Tori Sutton, Stratford Gazette
When the F3 tornado slammed into Goderich on Sunday, Aug. 21, 2011, residents had just 10 minutes to prepare.
Once the storm came ashore, it took only 12 seconds to carve a path of destruction through the downtown core, decimating the heart of the town’s business community and taking a swipe at two salt mines.
One man died and 37 sustained serious injuries.
There are plenty of lessons to be learned from Goderich’s experience with the tornado and its recovery in the aftermath.
Huron Chamber of Commerce CEO Judy Crawford was happy to share some of her advice with the local business community earlier this week.
She was the featured speaker at the Stratford and District Chamber of Commerce’s Small Business Week lunch at the Stratford Country Club on Wednesday afternoon.
“The only major industry (the tornado) didn’t hit was the hospital,” Crawford said. “It could not have hit a more precise path of affecting business.”
No matter whether it is a tornado, ice storm, fire or flood, it is important business owners and managers are prepared for what could come their way at any given time, she said.
Crawford outlined her Top 10 ways to prepare for a disaster.
The No. 1 tip? Make a plan.
Every municipality in Ontario is required by law to have an emergency plan in place and to practice it once a year.
Though it paid off in Goderich – everyone was well trained and the mayor realized how to take charge but still get out of the way to let people do their jobs, she said – one body was notably absent from that emergency committee: a representative of the business community.
As a town councillor and head of the Chamber, Crawford was appointed to that role.
She strongly suggests every chamber proactively approach local government to become involved before disaster strikes.
“You need to get on board and look after things for your business community,” she said.
It’s also important for businesses to back up all files and computer systems.
There were businesses in Goderich that never got back into their buildings after the tornado and were never able to retrieve any of their files.
Without inventory and client lists, it makes it difficult to provide information to insurance companies.
It’s also wise for employees to be provided with identification cards. The only people the OPP permitted to enter town limits after the storm were residents and those who did not have Goderich addresses listed on their licences were turned away.
Employees who lived outside town but worked at local businesses that were still operational were not permitted past the barricades and had to find alternate routes in.
Perhaps the biggest lesson learned was related to the tarping of damaged roofs.
The tornado caused $75 million in damage, but it was torrential rains that came the Wednesday following that brought total damages up to $130 million.
Crawford notes one astute businessman became the squeaky wheel the day before the rain came, insisting he be allowed to tarp the roof of his building.
“He literally was in my face that entire day,” she said.
The OPP permitted him to do so since his building was stable.
That store was the first in the downtown core to re-open, having been saved from the devastating rain thanks to the persistence of its owner.
Just over a year after the tornado, Crawford said Goderich is getting back on track.
Most of the downtown is open again for business, but there still is a block and a half that isn’t operational.
“The second something is ready for occupancy, it is gone just that fast,” she said.
In a man-made or natural disaster, it is expected about one in four businesses will never re-open.
In Goderich, about 33 per cent of downtown businesses relocated within the town, left for another municipality (six) or closed altogether (three).
The local chamber has taken the lead to assist those still out of work. There have been other economic blows since the tornado as well
The closure of the Bluewater Youth Centre saw 240 high-paying jobs lost, while the closure of another company resulted in another 60 people losing their livelihood.
Despite the hardships, Crawford noted another important factor to remember.
“Nothing is impossible,” she said, “if you keep your sense of humour.”
Top 10 tips
1. Make a plan
2. Back it up
3. Save for a rainy day
4. Take pictures of everything
5. Be flexible
6. Be ready to set up shop somewhere else
7. Stay focused
8. Make yourself heard
9. You make the decisions, no one else
10. Follow the tips or be prepared to close