Kirk Burleigh, owner of Cameron Fire Equipment in Cameron Parish, inherited his fire extinguisher servicing and general mechanics business from his father, but after Hurricane Laura barreled through his home and shop, he's not sure he can recover.
Burleigh, who has lived in the region since 1977, is 64 years old and was the longtime Fire Department leader in the community of 4,000 residents along the southwest Louisiana coastline.
Burleigh, a contractor for Venture Global LNG, a natural gas liquefaction export terminal in the region, is concerned that the economy in Cameron Parish may not recover, while more-populous Lake Charles is already on the rebound.
Burleigh and his wife are still recovering from contracting coronavirus in recent weeks and had barely finished quarantining themselves while they had symptoms when Laura hit. The family does not have health insurance and did not seek medical care, just stayed home to recover.
The family evacuated to another relative's home before the storm. When the Burleighs returned to their house, it was in shambles. They are in the process of filing a claim with their insurance carrier and sorting out damaged household possessions.
And due to complications from their health stemming from the coronavirus, they have to take rest breaks to breathe more deeply, he said.
"My shops are totaled. I have a … house that's 12 feet off the ground and it's totaled," Burleigh said in early September. "This is the third strike. I'm going to take my little bit in savings and insurance and move on. I'm not going to rebuild in Cameron, just basically retire. You pick yourself up and you move on."
But the top brass at the U.S. Small Business Administration is hoping business owners like Burleigh will consider giving Cameron another shot.
Jovita Carranza, head administrator of the SBA and an entrepreneur herself, visited the Lake Charles region recently to survey storm damage and connect with small businesses looking for help.
“Our coordinated effort is to make sure the homeowners, the renters and small businesses are sustained again and relieved financially,” Carranza said about the joint efforts among the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the SBA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Deveopment in Louisiana.
The SBA is already processing more than two dozen disaster declarations for catastrophic events across the nation this fall.
"We have a significant workload that is dealing with natural disasters. Louisiana is just one of them, but we're very well prepared, especially after COVID," she said.
The agency had 3.4 million small businesses apply nationally for the economic disaster loans tied to the coronavirus pandemic and $190 billion has been approved and disbursed.
"We're here with FEMA and are meeting with the Chambers of Commerce; the governor had a town hall meeting where we learned what more we can do," Carranza said, "that is coordinate more effectively, so we're a whole government ready to assist our small businesses."
The SBA plans to coordinate more with SCORE, a mentorship network of retired executives alongside the Small Business Development Centers in Louisiana. There are more than 400,000 small businesses in the state, with 900,000 employees total. There are six teams with the SBA in the field in Lake Charles informing residents that there is assistance. The SBA also is joining other disaster relief groups such as The Red Cross and faith-based organizations to administer aid.
Before the pandemic, small businesses accounted for upwards of 94% of the business sector in each state and half of the nation's gross domestic product.
"We're very anxious to provide the aid that's available to them," Carranza said. "If they apply for a disaster loan, we have delayed their first payment so they can get back on their feet. There's funds available, very reasonable interest rates and 30-year lifetime terms to repay those loans. It's about information and accessibility."
Federal disaster loans are available through the Small Business Administration for individuals and small businesses impacted by Laura. Businesses that did apply and receive money for the coronavirus pandemic economic injury disaster loan program are able to get another loan because the hurricane is considered a new disaster declaration.
There is also a Virtual Business Recovery Center open seven days a week between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. for small businesses and individuals who are survivors after the storm to connect to answer questions and get help. Individuals can email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (800) 659-2955.
Businesses of any size and private nonprofit organizations are eligible to borrow up to $2 million to repair or replace any damaged real estate, machinery and equipment, including inventory and other assets related to the business. Homeowners may get additional loans for improvements to protect or prevent future damage.
Small businesses in particular can apply for the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, which is meant for working capital after disasters. Homeowners may get up to $200,000 for structural house damage, while homeowners and renters alike may get $40,000 to replace personal property.
The interest rates for these loans are 3% for businesses, 2.75% for private nonprofit organizations and 1.188% for homeowners and renters.
After the BP oil spill in 2010 that "killed the oil industry in Cameron," Burleigh said his business contracted with Cameron LNG through then-CB&I and McDermott International.
"The only thing keeping Cameron (Parish) afloat right now, at least me, was Venture Global's LNG site," he said. "They are going to be here and stay here," but he wonders what the economy will be like when construction on the project is finished.
Even if business owners decide to rebuild, he queried how long will it take to rebound.
"Can anybody afford, like the grocery stores or the filling station, the whole nine yards? Will the economy sustain them?" he asked. "If they take $1 million to rebuild that store and everything, how long will it take to recoup that money with interest. Will they be able to? That's what happened after Hurricane Rita.
"After Hurricane Rita came (15 years ago), it destroyed my house and insurance covered it, but the economy was coming back so I had decided to rebuild. Then three years later Hurricane Ike came in — didn't do any house damage but it messed my shop up a little bit. I had a little in savings and I rebuilt just the shop.
"But this one here, it just destroyed everybody's everything. Not only does it destroy their homes, it destroys the peoples' mentality. Hurricane Rita knocked them to their knees and they stand back up because Cameron Parish has a lot of pride. They want to be here, but it's just hard after the third strike."
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