.

“Research shows that disasters can cause as much as 40% of the small businesses in an impact zone to fail within two years after a disaster,” said Jordan. “What we found is that the key to retention and helping a community return to economic normalcy is not just focusing on the immediate aftermath of the event, but also on their longer-term recovery needs.”

The report outlines as priorities:

1.  Diffusion of early warning tools and communications;

2.  A small business recovery and resilience “Help Desk” or information service that would help businesses to navigate FEMA, SBA, state and local public resources, and private sector and philanthropic recovery and resilience support;

3.  A proactive small business recovery grant program targeted at minority and disadvantaged businesses such as that launched by Wells Fargo and Women’s Economic Ventures in October 2018 to provide short-term cash flow assistance;

4.  Rent, utility, and fixed cost forbearance support until the customer base recovers;

5.  Resilience and financial management training and tools;

6.  Customer marketing and community branding and destination support tools to encourage people to come back to the impacted community.

In 2018, Wells Fargo created a small business disaster recovery and resiliency program to help boost economic recovery for communities impacted by the Thomas Fire.  Women’s Economic Ventures was the first Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) the bank teamed up with to embark on this new and innovative program. On December 4, 60 small businesses were selected to receive assistance, which combines grant dollars with training, mentoring and coaching with small business resiliency experts.

After the program participants complete the required training, they will be followed for three years to see how they are faring — which will help Wells Fargo and others to know how better to implement the program in other communities impacted by natural disasters.

In 2018, Well Fargo contributed more than $19 million to communities in Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties—a region that includes approximately 11.7 million residents and 9,642 team members. Team members from the company volunteered more than 30,000 hours.

The 2017 fire season that affected the western United States was the worst one in modern history, only to be superseded by the events of 2018. Between December 4, 2017 and January 12, 2018, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties were hit with a one-two punch of 29 wildfires, including the Thomas Fire, the largest in California history up to that point, massive debris flows caused by torrential rains, and reduced air quality for several weeks. Some 281,893 acres were burned in the Thomas Fire. Twenty-one people died and over 200 were injured. More than 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes, 65 were completely destroyed and 1,903 homes and buildings were damaged.

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About the Institute for Sustainable Development

Founded 15 years ago in the North Carolina Research Triangle in a unique partnership of academic, business and philanthropic leaders, the Institute for Sustainable Development works to promote innovation and public-private partnerships for inclusive and sustainable disaster recovery, resilience, and community economic development in the U.S., Canada, Caribbean, and Pacific Rim. The Institute has trained more than 200 chamber of commerce executives across the United States, and 160 small businesses and non-profits in 12 U.S. states. Currently it is providing technical support to recovery and resilience leaders across 10 time zones in the aftermath of the 2017-2018 cycle of natural disasters.  ISD strongly supports long-term thinking about the future to reduce weaknesses and vulnerabilities and build business and community assets, strengths, and opportunities as inclusively as possible.

Lynn Knight