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Katrina's Hard Lessons

As Hurricane Ivan bore down on the Gulf Coast in August, 2004, four of Kate Chrisman's relatives called to beg her to leave New Orleans.

"I told them in my young-adult, know-it-all tone that they were just being silly," recalls Chrisman, executive director of the Gulf Coast affiliate office of Women's Business Enterprise National Council, better known as WBENC. Sure enough, Ivan veered away from New Orleans at the last minute, leaving the city unscathed.

PARTY TIME. So as Hurricane Katrina headed toward the Crescent City two months ago, Chrisman was almost disappointed that she had arranged to visit the council's Birmingham, Ala., office that weekend.

"Almost every week there's a tropical depression or hurricane in the gulf. Hurricane parties are a big thing where you arrange to go to a neighbor's or a friend's house and eat everything out of the fridge and drink heavily," she says. "I was disappointed I'd be missing the parties. Little did I know how lucky I was."

Safe in Birmingham, Chrisman watched in horror as Katrina devastated the city she had adopted in April, 2004. "I hadn't brought anything with me to Birmingham except three days' worth of travel clothes," says Chrisman, who lived in a rental in Orleans Parish and has since relocated temporarily to Birmingham. Fortunately, she had recently purchased software, GoToMyPC, that allowed her to log into the WBENC server the night before the storm and download the group's financial records and membership database to her laptop computer.

REBUILDING LIVES. The data has proven invaluable during the past two months, while Chrisman has devoted her time to tracking down the group's 275 members, formerly located in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and the Florida panhandle. She has so far found 201 of the women, who are scattered as far away as New Hampshire, California, and Ohio, and she is trying to help them get back in business. A good percentage are in dire straits financially, she says.

Because members have to file extensive financial information with WBENC in order to get certification as women business owners, Chrisman says, the group's files can help members rebuild and apply for loans if their own records were lost or destroyed.

Since the storm hit, Chrisman has been playing sleuth and matchmaker, connecting offers of help from women business owners across the country with her displaced -- and sometimes devastated -- constituents. "So many great offers have come in from WBENCs all over the U.S. for donated office space, computers, and phones," she says. "If you miss a couple weeks or months of cash flow, it's very tough to catch up."

BILLS RAIN DOWN. Cindy Casanova, founder of New Orleans-based TV and video production company Casanova Productions, knows firsthand the hardship of cash flow interrupted for an extended period.

Her business lost all its August revenue when the New Orleans post office flooded after the storm. Because she evacuated to Houston and stayed there for much of September and spent October trying to put her life and business back together, she's gone a full quarter without revenue. And her bills are quickly coming due.

"It was 30 days before we were allowed to return to New Orleans even to retrieve our equipment," Casanova says. She found her highly technical computer and editing equipment and cameras safe on the ninth floor of her headquarters in a commercial building one block off Canal Street in the heart of the New Orleans business district. With her husband's help, she's moved the gear to her home on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and set up shop from there.

BUSINESS GALORE. Still, her clients from outside the area canceled pending TV commercial contracts due to the delays, and Casanova is having a hard time tracking down the staff and contract employees she relied on to operate her company. One bit of good news she got at the beginning of November: Her application for a low-interest business-interruption loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration won approval.

Chrisman says Casanova's story is fairly typical of the hundreds of women business owners she has located since the storm. But a few of them, mostly those whose business came primarily from the large oil companies, have found themselves in completely different circumstances.

Take Julie Rodriguez, president of Epic Divers & Marine. Her company, which sends divers deep under the ocean's surface to help oil companies fix and redistribute pipes in the Gulf, has more business than it can handle. She's working out of two trailers set up in the parking lot of her former office in Harvey, La., just across the river from New Orleans.

REUNITING EMPLOYEES. Although the storm virtually totaled her headquarters, her eight boats and barges escaped serious damage. Her home stands intact except for a missing porch.

"I rode out the storm in Lafayette, La., in the house of a woman I met through [WBENC]. The week after the storm, I was able to get the company going again from Houston. I was able to get in touch with all my employees within two weeks and told them I would pay them and arrange for hotel rooms for them in Houston if they'd come to work for me up there," Rodriguez says.

"The storm really had a big mental impact on a lot of people," she continues. "The skilled workers, like my divers and marine people, were ready to go back to work, but some of my administrative staff left the region." Her worker shortage notwithstanding, Rodriguez says, her company should fare well.

STILL MIA. Chrisman says she has come across various stories in her communications with the scattered business owners from her group, and still fears the worst for some of them. "I have gone through the daunting task of searching and cross-referencing the deceased databases in the coroner's office, but no one has turned up yet," Chrisman says. "I check it every few days just to see."

She has so far found most of her members by sending messages to their last known e-mail addresses every few days and having the main WBENC Web site post a notice asking Gulf Coast members to contact her. Soon she'll start trying to track down unaccounted-for members by asking their major clients if they've heard anything.

Meanwhile, the storm has taught her many lessons. The first: the value of having software that allowed her to retrieve computer information from a remote location. She did have her files backed up, she says, but they were stored on tapes sitting in her office, which she didn't have access to for several weeks.

FUTURE PRECAUTIONS. Having information has proved absolutely crucial in the weeks since the storm, and she only wishes she had more.

"As soon as we get fully operational again, when we have our first big annual meeting," Chrisman says, "I definitely plan to collect cell-phone numbers, personal e-mail account addresses, and contact information for relatives, just in case this ever happens again."

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