Female Entrepreneurs and Disaster Recovery

The week after Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico, Cristina Sumaza was back in business. The Category 5 hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands in 2017 was no match for the spirit and resourcefulness of the owner of a local food park. She and her staff relied on generators for power, reshuffled the menu to accommodate missing ingredients, and adjusted prices to account for consumers’ lack of ATM access. The Lote23 food park was not only a reliable place to find a good meal in trying times, but also served as a space for residents to recharge and reconnect to the community.

Her tale is one of countless female-led efforts to help communities rebound after natural disasters that we have studied. Understanding the important role of local entrepreneurship in post-disaster scenarios has implications for policymakers—namely, that the policy environment should leave room for individual initiative and ingenuity as well as community-led recovery planning and efforts.

In the week after Hurricane Sandy, the most destructive hurricane of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, local resident Shaindle Russell and her neighbors prepared a make-shift kitchen at a local synagogue on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, New York. She set up the food, cleaned dishes, and spoke with residents. The kitchen became a distribution center for food, electricity, and information.

When Hurricane Katrina hit shore and the levees broke in New Orleans in 2005, whole neighborhoods were flooded and remained underwater for an extended period of time after the storm. Mary Ann Patrick, the owner of a furniture store in the Chalmette neighborhood of St. Bernard Parish, leveraged her resources and experience to help provide cleanup services after 81 percent of housing units in her neighborhood were damaged. Her ability to navigate the permitting and insurance processes allowed her to open a temporary store just north of the original. She also stocked her store with the appliances and other goods that were most demanded in the post-disaster context.

When FEMA determined that the buildings in St. Bernard Parish were condemned, she hired a structural engineer to assess the building. After six months, she convinced the local government to allow her to renovate rather than demolish her building and inspired others to return to the neighborhood.

Doris Voitier, superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish Unified School District, made a bold claim in the months following Hurricane Katrina. Knowing that parents would not return unless their children could go to school, she vowed to make space for every student who wished to return to school one month after the storm. Not only did she lead efforts to provide immediate shelter at Chalmette High School for 250 community members in the wake of the storm, she spearheaded an effort to mobilize the resources to reopen the school. She overcame challenges by mustering support from official disaster relief channels, including withdrawn federal funding for school lunches. Furthermore, after the FEMA process proved too slow and onerous, Voitier took out a $17.8 million emergency loan to acquire portable classrooms and trailers to house teachers. While she was first reprimanded for her actions, she later received awards for her ability to navigate and circumvent the post-disaster bureaucracy, and ultimately make good on her promise to the residents of St. Bernard Parish.

And Alice Craft-Kerney, a registered nurse from New Orleans, anticipated an opportunity to open a health clinic in the Lower Ninth Ward area of the city. She relied on local connections to mobilize community-based organizations to provide funding and navigated a permitting dispute with the city to finally open her clinic in February of 2007. In an area where 90 percent of the patients did not have health insurance, Alice instituted a flat fee for visits, providing an affordable care option to residents who were in dire need of medical and mental health care.

It is important to note that none of these women operated in a vacuum; they had support from their families, friends, and colleagues. However, their optimism and resourcefulness catalyzed the ability of their communities to rebound, making them successful commercial and social entrepreneurs.

These women are all part of the robust civil society present in post-disaster New Orleans, New York, and Puerto Rico, highlighting the role of individuals and their communities to lead recovery. The lesson for policymakers is to ensure that government response does not impose barriers to recovery or add to the uncertainty that local actors face after a disaster. Not only did these female entrepreneurs provide needed goods and services and revitalize social networks, they were key players in facilitating the recovery of their neighborhoods.

Government may be needed to rebuild infrastructure and provide funding assistance, but local entrepreneurs are essential players in providing goods and services, engaging their social networks, and encouraging community rebound. Whenever possible, reducing uncertainty surrounding permitting and zoning, opportunities for funding, and public plans for rebuilding or demolition will empower local entrepreneurs of all races and genders to revitalize their communities.