By Madeleine Maccar
Jeff Brodsly of Chosen Payments shared photos during the recent California fires, like this one near his home
Anyone who’s been involved in charity work or community outreach projects can tell you
that a town’s food pantry gets pretty empty once the holiday season gives way to a new year—and let’s not even talk about how barren those shelves are in the summer.
It’s human nature to lose track of the incredible undertaking that is recovering from major disasters and large-scale suffering when it’s not right in front of you, either in terms of physical proximity or emotional ties. When the media coverage wanders over to the next breaking if-it-bleeds-it-leads development for the kind of constant coverage that leaves onlookers mentally exhausted in no time, it’s hard to remember that what dominated the news cycle today is still the story of people clawing their way back to normalcy and peace tomorrow and next week and a year later.
Take, for example, Hurricane Maria, which tore through the Atlantic in the fall of 2017. When it was through utterly savaging the islands of Dominica and Puerto Rico, Maria then forged a path of staggering devastation, the effects of which were felt as far west as the eastern interior of the United States and as far north as Western Europe. It claimed more than 3,057 lives—2,975 of which were in Puerto Rico alone; while “only” 64 died in the storm itself, countless more died of related causes in the months that followed—and left more than $91.6B (USD) of damages in its wake.
The initial ruination is just the beginning: The hard part is the fight for survival that stretches far beyond when the initial groundswell of donations starts to peter out. As reports of the island’s glacial-speed recovery fought for prominence among other headlines, the tepid numbers didn’t tell the whole story.
California’s 2018 Fires and Our Industry
Storms, floods, earthquakes, fires, and disasters both natural and man-made can all strike at any time. The 2018 California wildfires not only cumulatively account for the Golden State’s worst wildfire season on record, but also serve as a stark reminder of how easily entire swaths of land can be laid to waste and how quickly lives can be turned upside down.
The community of Concow and the town of Paradise were destroyed within the first six hours of the so-called Camp Fire that began in early November and would quickly become the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history. By the time the blaze was contained on November 25, 153,336 acres were burned, 18,804 buildings were destroyed—including a number of celebrity homes and estates, given the affluent areas that were affected—and 86 civilian lives were lost.
The 2018 California fires had our industry scrambling to protect not only its businesses but also its family. Both the Chosen Payments and Beau Wine Tours teams were professionally and personally affected, with Chosen Payments CEO Jeff Brodsly living within visual range of the fires, Katie Martinez evacuating her home not once but twice, and the company’s Moorpark office being closed off for days as the nearby fire threatened not only infrastructure but also air quality. Eventually, Martinez found shelter for her and her dog Bruce with Brodsly’s family, while industry friends constantly checked in to confirm she was safe and provided for.
Others were in a position to lend a hand, proving that this industry never fails to spring into action for its own and the communities its operators serve. Around 2 a.m. on November 9, KLS Worldwide Chauffeured Services received a dramatic phone call in the wake of two devastating infernos—the Woolsey Fire and the Hill Fire—that were threatening the Thousand Oaks area of Ventura County, just northwest of Los Angeles County.
According to KLS Founder Alex Darbahani, the Four Seasons Hotel in nearby Westlake Village said that it urgently needed help to evacuate a number of hotel guests to safety. Other companies the hotel had contacted weren’t able to help. “They asked us how many vehicles we could get there, and in about 30 minutes we were able to get six SUVs and four sedans from our fleet on the way to the hotel,” says Darbahani.
“We really had to consider the possibility that we might be risking our lives,” he added, remarking on the intensity of the scene. “I’m not kidding. When we arrived at the hotel, it was very scary. We saw oak trees that must have been more than 20 feet tall on fire. There was thick smoke everywhere and the tension was very high. The Four Seasons personnel were all doing a great job, but it was still a frightening and chaotic situation. Fortunately, we were able to get our people and guests’ belongings out safely.”
