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After the deluge: SMBs a year on from the QLD floods

One year on, we check to see how the recovery process is going among Queensland small businesses affected by last year’s floods.

Rewind to mid January, 2011 and more than 60 communities across Queensland are affected by devastating floods. Ipswich, Toowoomba, the Lockyer Valley and Brisbane are on the tips of everyone’s tongues as shocking images beam around the country of towns ravaged by the rising waters, taking away lives and livelihoods.

Just over one year on and many are still in the process of rebuilding. But for those who own small businesses, what has it meant to have been closed for part, if not all of 2011? How are small businesses recovering from the massive losses they’ve suffered?

The Waters Rise

Susan Wanmer, of microbusinesses Milton Yoga Studio, Work Life Balance and Susan Wanmer Consultancy, was running a yoga bootcamp on the morning of 11 January, not knowing that the floods that had already hit other Queensland communities would soon affect Brisbane. “My students were joking about how much it was raining,” Wanmer says. “They said they’d bring their buckets when they came in tomorrow.”Susan Wamner - 2011 Qld flood. Tired, fragile, but ok.

At about 3pm, while Wanmer and her students were still in their lesson, Wanmer’s daughter interrupted the class. “At work I don’t have a radio or TV so we didn’t know what was happening. My daughter said ‘mum get your clients out, there’s water in the street’.”

After living through the 1974 floods, Wanmer assessed how long they had to evacuate while her clients packed their cars with items from the business. After everyone left, Wanmer, her husband, daughter and some of her daughter’s friends got to work taking out as much as they could. “By this time the water was about 150 metres from the door and the street was mostly deserted. Surveyors at Suncorp Stadium across the way came and showed me where they predicted the flood peak to be. They thought it would be a foot of water.”

Her family spent the rest of the night preparing, putting things up high and trying to save her large professional library. “Other clients came about one in the morning and helped take things away. I heard later they were stopped by police because someone thought they were looting. They were in their jammies, with their arms full of goodies.”

Prioritising items to be saved in the midst of the panic was the most difficult thing. “My first thought was getting my books out, I didn’t even think about the computer,” Wanmer says.

Bree Robbins, Top Dog at Paddington Pups, a doggy daycare also in Brisbane, had precious cargo to take care of when she heard the floods were coming. “By 11am on Tuesday I made the decision to evacuate. We had 50 dogs on premises plus all my staff. That’s a lot of people and animals that required safety and care,” Robbins explains.

Despite the chaos, Robbins’ emergency action plan worked smoothly. “I have a database management system that allows us to track dogs coming in and out and get in contact with the owners really easily. Had I not had those it could have been a lot worse.

“We managed to evacuate all the dogs and most staff in an hour, which was really great. Then we lifted everything about a metre off the ground thinking that would be fine.”

Surveying the Damage

Despite local predictions that the water wouldn’t rise too much, both Wanmer and Robbins came back to find their businesses had been completely ravaged.Paddington Pups  flood clean-up crew

“The water went to the top of the doorway,” Wanmer explains. “It went halfway up a street sign outside.”

Robbins didn’t fare much better. “The floodwater receded Friday morning. I couldn’t get in because the power was out and the back door was jammed with debris. I had to wait until the café nextdoor came so that I could climb through the hole where their industrial freezer had pushed through our wall.”

The Hon. Jan Jarratt, Minister for Tourism, Manufacturing and Small Business in Queensland, says that one in five businesses temporarily closed as a result of the floods, “due to full or partial water inundation, loss of power or being cut off from their business.” An added 22 percent indicated that the floods had a major to critical impact on their business.

“I had 20 years of work, all of my reference materials, and a lot of very expensive computer programs; we lost everything,” says Amanda Foy, who owns Foyster’s Communications in Ipswich. She was on holidays when she heard that her business would flood. “I rang a friend an hour before the place had seven foot of water in it so she could grab my portable hard drive. That was all I could think of.”

Even more devastating for Foy was that they were completely unable to salvage anything that had been damaged. “We had a sewerage plant just over the road. It also went under so all our stuff was coated in mud and poo. I tried to make light of it; I’d say the universe has coated it in poo so I mustn’t have needed it. It’s interesting though, as soon as you don’t have a printer, notepad or even pens, you realise you take so much for granted.”

One year on, we check to see how the recovery process is going among Queensland small businesses affected by last year’s floods.

Lessons Learnt

Denise Morris and her husband Garry didn’t own the café that was flooded by the inland wave that swamped the Lockyer Valley, but the building it was in. “It was distressing because we hadn’t planned on getting back into business,” Morris says.

