College of Business student project aims to better prepare businesses displaced by disasters

With many business owners not prepared for the damage brought on by the tornado, several students are looking into how they can be ready for future disasters.

“What was the recovery process like?” junior Natalee Fitzgerald asks the woman over the phone.

“There’s no recovering,” Lakaisha Sutherland, owner of Joy & Gladness Children Academy responds. “The building’s completely destroyed and there’s no rebuilding it. I can’t afford to rebuild it.”

Last May, about two dozen people were injured and three killed as several tornadoes caused catastrophic damage in Jefferson City, leaving a 3-square-mile path of destruction, according to The Washington Post.

Additionally, 66 commercial buildings, 382 residential buildings and 29 government buildings were damaged in the city limits, according to a joint assessment from Jefferson City and Cole County published in 13KRCG.

As the interview continues, Fitzgerald asks Sutherland if she is going to reopen the 24-hour daycare facility demolished by the Jefferson City tornado.

“She said that it's really hard to find buildings right now that are open because everyone's kind of going through the same thing,” Fitzgerald said. “Business owners are all scrambling to either find a building or fix their building, and so that's been rough.”

Next, Fitzgerald asks Sutherland if she has any advice for other business owners affected by natural disasters.

“Do research on your insurance to know which ones you should have in case there's a disaster,” Sutherland responds. “I didn't have the type that covered disasters. I was just at a loss, and so are all those families that have kids that need to be watched.”

Sutherland had coverage for her business’s vehicle but did not have insurance on the building or tornado or flood insurance.

Fitzgerald and six of her classmates are working on a project to develop recommendations, specifically with insurance, for businesses affected by natural disasters through interviews with business owners in Jefferson City.

As part of the Business Administration 3500 course, each student enrolled is required to assist in a group service project for various cities across the state of Missouri. Fitzgerald and her group selected the Jefferson City Tornado Post Assessment project.

“A lot of the answers that the businesses have been giving us are [that] they don't understand the insurance they had [and] they should have done more research on what their insurance covers,” Fitzgerald said. “There was only one person I talked to that had loss of income insurance. She is doing okay because she has loss of income insurance, but the other ones who had their businesses destroyed don't have any income.”

The team completed SEMA disaster relief training prior to starting the interviews, with basic disaster relief tips and the process of how these businesses start up explained. However, they did not undergo any emotional or mental training besides their adviser telling them that the interviews could get tough when discussing the effects of the disaster.

“[When Joy & Gladness was destroyed] I cried, I just couldn’t believe it,” Sutherland said. “I was distraught because I couldn’t believe what I had seen in front of my eyes ... I was having nightmares after that. That night I didn’t sleep at all. I thought it was a dream, so I went back there to make sure it wasn’t.”

Throughout the project Fitzgerald has utilized empathy, a skill she said she was taught in all of her business classes.

“These people probably haven't talked about it this in depth [with] someone,” Fitzgerald said. “So, I just asked the question, and I let them just talk as long as they want and just actively listen, instead of trying to get out things that I want to ask or say because I know they need to talk about this.”

Fitzgerald said the process has taught her to understand empathy, but at the same time allowed her to realize things can get emotional and the importance of remaining professional. The skill is something Fitzgerald said she will continue to use in her future endeavors, with hopes of obtaining a job in Human Resources.

In addition to beginning the interviews, the team met with a representative from the State Emergency Management Agency and the Jefferson City Mayor on Oct. 2 to discuss the desired outcome of the project.

“As a mayor of a community that’s just gone through something like this, I realize firsthand that it can happen,” Jefferson City Mayor Carrie Tergin said. “Even in a community like ours where we thought we would never get a tornado and it hit ... It really means a lot that the students care about and want to take this project on to help others in the future. I think what they’re doing can really have an impact statewide for many businesses to come.”

Edited by Laura Evans | levans@themaneater.com

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