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Good people, tough times

Dan Juneau -   May 18, 2006

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita impacted 81,000 businesses in the State of Louisiana, most of them small businesses. Unless you are in their shoes, it is difficult to understand what the affected small businesses are going through. Imagine for a moment that, in the span of 24 hours, your store or office is heavily damaged, your customer base is greatly reduced, your workforce is dispersed, and you find out that your insurance does not cover all of your losses. Those are just some of the problems that tens of thousands of small business owners are facing in the aftermath of the storms.

Federal government assistance was of little help to most of these businesses. FEMA does not give grants or infrastructure help to businesses-only to individuals. And the SBA small business loan program proved to be anything but the salvation for many struggling small businesses in Louisiana trying to recover from the storms.

Against that backdrop, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry created -- in partnership with the Baton Rouge Area Foundation -- the Small Business Disaster Relief Fund. This fund provided grants designed to bridge the gap between actual losses for businesses and the amount covered by their insurance policies. LABI's initial goal was to raise $1 million for the small business grants. Thanks to contributions from across the United States, almost $2 million has been raised to assist Louisiana's small businesses affected by the storms.

Most of the contributions to the fund have come from small business owners in other parts of the country. They were moved by the plight of the hurricane-damaged businesses in Louisiana and opened their checkbooks to help. Several major corporations stepped to the forefront to help, as well. SAP, Goldman-Sachs, and Dow Chemical made generous contributions to the fund. The students in the Business School at San Diego State University adopted the Small Business Disaster

Relief Fund as a project and, through various activities, raised over $150,000 to help make the grants a reality. One Louisiana businessman, Ed White of Metairie, was so moved by the need to help struggling small businesses that he made a six-figure contribution to the fund. But one corporate donor stood out above all the rest.

CDW Corporation, based in Chicago, decided to forego their elaborate Christmas party last year and instead donated the money to assisting small businesses and hurricane victims in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. The company made an initial $350,000 contribution to the fund last December and pledged another $350,000 in matching money. Last week, CDW officials returned to Louisiana to present their check for the match. CDW has also sent teams of its workers into the state to gut damaged houses and assist homeowners still reeling from the effects of the storms. CDW and the other contributors to the fund care greatly about what is going on in Louisiana.

At the end of the day, LABI's Small Business Disaster Relief Fund will have assisted approximately 250 small businesses who were greatly in need of help. I have had the privilege of meeting some of these exceptional men and women, and I have heard their courageous stories of survival. LABI's only regret is that it could not help more of the 5,000 small businesses who applied for grants from the fund.

There are still many struggling Louisiana businesses fighting for survival. Their needs are real and their continued existence is important to the overall economic recovery of the state. Anything the public and private sectors can do to help them will benefit not only them but all of Louisiana.

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