Editor's Note: Rance Junge is a lifelong resident of Joplin, Missouri. He owned and operated Pronto Pharmacy for 27 years before it was destroyed by last year’s tornado. He opted not to rebuild and now works as director of pharmacy at Landmark Hospital in Joplin.
Think you can prepare yourself and your business for a large-scale natural disaster? Wait until you see how reality unfolds. Not many people can say they’ve looked into the eye of an EF-5 tornado and lived to tell the story. But that was just the beginning of a long and frustrating journey to get my life back in order.
On May 22, 2011, I crawled out of what little was left of our pharmacy/convenience store only to find a scene out of a war movie. In less than two minutes, I lost everything I had worked 27 years for. As federal officials arrived on the scene, it seemed promising that I would get assistance for rebuilding.
I found this to be more complicated than advertised. I made many trips to the Small Business Administration (SBA) office and filled out all the required paperwork. And I found there was no real disaster relief. Because we leased our business space for 27 years, they wouldn’t loan us money for land or a building to rebuild. The only money loaned would be based on our inventory and fixtures. The loan would be at a 4% rate, with our house that we own free and clear as collateral.
I found a better rate -- 3.5% -- with our local bank. It was obvious to me that the SBA was offering us nothing but their standard loan. But it was going to be next to impossible to rebuild what we had. Thirty percent of our city had been erased from the map. Our pharmacy, the 367-bed St John’s Hospital across the street, the large number of medical buildings and the neighborhood that surrounded us were all destroyed. This completely changed the demographics of our business model.
Two days after the tornado, I stood battered and bruised, raking through what little was left of my business. My insurance company representatives parked at the edge of the lot. They looked at the rubble and wrote one word on the policy: DESTROYED. They invited me to have a seat in their car as they explained some details of my policy.
One thing that stuck out was that I had a 12-month loss of income policy, but there was a little clause that explained what it normally takes to rebuild in a case like this. The representatives proceeded to tell me it has been their finding that it takes nine months, and that was all I could expect. After much arguing I was able to get the 12 months’ loss of income, but they had a forensic accountant working the numbers to their best advantage. I am still fighting with them over this part.
There were also issues on depreciation and valuation of inventory and fixtures. I had to argue with third-party entities that our insurance company apparently contracted with. I paid my policy for more than 20 years to this insurance company so I was confused as to why I had to deal with third parties. The representatives pushed me to get a temporary trailer to set up in, but it simply wouldn’t work. Next, they pushed me to state that I had no intention of rebuilding. One has to be very careful; it was my finding that where they try to lead you is generally where you shouldn’t be going.
I was invited to several Joplin Chamber of Commerce meetings. It was interesting when I asked the group in attendance if they received any help from FEMA. Laughter broke out. I asked if the SBA had been of any help and got a similar response. So I felt I wasn’t alone in what I had experienced.
I also asked the Chamber of Commerce representative what help was available for small businesses. The response was, “Talk to your local bank.” Fortunately for Joplin, the people here are strong and will continue to rebuild on their own determination. There has been a lot of fantastic help with donations for rebuilding the schools, churches, hospitals and houses, but we need to remember the tax base and jobs created by small business are what helps to sustain all of this.
It is great to live in a country as great as ours. We have spent billions helping other countries rebuild after wars and natural disasters. I hope the same effort is made in our own backyard. It was nice to see President Barack Obama tour the Joplin devastation last year. I know he was sincere when he said he would be with us in our rebuilding efforts “every step of the way.” But so far, I haven’t seen how this has helped small businesses recover.
With my long family business history in Joplin I would love to rebuild. I feel very fortunate to have survived, and my heart goes out to the families of the 161 men, women and children who died that day.