The couple that were running the café took the opportunity to leave so Morris and her husband were left with a damaged building and no tenants. “We had $4,896 left on our home loan but we borrowed the whole lot back. We thought if we’re going to come back to town, we’re going to come back with a splash because people want to be happy. We wanted to bring money back in.”Eagle Rock Cafe Exterior

They opened The Eagle Rock Café, a rock’n’roll themed diner, in November last year, 11 months after the floods. One of the biggest lessons they learnt was how much help the community offered. “Staff and friends of businesses helped everywhere, washing dishes and removing debris. They’re amazing people in these small country towns. They bounce back with vigour, and I think people were invigorated by that. Myself included.”

While Robbins also had a team of volunteers and helpers that rallied to get her business running again, there was a lot that needed to be done. “While everyone watched the flood levels rise, I thought ‘it’s in now, you can’t change it’, so I called the landlord and organised every tradesperson I thought I could possibly need. I went to Bunnings and got cleaning equipment and gumboots for myself and my staff – all while the floodwaters were still rising.”

For Robbins, her preparation during the crisis saved much of her business. “If I had to relive it again tomorrow there’s other things I would do but I’m still pretty impressed with how much stuff we moved and dealt with.”

Careful planning meant that she was able to get back on her feet, doing better than other businesses nearby. “The café nextdoor took nothing out and another place just down from us lost two cars. They didn’t do any preparation. Other businesses were totally decimated because there was no warning. No one said the area was due to flood. My philosophy was I’d rather move as much stuff as I could and feel like an idiot than lose everything.”

As the enquiry into the floods continues, one of the biggest problems has been access to insurance claims. “Businesses have indicated a need for a standard definition of flooding, including insurance policies that are clearly and plainly written. Plus the need for earlier payout with the introduction of a fixed period for assessing insurance claims,” says Jarratt.

Getting access to money was harder then expected for some, as Wanmer found that losing everything, including basics such as internet and phone, meant she was completely cut off. “A huge sense of grief flooded through me as I finally got the internet back and went through old emails to find out on Australia Day weekend last year there was fundraising in the area for businesses and flood discounts at stores. It was all done and dusted two months after the flood, but I only emerged in July and I missed it. Next time I know to get someone connected to the internet and find out straight away what’s going on.”

One Year On

Just over a year later, there are still empty houses around flood-affected areas, and some businesses have closed. But, despite the damage, others have managed to stay open and even grow.

The average time was 31 days for businesses to be up and running again, says Jarratt, expressing her confidence in the Queensland small business community. “Despite the challenges of 2011, there has been a tremendous resurgence after the floods and cyclones, with the majority of affected small businesses now fully recovered from the disasters,” she says.

Foy is thankful her business managed to keep going, despite the time it took. “It was 22 weeks until I was able to say I’m back in business. I didn’t bill anyone from January through to June.”Amanda Foy headshot

Because much of her work is online, Foy was able to look after clients from a temporary desk. “I bartered for things. Recruitment Queensland, one of my clients, gave me a temporary desk so I managed all their social media for them. The fact I had cash in the bank from a not too bad year before also enabled me to go on and not have to get another job or shut the business.”

Foy says that the business community in Ipswich was also incredibly supportive of one another, with Foy herself donating time to the Ipswich Business Enterprise Centre to help other businesses get on social media. This in turn led to her gaining new clients. “One year on I’m back to 70 percent of where I was before. I’ve been in survival mode, but I’ll soon have wings and be on my way.”

Looking after yourself is difficult enough but Robbins also had to look after her staff. “I have six or seven full-time equivalent staff; that was really stressful as they were relying on me for income. It was a long time before I could draw from the business myself. I made sure my staff were paid first, then rent and bills and myself last. I’m fortunate that my husband isn’t involved in the business so we had an income coming in regardless.

Robbins is back better than before. “The whole place has been refurbished so it looks amazing. We’re busier than we’ve ever been. We’re back in a position now where we are starting to give back to the community again, whereas earlier this year we needed that help ourselves.”

Despite the losses and the massive debt that many businesses are still in, for many the floods have been a massive learning curve; in being prepared, expecting the worst, getting going as soon as possible, and that everywhere you go you have friends. “Rely on the fact that when you’re at your darkest, there’s someone with a torch,” Morris says. “There were some days when I thought I can’t go on, this is too big a job for me and then someone would come in and pat you on the back. And you think ok, and off you go again.”

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Rhiannon Sawyer

Rhiannon Sawyer

[NB: Rhiannon Sawyer no longer works for Dynamic Business]. Rhiannon Sawyer is the editor for Dynamic Business online. She also looks after online content for Dynamic Export. She loves writing business profiles and is fascinated by the growing world of homegrown online businesses and how so many people can make money in their pyjamas.

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