Piecing a company back together after a disaster is a task that will stretch thin even the most resilient business owners.
Just ask Ronnie Harbison, who owns Adaseal International in Waverly. The company is essentially his life’s work. Harbison started the business in 1989 with one employee, one machine and $100,000 to invest. It grew into a small manufacturer that makes silicone sealants for windows and automotive parts.
Last August, when heavy rain led to a deadly flood in Humphreys County, Adaseal was destroyed in a matter of minutes.
“All these cans — and everything — were just piled up in front of the door,” Harbison says, while walking calmly through his warehouse. “You couldn’t get out.”
Harbison’s company was one of the businesses hit hardest in the flood. It’s one of more than 60 businesses in the county that were damaged, including a radio station, a grocery store and a restaurant. Some of them were completely wiped out. Others experienced the ripple effect of lost revenue.
Five months later, store owners and local officials are still working to return a number of them back to normal.
That hasn’t been easy.
“I’ve told several people throughout the county, ‘No, it took me 30 years to build this thing. There’s no way [I can rebuild] with all the carnage and debris that was back here,’ ” he explains.
It didn’t help, he says, that some of his things were swept from the building and into the Tennessee River. The destruction put him in a state of shock.
But he started thinking about his nearly two dozen employees, and if they’d be able to find another source of income in the rural community.
“I sat down with my family,” he says, while holding back his emotions. “We had a talk about this. [They said] we’re behind you. We can do it.”
Adaseal is a family-run business. And while Harbison isn’t related to his employees, he says, they’re a close-knit group of people.
The company went from nothing to back in business in 60 days. He funded the rebuild with money from Adaseal’s nest egg, rather than relying on federal disaster assistance. The U.S. Small Business Administration approved more than $12.5 million in disaster loans for individuals, families and businesses.
Harbison says he was also able to keep his employees on the payroll. They helped with cleaning and other odd jobs.
But not every business is back to where it was before the flood. About six miles away, Vintage Treasures was also affected.
It’s a quirky shop where vendors have booths and sell everything from autographed sports cards to antique furniture. It didn’t take a direct hit from the flood, but the shop is still feeling the economic toll.
That’s because many lives have been disrupted across Humphreys County. Beth Leeming, the owner, says the flood brought the business to a complete stop.
“We ended up with almost 50% of our vendors, and consigners, pretty much homeless and displaced,” she says. “We’ve been crawling and clawing our way back up to normalcy.”
Leeming says she and her husband have been able to keep the lights on by depleting their savings account.
But she’s still worried about her flood-affected vendors being able to stay afloat.
Another small business, Loretta Lynn’s Ranch in Hurricane Mills, was also caught in the flood. It’s a Tennessee tourist attraction about 10 miles south of Waverly.
“When you went down there after the floodwaters went down, it looked like a war zone in a way,” Anthony Brutto says, the grandson of country music star Loretta Lynn and the general manager of the property.
One of its employees, who was like a family member to the group, was killed. After the flood, the ranch was forced to cancel a month and a half’s worth of events. Brutto says the business is facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.
That, on top of construction repairs and other projects, will likely cost upwards of $750,000, Brutto says.
“There are going to be some long-lasting effects, but as we roll on, we’ll deal with that as it comes,” he says.
About seventeen miles away from the ranch, Amy Mullinicks owns Memories and Marmalade in McEwen. It’s a small grocery shop that sells specialty gifts, sandwiches, whoopie pies and other treats.
The market received minimal damage, but the shop did change its operations following the flood, which resulted in a decrease in sales.
“Anything that people did want to buy, we didn’t take the funds from that,” Mullinicks says.
Memories and Marmalade was converted into a community help center, giving out hundreds of dollars in cash to flood survivors in the community.
“We would … go directly down there and find people who lost everything, and just needed the extra money to pay for whatever,” Mullinicks says. “Whether it was ice, or something to drink, or something to eat.“
Karin Landers is the tourism director for Humphreys County. She says without the county’s independent businesses, it’ll be impossible for the community to thrive. So she’s been zipping through the county connecting small businesses with nonprofits to discuss their funding needs.
While some flood-affected businesses have been able to get back up and running since the flood, Landers says, it’ll be years before they are whole again. As the tourism director of a rural county, she has a very small budget to work with, so she’s also been trying out different cost-efficient ideas to help businesses.
One is called “Love Big, Shop Small.” It’s an initiative that, in part, uses park rangers to tell stories about Tennessee history, outside of local mom-and-pop stores. The goal is to attract crowds of potential shoppers.
“So, for Small Business Saturday, I had Ranger Joan in her suffragette outfit, and she was on the courthouse square here,” Landers says. “And she was there talking to guests as they came to have lunch, or to shop in the stores.”
Outside of that, she’s also been targeting potential customers through digital marketing campaigns. The goal is to find residents and visitors within a 50-mile radius of Humphreys County.
She says they want to not only rebuild the local economy, but also influence more Tennesseans to move to Humphreys County.
“It won’t ever look the same as it looked before, but maybe it will be better,” Landers says. “That’s my hope.”