It is important to remember that just because the fires are contained, the need for help is not over. Residents of Paradise were allowed to venture back onto the remains of their properties in early December in the hopes of finding anything salvageable, but recovery is slow when people have lost everything. With FEMA funding in peril, those struggling to piece their lives back together are further threatened. Nonprofit organizations like the American Red Cross continue to coordinate recovery efforts through volunteers, direct action, and donations, while Northern California Relief Fund has compiled a list of additional organizations that are aiding in relief efforts, which can be found at calfund.org/norcal-wildfire-relief
By sheer virtue of its magnitude and record-breaking devistation, it was clear that the Category 5 hurricane presented a grueling recovery process from the onset. Consider this: Maria’s peak intensity reached sustained winds of 175 MPH, making it the deadliest hurricane in Dominica since the 1834 Radre Ruiz Hurricane (storms weren’t given names until 1953) and in Puerto Rico since the 1899 San Ciriaco hurricane, which left a death toll of 400 and 3,855, respectively. Moreover, it’s the third costliest hurricane in U.S. history, behind the tied-for-first hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, the latter of which dissipated a mere two weeks before Maria formed.
And once the storm cleared, it was clear that an absolutely prodigious undertaking stretched out ahead of countless affected areas. The American territory of Puerto Rico is home to 3.4 million people, and every one of them was left without electricity once Maria lashed the island’s power grid—to say nothing of the agriculturally dependent region’s battered crops, compromised water supply, and the battle against time that is warding off the diseases that rise with dirty flood waters.
But if there’s anything more indomitable than natural disasters, it is the human spirit. Even in the most despairing of moments, beleaguered survivors begin their seemingly endless slog toward reclaiming what’s theirs even when their hearts and lives are as ravaged as their homes. Humanitarian outreach efforts commence, and ordinary people step up in a big way to pay the rent that comes with living in an interconnected society: taking care of those who need all the support they can get, even if an ocean stands between them. It’s important to remember that while areas like Puerto Rico are still rebuilding more than 16 months (and counting) after Maria made landfall on the tiny island territory, countless people did rush forward to assist with their time, resources, and money.
Among those fighting for survival while waiting for medical supplies, food, water, and humanitarian intervention were, of course, members of the chauffeured transportation family like Robert Rodriguez of First Class Destinations Solutions, Luis Jamie Patoja of Bespoke Transportation, and the industry’s extended family, like the relatives of DH2 Chauffeured Transportation’s Mike and Nancy Vargas (Mike hails from the small inland town of San Sebastian, which did not receive funding and supplies as quickly as more tourist-heavy coastal areas). The Vargases couldn’t sleep knowing their kith and kin were in such dire straights, which led them to both establish a GoFundMe for the affected and organize a call for donations that the industry quickly answered. Soon, a storage container packed with water, nonperishables, hygiene items, bedding, clothing, and more was on its way south.
The Vargases still routinely head down to Puerto Rico and Mike’s homestead, but now it’s less to disseminate items and more to offer a hand as the island finds its new normal.
Mike and Nancy Vargas organized
a fundraiser and donation for the Puerto Rican victims of Hurricane Maria, with much of the industry rallying behind their efforts
“You used to see houses that were all painted in distinct, different colors in each neighborhood,” Mike says. “Now, as communities have rebuilt, you’ll find fewer houses but they’re each all different colors, as they salvaged a door from this house, a wall from this one—and what used to be different families occupying the same street are now families coming together in one rebuilt house. They still need help, but they’re determined to make it on their own.”
Indeed, the Puerto Rican infrastructure is still ragged. The more tourist-friendly areas have bounced back faster than more rural regions, and Mike’s most recent trip out still saw residents seeking shelter in storm-ravaged shells of their homes. He mostly relies on his brother’s Lowe’s store to provide supplies instead of corralling donations and will dedicate more time to cooking up the likes of savory stews and filling meals for those who have gr own tired of relief-aid non-perishables. However, some stories belie the haunting reality for many: Water is still scarce for many, and Mike chanced upon a woman who was desperately collecting barely potable rain water for her dialysis treatment.
“I gathered gallons of water when I found out what she was doing, and she thanked me for giving her a month more of life,” he says. “I just wish I could have given her more.”
There is good news and there is bad news: The good news is that everyone can do something to help; the bad is that there will be more stories like this in the future. Disasters are always only a moment away, which is why it’s so important to have a plan in place—and committed to memory, since you’ll need both hastened recall and nearly automatic responses in times when tensions are high and every second counts (which is why we’ve included some from-the-trenches tips). But even when faced with things you can’t prepare for, take heart in knowing that good people will rush to your aid, both absolute strangers and longtime industry friends, as you grapple with not only the physical but also the emotional turmoil that linger for months and even years after the onset.
The emotional component is why sticking together is so important, and might be the one positive lasting change in the aftermath. Survivors will absolutely find solace in those who are rebuilding their lives a little bit closer to theirs this time, as well as those who are in a position to make a real positive impact. And you never know: The hand you reach out to offer help today could be grasping for another’s outstretched palm tomorrow.
Tips From a Survivor
As the Category Hurricane 4 Florence bore down on the Carolinas this past September, Robert Rodriguez of First Class Destination Solutions offered a five-step action plan to his industry family in a widely well-received and much-appreciated post on one of the limo Facebook groups. While nature will take what it wants, a solid preparation plan can be a godsend in the aftermath’s trudge toward normalcy—and can help you be an asset to your recovering community.
Step 1: Before the emergency
Safety always comes first: Take care of your family, employees, residence, and office as soon as it’s clear a disaster is imminent. Do not leave your disaster-prep plan to the mercy of last-minute panic, as you’re apt to forget crucial elements in a hurried state and frazzled frame of mind.
“Take pictures of everything and make an inventory for your insurance claim,” Rodriguez advises. He also suggests stocking up on bottled water and freezing as much as you can for maximum preservation—and he suggests making sure your employees are taken care of, too. You never know how long it will take for help and supplies to arrive or who’ll need the extra help.
Puerto Rico was devestated by the Category 5 hurricane and is still recovering today
From a business standpoint, your company literally runs on gasoline and diesel fuel, so those resources will need to be accounted for: “Reach an agreement with your fuel suppliers, and prepare for at least 10 days of fuel to keep your fleet AND your generators powered,” says Rodriguez. He adds that working with a gas station to agree on a refueling time for your fleet and employees’ vehicles will help you avoid lines at the gas station.
Make sure you have enough auxiliary batteries to charge all cellphones. Something that he found helpful in conserving battery life was low-band radios for communication within a 10-mile radius. If you can, ensure that your employees and neighbors are equipped with compatible radios, which will greatly improve the effectiveness of the security detail you should hash out with them. Law enforcement will be otherwise occupied, so citizens taking care of each other will help keep disaster-related chaos at bay.
Enlist your employees’ assistance. Send a statement to your corporate clients, hotels, and FBOs telling them that as soon it is safe for your chauffeurs to resume driving, you and they will arrive to assist in whatever way is necessary. Establish a time and meeting point with your employees, letting them know that you all will be a key element in your area’s recovery. If your chauffeurs have a place to safely park and store extra vehicles, see if they can accommodate your fleet cars—especially SUVs, so they can be mobilized in an array of areas.
Do not forget to have a good reserve of cash on hand. ATMs and credit-card machines will most assuredly be down.
Step 2: Waiting for it to pass
Everyone should be in their homes. Save your cellphones’ power with diminished use—your signal will probably be gone anyway. Let local authorities to do their job: This is what they’re trained for. Most of all, don’t panic.
Step 3: The immediate aftermath
Communicate with your family. Let them know that everyone is well, and harness your social networks if you need help.
Once you and your team are able, gather them and report immediately to FBOs, hotels, and main corporate clients.
Make your office a place of refuge if necessary for your employees. “The next 45 days are key,” Rodriguez says. “Then each agency starts its own emergency plan—which is where the administrative problems can begin.”
Step 4: The next 45 days
Make sure you know what roads are safe to drive
Check your communication devices
Keep taking pictures and video of everything
Be aware that crime will rise, so take all necessary precautions to protect yourself
Use social media to keep everyone informed
If the government establishes martial law, ask for a release for your company
“Put a convoy of SUVs together and get to the Government Emergency Site to let them know that you are ready to assist,” Rodriguez suggests. “We sent our dispatch and reservation agents to local hotels and FBOs and it worked out well. FBOs open much faster than international airports, so send chauffeurs to help even if they do not ask for them.”
Step 5: The lingering aftermath
“We are still recovering,” Rodriguez said a year after Maria’s historic devastation. “Our main hotels were still closed and we were without power in our office for almost five months afterward, and some employees’ homes went almost a year without power. It is not easy but if you prepare, it will at least be less difficult.”
He advises that, even if you do not want to, you may need to cut your payroll as much as possible. Call your financial officer and start structuring a plan of extensions for vehicle and mortgage loans. You should have called your insurer and filed your claims as soon as possible, but now’s the time to take into consideration the hidden damages and loss of business.